‘Typed Until 3 A.M.’ : Kay Boyle found an effective way to sabotage expectations that she become a serious writer : KAY BOYLE: Author of Herself, <i> By Joan Mellen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 576 pp.)</i>
On any but the brightest day and in the sunniest frame of mind, the life of Kay Boyle reads like a crushing morality tale. Born in 1902 to an enlightened mother who took her two young daughters to the Armory show and later consulted Alfred Stieglitz about their artistic gifts, Kay Boyle was given every opportunity to fulfill her potential--including the opportunity to rebel. That she did not reach that potential by the time she died in 1992, that she wasted years on quickly written, poorly revised commercial fiction for the Saturday Evening Post and women’s magazines, is the tragedy at the heart of this engaging, committed life.
Kay Boyle wrote so much, and so fast, especially in the 1930s and ‘40s, that she began to call her writing “typing.” “Typing hard,” she would tell her friends, or “typed until 3 a.m.”
Katherine Evans Boyle was certain her daughter Kay would be a great writer. Her own sister Nina Allender was an artist, and Kay’s sister Joan Boyle would become a painter and designer. The men in the family were “negatives.” Her Boyle grandfather, called “Puss,” dominated the little group, wistfully longing for his daughter-in-law Katherine but thwarting her radical impulses. He forbade her to install a darkroom in their house, for instance, though she had a letter of advice from Steiglitz. Where Puss could not put a stop to Katherine’s ambitions, he trivialized them.
Kay’s father was well-meaning but weak, incapable of finding a job without Puss’s intervention. When Kay found a torn note to a lover near his desk, she flushed with anger--not because he had deceived her mother but because he had not seized the possibility of happiness while he could. Kay would not make the same mistake. She went to New York at 20, using an early marriage to escape her grandfather’s house. By 21, she was a published poet and leaving for Normandy with her French husband, an expatriate. Kay and Richard Brault carefully avoided having children. His engineer’s salary was pitifully small, and Boyle realized that children and literary genius are not always compatible.
Instead, she began her second autobiographical novel, “Plagued by the Nightingale” (the manuscript of her first novel having been lost by a publisher), and doggedly pursued editors and influential writers through the mail. She felt intellectually isolated and overworked. When the opportunity presented itself in 1926, she left Brault for Ernest Walsh, editor of the avant-garde journal This Quarter and a man already dying of tuberculosis. Walsh told Boyle that her role in life was to pay homage to great men. Surprisingly, she never argued with him, but became a tireless promoter of male writers (Walsh, Emanuel Carnevali, Robert McAlmon) and an opponent of most women writers and later of the women’s movement. Perhaps because Walsh was so ill, but also as an emblem of their love and of her femininity, Boyle yearned to become pregnant. A daughter was born after Walsh’s death.
In 1927, Boyle’s stories began to appear in rapid succession in magazines like Transition. When published by Harry Crosby’s Black Sun Press in 1929, “Short Stories” received “the review of a lifetime” from her friend William Carlos Williams. “Few women have written like this before,” Williams argued, “work equal in vigor to anything done by a man but with a twist that brings a new light into the whole Sahara of romanticism.”
Boyle, already famous, was now to pioneer what came to be known as “The New Yorker story"--direct, almost colloquial prose, characterized by sudden beginnings and ambiguous, often unhappy endings. Katherine Ann Porter called these stories “a magnificent performance.” Privately, Porter had reservations, afraid that Boyle might fall into “egotistical self-exploitation.” Other reviewers began to complain that Boyle’s prose was mannered and her characters flat.
As the Roaring Twenties faded into the Depression, Boyle’s “arty” preoccupations seemed shallow, and critics searched her work in vain for evidence of a social conscience. Had they been less centered on labor concerns, the critics might have noticed that Boyle was among the first writers to treat homosexuality as a natural variation on the human theme.
Careless or ignorant of the political dangers, Boyle moved to Austria in 1933 with her new husband, Laurence Vail, former husband of Peggy Guggenheim. There her social conscience would be born, as well as her third daughter (her second having arrived before Boyle and Vail married).
Joan Mellen’s biography of Boyle, the first to appear, elaborates two threads in the writer’s psychological makeup: the urge to fulfill her mother’s dreams for her and the contradictory need to sabotage them. Babies were one means of self-sabotage. Mellen writes that simultaneous with Boyle’s third pregnancy came “a fresh need for money, so that it seemed as if having babies for Kay Boyle was an unconscious rebellion against fulfilling her mother’s ancient dream for her. Art must give way to commercialism because there wasn’t enough money.”
Arrogance too was a brake on artistic growth. In Mellen’s view, Boyle’s dismissal of “early warnings about the arch and mannered quality of her prose was one important reason why (she) was unable to sustain her early fine reputation.” “The Crazy Hunter: Three Short Novels” (1938) is perhaps the last book Kay Boyle wrote “more for art than money.” Returning to America in 1942, Boyle threw herself at her typewriter, churning out sentimental stories, writing as many as 12 hours a day.
Edmund Wilson’s searing review of her potboiler “Avalanche” (1944) in The New Yorker sounded “the death knell for Kay Boyle’s reputation as a writer of merit.” That year, The New Yorker rejected a Kay Boyle story for the first time, and in the early 1950s stopped buying her work altogether. Boyle was still writing about Europe, though American readers were sick of the war and its aftermath. And under McCarthyism, magazines were wary of stories with political content. In 1952, Boyle and her third husband, Joseph Frankenstein, were subjected to security hearings based on vague rumors of disloyalty. Not until 1957 would their names be cleared.
From the late 1950s on, Kay Boyle reinvented herself as a political activist. With the energy she had once devoted to her fiction, she protested the U.S. presence in Vietnam, marched with Cesar Chavez, praised the Black Panthers and founded a chapter of Amnesty International at San Francisco State College, where she taught from 1964-1979. Hard as she worked, one senses her relief that her efforts were in the practical realm and that she was no longer expected to write serious fiction.
Struck at the heart by Boyle’s “artistic failure of nerve,” Mellen dwells on possible causes for Boyle’s behavior and character, tirelessly returning to Katherine Evans Boyle’s frustrated ambitions and great expectations for Kay. But it is equally possible that in the course of a chaotic and mobile life, Boyle’s neglected talent simply evaporated. If there is a moral in this searching biography, it is to recognize the treasure and guard it well.