William Goyen

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Goyen, (Charles) William (Vol. 5)

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Goyen, (Charles) William 1915–

Goyen is a Southwestern American novelist and short story writer in whose work physical and emotional detail merge to form a unique, and perhaps undervalued, fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Goyen's prophetic second novel, In a Farther Country (1955),… is not only [his] most significant novel, but also a highly relevant document, published years ahead of its time, examining in those pre-Rachel Carson years such environmental and ecological problems as air and water pollution and the extinction of numerous species….

At the time of publication the book was received with indifference and incomprehension. Part of the reason Goyen's message fell on deaf ears was, perhaps, a matter of technique. He treated these problems, his themes, not in a naturalistic or realistic manner at all. Goyen did not aspire to become the Upton Sinclair of the ecological or the urban crisis. Instead, he attacked the problems within the elusive framework of a romance…. (His first book, The House of Breath, was also very much a romance rather than a novel, but was less quixotic in its integration of imagination, memory, and perception….) (p. 213)

The romantic genre was a propitious choice for Goyen, allowing the poetic writer a freedom of time and place and movement unknown in the realistic novel. His central characters, all people who are displaced in locale and in spirit, can freely shuttle back and forth in place and time, imagining themselves to be where they are not. Once the heroine, one Marietta McGee-Chavéz, acquires the totem "road runner" for herself (in reality a faded-out macaw), she dreams herself out of her city apartment and into an adobe house on the plains. Most of the book's action occurs within the field of her dream. The book bears no more resemblance to the usual novel than, say, Virginia Woolf's Orlando. (p. 214)

Its last two paragraphs, which form a Coda to the book, reveal that all the characters and actions which preceded were dream-products of the heroine, mere imaginative projections from an embroidered curtain upon which the lifeless prototypes had been stitched. (pp. 214-15)

The frailty of the flesh, of the thread, and of the ancient art of the Colcha stitch from which the curtain was created, are all recurring motifs in the Romance. The tapestry which contains them and into which Marietta enters is like the looking-glass through which Lewis Carroll's Alice passes. It is significant that Goyen, in the very last sentence, raises the additional possibility that, instead of the company having been dreamed by the heroine, the curtain itself was dreamed by the company. This is quite like Carroll's Alice asking, in the last chapter of Through the Looking-glass, who it was who dreamed it all…. Carroll's Alice and Goyen's Marietta share this and other uncertainties revolving about the unreality of the real. (p. 215)

Marietta's Southwest in the romance is but a Southwest of the mind. Displaced and unhappy, a victim of what Saul Bellow has called "deep city vexation," she nevertheless must remain in the city and therefore begins in her unhappiness to move in a field which is almost exclusively mental. (pp. 215-16)

The book's title, then, comes into focus when we acknowledge "the farther country" to be not Spain or New Mexico, and certainly not New York, but rather the farther reaches of the imagination which can salvage the spirit in a bad time. One of the book's essential themes is the survival of the imagination in a world where imagination is dying, an insensitive world established in the very...

(This entire section contains 1209 words.)

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first paragraph, where the constant stream of trucks on West Twenty-third Street emblemizes the omnipresent threat of mechanization….

This romance, then, is about exiles—animals exiled from their natural habitat, but more especially human victims of the unnatural environment man has created. (p. 217)

Man has killed off species before taking the time to study their value or to perceive the consequences. He has not taken things in their season, which is the great lesson of In a Farther Country. Toward the conclusion, in one of the most beautiful passages William Goyen has given us anywhere, the author makes a plea, in purest poetry, that we not force the world into an unnatural state…. (p. 220)

Robert Phillips, "The Romance of Prophecy: Goyen's 'In a Farther Country'," in Southwest Review (© 1971 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1971, pp. 213-21.

[Come, The Restorer] seems a splendid synthesis of some of Goyen's original themes—the struggle between the spirit and the flesh; the loss of integrity in a time of ecological travesty—with his later comic manner, first evidenced in The Fair Sister (1963).

While critics can debate the place of Come, the Restorer in the Goyen canon, it also seems of value to reassess the novel which launched Goyen's literary trajectory, which has twice been a play, which has been translated into several languages,… and which many feel he may never surpass: The House of Breath (1950). It is a book so rich, so original, that even a quarter of a century later there is little agreement on its "meaning" and implications. (p. 248)

Certain critics have found its ultimate meaning totally elusive…. Nonsense. Rather than being incomprehensible, The House of Breath is a novel shimmering with so many implications and resonances that it requires many readings before comprehension.

I suggest two entrances to this novel, two ways of seeing the materials Goyen has ordered, ways of sharing his intentions. The first is a matter of secrets kept by each main character. In a somewhat plotless novel, one in which chapters are mere refractions of the teller's memory, the revelation of a secret (or secrets) by each protagonist is an important dramatic element uniting the book, and one which no critic has before touched upon. Indeed, "Everything in this world is not black and white," as Goyen instructs at one point. And it is … the gray areas—the unclear, the undifferentiated—which he explores most extensively. (p. 249)

While the secrets are clandestine, certain symbols and symbolic acts within the novel are very open. They need only be pondered to be understood, and once understood, to contribute to understanding. For the most part, Goyen's symbols are highly elemental—invoking air, earth, and water for association. (In … Come, the Restorer, he adds the fourth element, fire, while maintaining the other three.) (p. 251)

Robert Phillips, "Secret and Symbol: Entrances to Goyen's House of Breath," in Southwest Review (© 1974 by Southern Methodist University Press), Summer, 1974, pp. 248-53.

William Goyen's first novel in a decade [Come, the Restorer] is a welcome event. Panning in on his native Texas, Goyen has given us the history of the "rich and conservative city" of Rose during its "days of wonder and joy before the world went bad."…

Evoking this vanished world with brilliance and verve, Goyen the fabulist awakens in us "the expectation that everybody has, at one time or another … [of] something going to return; or something going to arrive, bright and fresh and changing everything." This done, he reminds us gently that there is no return, that in all probability nothing wondrous will happen—leaving us enriched but with a deep sense of loss. (p. 111)

Peter G. Kramer, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1974.


Goyen, (Charles) William (Vol. 14)