Authors: Kay Boyle

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, short-story writer, poet, and essayist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Process, wr. c. 1925, pb. 2001 (Sandra Spanier, editor)

Plagued by the Nightingale, 1931

Year Before Last, 1932

Gentlemen, I Address You Privately, 1933

My Next Bride, 1934

Death of a Man, 1936

Monday Night, 1938

Primer for Combat, 1942

Avalanche, 1944

A Frenchman Must Die, 1946

1939, 1948

His Human Majesty, 1949

The Seagull on the Step, 1955

Three Short Novels, 1958

Generation Without Farewell, 1960

The Underground Woman, 1975

Short Fiction:

Short Stories, 1929

Wedding Day, and Other Stories, 1930

The First Lover, and Other Stories, 1933

The White Horses of Vienna, and Other Stories, 1936

The Crazy Hunter, and Other Stories, 1940

Thirty Stories, 1946

The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany, 1951

Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart, 1966

Fifty Stories, 1980

Life Being the Best, and Other Stories, 1988


A Glad Day, 1938

American Citizen Naturalized in Leadville, Colorado, 1944

Collected Poems, 1962

Testament for My Students, and Other Poems, 1970

This Is Not a Letter, and Other Poems, 1985

Collected Poems of Kay Boyle, 1991


Breaking the Silence: Why a Mother Tells Her Son About the Nazi Era, 1962

Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930, 1968 (with Robert McAlmon)

The Long Walk at San Francisco State, and Other Essays, 1970

Words That Must Somehow Be Said: The Selected Essays of Kay Boyle, 1927-1984, 1985

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Youngest Camel, 1939, 1959

Pinky, the Cat Who Liked to Sleep, 1966

Pinky in Persia, 1968

Edited Texts:

365 Days, 1936 (with others)

The Autobiography of Emanuel Carnevali, 1967

Enough of Dying! An Anthology of Peace Writings, 1972 (with Justine van Gundy)


For more than half a century, Kay Boyle fused personal experience and social commitment in finely wrought fiction, poetry, and essays. She was the daughter of Howard Peterson Boyle and Katherine Evans Boyle, and the granddaughter of Jesse Peyton Boyle, who had become wealthy through his connection with West Publishing Company, the producer of legal texts. His fortune allowed the family to travel extensively, and Boyle thus spent her childhood in a variety of places, including Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Cincinnati, and Europe. Jesse Peyton Boyle also gave his granddaughter a model for the stubborn, conservative characters in her fiction, just as her mother served as the prototype for her forward-looking, compassionate figures.{$I[AN]9810001397}{$I[A]Boyle, Kay}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Boyle, Kay}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Boyle, Kay}{$I[tim]1902;Boyle, Kay}

Kay Boyle

(Library of Congress)

Because of the family’s travels, Kay Boyle received little formal education, but she did study intermittently at the Ohio Mechanics Institute between 1918 and 1920. Encouraged by her mother, she went to New York in 1922, where her sister, Joan, was working for Vogue. Boyle briefly served on the staff of this magazine before moving to the more congenial Broom, a literary journal. Around this time her writing first began to be published: “Monody to the Sound of Zithers” appeared in Poetry in 1922, and Broom published “Morning” in its January, 1923, issue.

On June 24, 1922, she married Richard Brault, an engineer, and the following year the couple went to France to spend the summer with Brault’s parents. Boyle remained in Europe for the next eighteen years, living in Paris, the south of France, England, and Austria. She divorced her first husband and remarried, and she continued to write while rearing half a dozen children. During this period she won two O. Henry Awards, for “The White Horses of Vienna” in 1935 and for “Defeat” in 1941, and she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934. After she returned to the United States, she married her third husband, Joseph von Franckenstein, an Austrian who had served with the U.S. Army during World War II and later with the American occupation in Germany. Boyle returned to Europe in 1946 as a correspondent for The New Yorker, but she lost this position in 1953 after being charged with having communist sympathies; that charge also cost her husband his job with the government.

Shortly before Franckenstein’s death in 1963, Boyle moved to San Francisco, where she joined the faculty of San Francisco State University. She was politically active there and helped to establish a chapter of Amnesty International; in 1968, she was jailed after a sit-in at the Oakland Induction Center to protest the Vietnam War. Although she retired in 1973, she continued to teach as a professor emerita. Except for a brief period, California remained her home until her death.

Boyle was named to membership in both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She received a second Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961, fellowships from Wesleyan University and the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, and honorary doctorates from Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Skidmore College, and Southern Illinois University. In the final years of her life, she was awarded grants and fellowships from the Before Columbus Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fund for Poetry, and in 1990 she received the first special award from the Lannan Foundation for Outstanding Literary Achievement.

Boyle’s political concerns began to inform her writing in the 1940’s. Having witnessed the rise of Nazism, she devoted much of her fiction during and immediately following World War II to the conflict between totalitarianism and the democracies. “Defeat” criticizes French complacency toward the German Occupation. “War in Paris” satirizes a Mrs. Hodges, whose sole concern with Fascist militarism is its effect on her cat, and “Battle of the Sequins” shows Americans squabbling over blouses while Europe burns. On the back cover of Primer for Combat, she urged readers to buy war bonds to promote “the survival of that freedom, honor, and human dignity which can be lost if” people fail to act. In The Underground Woman and Testament for My Students, and Other Poems, she addressed more recent issues, such as the Vietnam War and civil rights.

Her own experiences served as the basis of much of her work. The Underground Woman draws on her anti-Vietnam War activities, the hero of Primer for Combat bears many similarities to her third husband, and My Next Bride is based on the six months she spent at Neuilly, France, where Raymond Duncan had established a commune. At its best, though, her writing transcends the personal to examine the universal need for love and the difficulty of finding it. Occasionally her characters succeed. In “Astronomer’s Wife,” the heroine finds happiness with a plumber, and in Year Before Last, Hannah and Eve, both in love with Martin, reach an uneasy truce. More often Boyle shows love betrayed. In Gentlemen, I Address You Privately, Munday, a former priest, helps Ayton, an escaped seaman, hide from the authorities. In return, Ayton sells Munday’s beloved piano and flees with three lesbians, leaving behind not only Munday but also Leonie, who sheltered him and who is carrying his child. “Wedding Day” portrays a mother’s indifference to her daughter’s sadness over her impending marriage and the inability of the girl’s brother to help despite his love for his sister.

Sandra Whipple Spanier has observed that Boyle’s reputation would have been greater had she produced a different kind of literature. Instead of writing about politics in the 1930’s, she chose the less fashionable subject of personal relationships. Later, when she did turn to public issues, she often sacrificed characterization and plot to moral concerns. An unflattering review by Edmund Wilson, who condemned Avalanche, Boyle’s one popular success, also hurt her reputation, and the need to produce stories for money led to works that were not always carefully crafted. Yet her eye for detail, her ear for dialogue, and her concern for love and social justice justify both the early praise she received and the renewed interest in her work. After the author’s death, Spanier discovered Boyle’s unpublished first novel; it had been sent to a friend of Boyle in 1924 while she was living in Paris. This autobiographical novel, titled Process, finally appeared in 2001, to enthusiastic reviews.

BibliographyBell, Elizabeth S. Kay Boyle: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. An excellent introduction to Boyle’s short stories. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Boyle, Kay. “Kay Boyle: An Eightieth Birthday Interview.” Interview by David R. Mesher. The Malahat Review 65 (July, 1983): 82-95. As the title suggests, this interview with Boyle was conducted on the occasion of her eightieth birthday. In it, she discusses her life and her work.Carpenter, Richard C. “Kay Boyle.” English Journal 42 (November, 1953): 425-430. This volume provides a helpful and general look at Boyle’s early novels and short fiction.Carpenter, Richard C. “Kay Boyle: The Figure in the Carpet.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 7 (Winter, 1964-1965): 65-78. Carpenter rejects the common complaint that Boyle is a mere “stylist,” discussing her thematic depth, particularly in “The Bridegroom’s Body” and “The Crazy Hunter.”Elkins, Marilyn, ed. Critical Essays on Kay Boyle. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Collection of reviews and critical essays on Boyle’s work includes contributions by William Carlos Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, and Malcolm Cowley. Among the topics addressed in the critical essays are Boyle’s novels My Next Bride, Death of a Man, and Monday Night.Hollenberg, Donna. “Abortion, Identity Formation, and the Expatriate Woman Writer: H. D. and Kay Boyle in the Twenties.” Twentieth Century Literature 40 (Winter, 1994): 499-517. Discusses the theme of self-loss through the roles of marriage and motherhood in Boyle’s early works. Shows how expatriation gave Boyle some psychic space to explore the impact of gender roles on her aspirations and addresses how inadequate maternal role models affected her identity as an artist.Lesinska, Zofia P. Perspectives of Four Women Writers on the Second World War: Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, Kay Boyle, and Rebecca West. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Examines the works that Boyle and three other women writers created during the 1930’s and World War II. Maintains that these writers transcended the conventions of war writing, which had traditionally focused on diplomacy and military campaigns. Instead, their work emphasized the importance of social, cultural, and political histories, narrating these stories with a sense of empathy for the nonvictorious.Mellen, Joan. Kay Boyle: Author of Herself. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Draws on personal conversations with Boyle and her family to discuss the autobiographical nature of Boyle’s writing and lays bare much of Boyle’s own mythologizing of her life in her autobiographical writing.Moore, Harry T. “Kay Boyle’s Fiction.” In The Age of the Modern and Other Literary Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971. Attributes Boyle’s lack of success, despite her supreme talent, to timing. Examines her 1960 novel Generation Without Farewell and argues that it far surpasses other contemporary novels about postwar Germany.Porter, Katherine Anne. “Kay Boyle: Example to the Young.” In The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920-1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison. New York: Liveright, 1972. Porter, a well-regarded novelist, examines how Boyle fit in the literary context of her time. Focuses on the novel Plagued by the Nightingale and on some of Boyle’s short stories.Spanier, Sandra Whipple. “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Kay Boyle’s Lullaby of Incarceration and Cancer.” Prairie Schooner 72, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 5-23. Spanier, author of a biography of Boyle (below), focuses on Boyle’s battle against breast cancer and how the disease affected Boyle’s life. Includes excerpts of letters that Boyle sent to friends in which she describes her disease and its impact.Spanier, Sandra Whipple. Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. The first critical biography and major work on Boyle is heavily annotated and thorough. Examines all of Boyle’s writings, locating central themes and concerns that create a single coherent body of work. Supplemented by illustrations and by select but extensive primary and secondary bibliographies.Twentieth-Century Literature 34 (Fall, 1988). A special issue on Kay Boyle, with personal reminiscences by Malcolm Cowley, Jessica Mitford, Howard Nemerov, and Studs Terkel, among others. Also contains several critical essays on Boyle’s work.Yalom, Marilyn, ed. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983. This volume grew out of a series of public dialogues with a handful of women authors. The entry on Boyle, however, came from an offstage conversation Boyle had with photographer Margo Davis in March, 1982. Boyle recalls her involvement in the antiwar movement in the 1960’s, her life in Paris, being blacklisted in the 1950’s, her writing, and the authors whom she admires. A valuable source of background information on Boyle.
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