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
A Frenchman Must Die, 1946
His Human Majesty, 1949
The Seagull on the Step, 1955
Three Short Novels, 1958
Generation Without Farewell, 1960
The Underground Woman, 1975
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
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.
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.