1The intricacies of print scholarship and the invigorating entanglement of the early twentieth-century press have received renewed focus in recent years, enabling a rich, expansive view of the modernist project. And any understanding of this dynamic network of artistic production should acknowledge women’s engagement with the periodicals and the myriad ways in which it was integral not only to modernism’s materiality, but also to the development of its critical discourse. Their participation in the literary marketplace continues to offer new avenues of inquiry that recontextualize both aesthetic innovation and the politics of professionalism.
- 1 M. Clark Chambers’s Kay Boyle: A Bibliography has been an invaluable resource as I have studied Bo (...)
2Kay Boyle both understood and effectively manipulated this publishing culture. She was present in an astonishing array of periodicals for almost three-quarters of a century, from her 1922 appearance in Poetry with “Monody to the Sound of Zithers” to the republication of her short story “Rest Cure” in a 1991 issue of Story Magazine. During her long and atypical publishing career, she wrote successfully for a variety of publics and supported her ever-expanding family with her earnings. Equally at home in This Quarter and Harper’s Bazaar, Contact and the Saturday Evening Post, Boyle was conscious of her readers’ expectations and adept at fulfilling them. Moreover, she was able to meet the demands of two publishing cultures often thought to be diametrically opposed: the modernist avant-garde, with its ever-blossoming array of little magazines and small publishing houses, and the mainstream media, with its widely circulated periodicals and lucrative book deals. In the first two decades of her career alone, Boyle published stories, poems, or criticism in over thirty-five different periodicals, and she appeared in some, such as The New Yorker, The Nation, and transition, dozens of times throughout her life.1
3Her impressive bibliography speaks to both her stamina as a writer and to her versatility and business acumen. Importantly, however, Boyle saturated the periodical market so thoroughly that she became difficult to place, losing much of her potential for avant-garde credibility during her mainstream publishing career. For some contemporary critics, moreover, the explicit politics evinced in much of her popular work seemed to be out of step with the aesthetic formalism of high modernism. Boyle is overtly polemical, even didactic, in many of her stories, novels, and poems, speaking out unapologetically against the various forms of social and political oppression, from racism to fascism, that she felt were most destructive. In a 1978 interview, she told Elizabeth Bell, “What most people don’t recognize, and I wish they would recognize, is that my work has always been political. I think all my short stories are political, or most of them. Actually, I can’t think of any that aren’t” (qtd. in Bell 94). What Boyle noted retrospectively here, and what makes her oeuvre so remarkable, is a consistent trajectory throughout her career. While her political aesthetic is less pronounced in her little magazine pieces, overshadowed in part by experiments with style, the work she published in those small-circulation periodicals anticipates her later themes and shows her continuous interest in engaging with the outside world.
4Until recently, little magazines like those in which Boyle appeared were thought to be vehicles through which modernists separated themselves almost entirely from mass culture, disengaging from the socio-political and cultural issues of the day. Indeed, many of the magazines, often short-lived and commercially unsuccessful, were created as a direct counterpoint to contemporary mainstream periodicals that catered to a broad reading public. Declarations indicating as much pepper some of the best-known little magazines. On the masthead of the Little Review, for example, Margaret Anderson famously announced that her magazine would make “no compromise with the public taste”; over a decade later, Eugene Jolas and his transition peers signed a 1929 “Proclamation” that concluded by damning the “plain reader” (qtd. in Boyle, “Proclamation” 13). Ernest Walsh went even further, stating that one editorial premise of This Quarter was the need to “detach the artist from his group, to present him alone, without the benefit of the prestige offered by group strength” (Editorial 259). Responding to the influx of newly minted artistic groups, each with its own manifesto or set of principles, Walsh wanted to present each artist’s work in isolation, to distance it not only from the demands of a large-scale readership, but also from the self-imposed limitations of the “ism.”
- 2 While some magazines, Poetry, Glebe, and Others, for example, overlap and appear in multiple categ (...)
- 3 In The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, for example, Peter Brooker and (...)
- 4 See After the Great Divide, in which Huyssen argues that modernists attempted to distance themselv (...)
- 5 See Jayne Marek’s Women Editing Modernism: ‘Little’ Magazines & Literary History, Adam McKible’s T (...)
5These distancing measures are acknowledged in early studies of the little magazine but have recently received more critical scrutiny. In The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography, Frederick Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn Ulrich point to “rebellion against traditional modes of expression” and the evasion of the “commercial or material difficulties” that accompany experimental work as the key goals of the little magazine (4). Moreover, the authors frame the “rebellion” as an artistic one, suggesting that the primary focus of the little magazine was the development of a new aesthetic. Dividing avant-garde periodicals into six major categories—poetry, leftist, regional, experimental, critical, and eclectic—they imply that any social and political concerns are deserving of a separate “leftist” signification.2 Later studies of the periodical culture have questioned this neat divide between avant-garde publications and the broader cultural milieu, suggesting an overlap that enriches our notion of how modernism was enacted in the press.3 Mark Morrisson has offered one of the most cogent protests against any clear division, arguing in The Public Face of Modernism that many early modernist magazines—his study spans the period between 1905 and 1920—relied on commercial tactics and looked to the mainstream press for inspiration. He situates himself in direct opposition to Andreas Huyssen,4 revealing that “the institutional adaptation of promotional culture by young modernists suggests an early optimism about the power of mass market technologies and institutions to transform and rejuvenate contemporary culture” (6). More importantly, Morrisson sees this borrowing from mass culture replicated in the very ideological underpinnings of the magazines. Examining the English Review, the Little Review, and the Freewoman, among others, he observes that despite their differences, they all shared the “bedrock assumption that art must have a public function” and “tended to see the social role of art as an issue related to the nature of public discourse” (6). Morrisson’s study, along with others by Jane Marek, Suzanne Churchill, and Adam McKible, for example, has paved the way for new investigations into modernist publishing practices.5 These authors have challenged our reified notions of modernist elitism and explored the intersections between the sometimes rampant aestheticism of the magazines and the markers of social and political modernity they were originally perceived to have rejected or rebelled against.
6Kay Boyle is a useful point of departure for this exploration, for she herself straddled two very different worlds, appearing in both little magazines and mainstream publications, sometimes simultaneously. She began her career in the little magazines, though she would eventually become best known for her New Yorker stories, first appearing there in 1931 and publishing over thirty times in that periodical alone. In November of 1921, she published in Poetry a letter to the editor about the relationship between contemporary music and modern poetry, calling for the arts to “reflect the spirit of the age” (105), and the following year, two of her book reviews appeared in TheDial. But most significant was her first creative work, “Monody to the Sound of Zithers,” which appeared in Poetry in December of 1922 and presaged a successful avant-garde career. For the following decade, Boyle would publish almost exclusively in little magazines, including Forum, Broom, This Quarter, Contact, Blues, transition, and Hound and Horn, and would become an advocate of the experimental work being done by their writers. In the 1930s, however, Boyle began appearing frequently in the mainstream press, contributing work to an astonishing array of magazines; these included general-interest magazines, such as Harper’s Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post; women’s magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar and Woman’s Home Companion; political magazines, such as The Nation; and literary and cultural magazines, such as The New Yorker.
- 6 “Rather than viewing them as separate spheres,” Dunick writes, “the worlds of the avant-garde litt (...)
7The most practical explanation for this shift is financial. These magazines simply paid more than their modernist counterparts, some of which struggled just to break even, and as Boyle was married to men who by choice or circumstance did not work steadily or hold well-paying jobs, she did her part to care for her large family and generate a fairly consistent income. Lisa Dunick has persuasively argued that Boyle’s popular and avant-garde publishing careers are part of the same professional trajectory and that we should not view any shift on her part as a betrayal of modernist loyalties.6 Boyle’s dexterous handling of her business affairs indicates that she well understood the benefits offered to her by each type of periodical and was able to manipulate her writing stylistically—sometimes to her aesthetic disadvantage—to meet the needs of the contemporary publishing culture. But equally important is the fact that her work shows a thematic consistency that supersedes these variations. Her avant-garde magazine pieces, written in a less turbulent social and political climate, are not as polemical as much of her later writing. A harbinger of what would come, they reveal, nevertheless, an artist heavily invested in the ethical dimensions of her work, an artist willing to explore creatively while maintaining her moral integrity and fierce desire to protect humanity.
8Boyle’s underexamined little magazine work also shows that political and social concerns could be paired with artistic experimentation and successfully incorporated into such magazines. Some of the work Boyle published in the little magazines explores how class- and sex-based stereotypes hinder our ability to connect with one another in a meaningful way. Sandra Spanier argues that Boyle “attacks repeatedly (…) a narrow-mindedness which blinds an individual to the inherent dignity of others—an egotism that in the plural becomes bigotry and chauvinism” (4). Boyle began this attack early in her career, making her poetry and fiction in Contact, Broom,transition, and other avant-garde magazines an integral part of her canon and complicating versions of modernism that would delineate these venues as unilaterally concerned with art. While her earliest published work is less overtly political than her fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, it also reveals a writer who understood clearly the dangers of pure aestheticism, the consequences of allowing art to dominate one’s life at the expense of social interaction and interpersonal relationships, for many of her speakers and characters are consumed by art to a dehumanizing extent.
- 7 Many of the women in Boyle’s family were involved in contemporary politics. Her aunt was a suffrag (...)
- 8 Joan Mellen notes Boyle’s political naïveté throughout her biography. In her discussion of Boyle’s (...)
9Despite her sporadic formal education, Kay Boyle began writing at an early age, encouraged by a mother who taught her that political activism and artistic experimentation need not be exclusive of one another.7She thus developed a political aesthetic that would manifest itself in various forms throughout her career. Between 1916 and 1918, for example, she wrote a number of antiwar poems, including “Mother,” “The Battlefield,” and “The People’s Cry.” The teenager’s work is stylistically clumsy and melodramatic, but it is sure in purpose, endorsing views of democracy grounded in civic responsibility rather than destructive power. Moreover, the poems’ early dates demonstrate that the author’s interest in politics was not simply a by-product of her later relationship with the mainstream press. While Boyle did not always have a firm historical or theoretical understanding of the politics of her day, sometimes even endorsing contradictory beliefs, she was nonetheless aware of individual suffering and was fiercely committed, even as a young woman, to exposing duplicity, malice, corruption, and the consequences of violence.8
10When Boyle became actively involved with a number of avant-garde publications, she was able to reconcile this awareness with her desire to hone her writing skills. In 1922, she left Cincinnati for New York and arrived on the East Coast with an unquenchable enthusiasm. In the heart of America’s artistic production, Boyle began her relationship with the little magazines, writing two unsigned reviews for The Dial and getting a job with Lola Ridge, the New York editor of Broom. Boyle’s time with Ridge, though brief, had a tremendous impact on her artistic career. In addition to supporting her work and introducing her to other writers, including Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, with whom she would form a long-lasting friendship, Ridge exposed her to the inner workings of an influential little magazine. She also gave Boyle a clearer sense of how to reconcile her divergent social and artistic interests. In Being Geniuses Together, Boyle recalls, “Lola’s causes became mine, and when I wrote my poems now I borrowed from her conscience and her poetic vocabulary” (McAlmon and Boyle 15). Picking up where Boyle’s mother left off, Ridge showed the young author that she need not sacrifice her aesthetic or ethical principles and could, in fact, engage in writing of the sort that would be complimentary to both.
11If Boyle wanted to dive headfirst into the waters of modernism, Broom was certainly an appropriate platform. The magazine’s colophon, containing a figure with a broom, indicated the sweeping away of restriction and convention in the arts. And Harold Loeb and Arthur Kreymborg, who published the magazine, took their job seriously. Boyle would later call Broom “the handsomest and arty-est of any literary publication of its time” (McAlmon and Boyle 14). It was a beautiful, polished magazine, printed on high-quality paper and formatted consistently, and it included prose, verse, and an admirable array of photos and reproductions. Established writers and artists appeared alongside younger contributors, and the first few issues alone boasted contributions by Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Joseph Stella.
12During her editorial stint at Broom, Boyle started her publishing career in earnest, appearing in the December 1922 issue of Poetry with “Monody to the Sound of Zithers.” It might seem unusual that an author best known for short stories would begin by publishing poetry, and Boyle herself even acknowledged that her poetry was less successful than her fiction. Throughout her career she wrote poems but struggled to adequately express herself. In 1932, she confided in William Carlos Williams, “Some kind of poetic form has to be found or I’ll go crazy. I can’t go on taking what you (and others) make possible and beautiful. I think I’ve got lots to say in poetry and no, no, no form” (qtd. in Williams, Selected Letters 129). Williams, an inveterate experimenter with meter, took Boyle’s complaint to heart and used his long letter of response to formulate a theory of poetry, dismissing the looseness of free verse but calling for a metrical form that would not be too rigid or controlled. Boyle’s poetry, which accounts for a small portion of her oeuvre, has received little critical attention, but it shows a constantly developing writer who was willing to experiment with form and style. Furthermore, it speaks to Boyle’s legacy of engagement with and participation in the cultural networks of her day.
13An initial reading of “Monody to the Sound of Zithers” might suggest that Boyle had reprioritized her interests after moving to New York, for the poem contains none of the political commentary visible in her World War I poems. Her context for writing had obviously changed, and, with its lyrical underpinnings and poetic diction, the title itself even presages a shift in content. But, while her little magazine work here and elsewhere is noticeably less didactic than much of her later writing, Boyle avoids the kind of insularity that might render art socially meaningless. The early poems and stories she published in avant-garde periodicals demonstrate her ability to pursue beauty and write experimentally while simultaneously recognizing and exposing the dangers of fetishizing aestheticism. The speaker in “Monody,” for instance, admits, “I have wanted other things more than lovers . . .” (“Monody” 1). This grammatical construction is repeated throughout the poem as the speaker catalogues her various desires, her old need for “deep-bosomed contentment,” “colors and smells,” and “layers of river-mist” (3, 6, 7). Most important, however, was her need to “capture Beauty’s hands and lay them on my heart,” for all of her other needs were simply different manifestations of this Beauty (8). The present perfect, here used as an ambiguous indicator of time, makes it difficult to tell if and when the speaker’s desires were fulfilled, but she closes by revealing, “I have let nothing pass” (16).
14At first blush, then, Boyle’s poem seems to praise sensitive perception, even brash aestheticism. But Boyle skillfully undermines such a reading, hinting at tragedy in her title and problematizing the privileging of Beauty in her careful use of personification. The speaker yearns for “rain to kiss my eyelids,” for “[s]ea-spray and silver foam to kiss my mouth,” and for “strong winds to flay me with passion” (9, 10, 11). These lines speak to the necessity of fully experiencing life, but the author’s use of such intimate words—“kiss,” for instance—suggests that the speaker has failed to find, or perhaps even to consider, the same exhilaration in humanity. Admitting that her “lovers have been strangers,” she has substituted Beauty for human contact, has been “soothe[d]” by nature rather than man (15, 12). Such a subtle observation is a far cry from Boyle’s later explicitly political commentary. However, it serves as a precursor to her other works that show failed connections by exposing how the privileging of art can perhaps lead to alienation and a turning away from humanity.
15“Monody to the Sound of Zithers” was well received and chosen for inclusion in Stanley Braithwaite’s Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1923, and Boyle continued to publish in the little magazines the following year, appearing in Forum, Broom, and Contact. “Morning,” Boyle’s January 1923 Broom poem, evidences the same well-wrought figurative language we see in “Monody.” Relying heavily on personification, simile, and metaphor, Boyle presents a woman gazing at her sleeping partner in the early morning light:
Morning creeps in across his hair. The pallid fingers
Of an old nun stroking his forehead.
Morning curves and lingers
On the pillow, white as someone dead,
On blue even shadows where his head lay sleeping.
His eyes are new at daybreak,
The smooth wings of a new moth moving in sunlight
On full locust blossom. (“Morning” 1-8)
16The image of the man, though he is beautiful at rest and filled with the “new,” is unexpected and slightly unsettling. He is caressed not by the speaker, but by the “pallid fingers” of death, and she can only praise the soft delicacy of his eyes when they are closed.
17As the poem progresses, Boyle suggests that the observation of beauty is reliant upon a troubling sense of personal detachment and disengagement. Watching the man in the early morning hours, the speaker excitedly acknowledges the picturesque scene’s potential, as if it might be a point of mutual admiration: “The wind is blowing the gold curtain – see!” (12). The gold light turns into a lovely “copper” but eventually casts a “blood-red” glow on the corn in the field as the man awakens (24, 26). An ellipsis in line 27 indicates that the speaker, startled by his movement, is unable to finish her thoughts, and she is forced back into the reality of the moment:
His eyes lift,
Shattering beauty on the naked floor;
I remember things I bore of pain.
I must sing, make breakfast without surprise,
As someone who sees danger coming,
And cannot move,
And lifts a hand to cover both his eyes. (27-38)
18The beauty is “shattered” by the man’s psychic presence, and the speaker’s vision recedes, lost in the mundanity of her daily routine. Boyle closes with the image of the eye, which appears throughout the poem, suggesting that the “danger” in the final lines might be the speaker’s own loss of sight, in this case artistic rather than physical. As she does in “Monody,” Boyle presents here an aesthetic vision that can only exist in isolation, can only be captured when one is alone and free of the concerns of everyday reality.
- 9 For more on Contact, see Paul Mariani’s biography of William Carlos Williams.
19Coming on the heels of her Broom appearance, the January 1923 publication of “Shore” in Robert McAlmon and William Carlos Williams’s Contact was another important moment for Boyle, not only signaling her professional acceptance but also aligning her with poets whose rebellious artistic ideology she saw as compatible with her own. As a young and inexperienced poet who lacked the “marvellous authority” [sic] that other writers seemingly possessed, she was “proud” to appear alongside McAlmon and Williams, both of whom she admired immensely (McAlmon and Boyle12, 11). Contact was an altogether different magazine from Broom, its genesis and respective lack of quality speaking to the editors’ homegrown dissatisfaction with the current state of American letters. In his autobiography, Williams writes that he and McAlmon actually published the magazine using paper given to them by Pa Herman, Williams’s father-in-law, clipping the first few issues together (175). The romantic vision of the two poets compiling the magazine by hand is compounded by the fact that Contact was largely conceived of as a way to publish and disseminate their own creative work. Desperate for a publication outlet, their poems “continuously and stupidly (…) rejected by all the pay magazines except Poetry and The Dial,” the men took the initiative to print and distribute Contact on their own (Williams, Autobiography 175).9
20The nature of Williams and McAlmon’s publishingventure was significant for Boyle. She notes in Being Geniuses Together that when McAlmon “became, with William Carlos Williams, a publisher of Contact magazine, he became an element in my own rebellion against my status, fuel to my own fury for independence, and I revered him as a man who (…) exemplified the mounting protest of American writers” (McAlmon and Boyle 11). This is, of course, told retrospectively, with a tidy sense of coherence that her life probably would not have had at the time—and it meshes nicely with McAlmon’s opening recollections of rebellion—but Boyle explicitly connects revolution to the little magazines. Indeed, in a much later interview she confirms that she envisioned herself, and her American compatriots, as being engaged in an artistic insurgency:
It was the revolt against all literary pretentiousness, against weary, dreary rhetoric, against all the outworn literary and academic conventions. (…) We had Walt Whitman to turn to. But the most highly respected American authors of the past century, we gave them no quarter whatsoever; we were completely against them. We wanted a grandly experimental, furiously disrespectful school of writing in America. And we were going to create it. (qtd. in Bell 96; emphasis added)
21Boyle’s militaristic language, used over half a century later, attests to the unquelled passion with which she supported the most important causes of her day, in this case defying the constraints established by her literary predecessors.
22Also worth noting is that her rebellion in the 1920s is not just artistic. Emphasizing individual freedom and its connection to aesthetic autonomy in the early chapters of Being Geniuses Together, she ultimately condemns the socio-political climate in America, writing that she and husband Richard Brault were eager to leave for France, a “country that did not put its socialists in jail” or “harass its writers” (McAlmon and Boyle 14). Boyle’s memories were consistent with the ideas she expressed decades earlier in a 1928 transition piece entitled “Why Do Americans Live in Europe.” Justifying her own decision to escape the stultifying conditions of her native land, she boasted, “I am too proud and too young to need the grandeur of physical America which one accepts only at the price of one’s own dignity. I am making a voyage into poverty because I am too proud to find nourishment in a situation that is more successful than myself” (103). Ironically, one of Boyle’s proudest moments as an artist came when she published in McAlmon and Williams’s Contact, which in its first issue contained an editorial statement declaring the importance of “contact between words and the locality that breeds them, in this case America. . . . We believe that in the perfection of that contact is the beginning not only of the concept of art among us but the key to technique also” (Williams and McAlmon 10). Boyle, who snubbed “physical America,” was clearly out of step with the stated goals of the magazine, and, in large part, with Williams’s belief in the impact of physical and socio-historical rooting on one’s aesthetic development.
- 10 This did not keep the practical businesswoman from sending work to Eliot at Criterion and Faber an (...)
23Nevertheless, Boyle remained loyal to and protective of Williams and McAlmon throughout her life. Her statements in her transition article and in Being Geniuses Together demonstrate that she had, as did many expatriates of the period, a vexed relationship with the country of her birth. Unable to stomach what she saw as too-constrictive proprieties and political intolerance, she moved to Europe hoping to find the freedom to write. Boyle published primarily in American periodicals, however, and cultivated long-lasting friendships with native artists and writers, associating herself with the “furiously disrespectful school of writing in America” despite her expatriation. She also aligned herself with Williams in the anti-Eliot camp, though this seems to have been an emotional rather than artistic choice on her part. Much later in life she still held firm to these youthful divisions, noting in a 1969 or 1970 list intended for Esquire that she ranked Williams, McAlmon, and Moore among the most underrated writers of her acquaintance and Pound and Eliot as the most overrated (Mellen 477).10
24Boyle’s Contact poem, “Shore,” was published in 1923, the same year Boyle escaped to France, indicative of the misalignment between the editorial premises of the magazine and its actual content. Strongly imagistic in its reliance on color and clear, crystallized moments, it consists of rhyming couplets, with some exceptions in the closing lines. The speaker, walking down a “path of gold sand” in the “blue of twilight,” comes across a bathing girl and voyeuristically stops to watch her movements (“Shore” 1, 2). The poem is not about her, however, but about the act of observation and its effects on the speaker; the girl ceases to be an identifiable individual when, diving into the water, she “cutting through / became a symbol” (8-9). Later, coming to the shore, she leans on the marshy plants and evolves into “white on the rushes,” her body “marble” (11). Unwilling, or unable, to move beyond the picturesque moment, the speaker concludes, “I could tell / Of amazing a girl bathing. Nothing more” (12-13). Joan Mellen argues that in this poem, “The image of beauty is its own justification” (57). While Mellen captures in her explanation Boyle’s focus on beauty, the poem seems less about justifying its existence than about exposing its dehumanizing potential. After the girl becomes a symbol, the speaker even admits, “I had lost the meaning / of progression,” suggesting that she, too, had been ossified by the experience (9-10). In this reading, the entire poem becomes a subtle commentary on the alienating effects of art when it subsumes the individual.
- 11 Walsh died of tuberculosis in 1926. Boyle was profoundly affected, both personally and professiona (...)
25Shortly after her Broom and Contact publications, Boyle was invited to submit work to This Quarter, edited by Ernest Walsh, who would soon become her lover and the father of her first child. In an editorial statement in the magazine’s first issue, Walsh outlined his vision for This Quarter; it would be a place where artists could publish work quickly without “literary politics and literary politicians” (Editorial 259). Boasting a hands-off editorial policy, Walsh condemned interference with the artistic process, openly attacking Harriet Monroe of Poetry in the second issue. Walsh, angered by her suggestion that This Quarter was doing nothing innovative as a publication, criticized her editorial meddling and her magazine more broadly: “I am afraid that because you have kept POETRY going for twelve odd years you take that as proof of its success. Perhaps it would be greater proof if POETRY had failed” (“This Quarter” 308). Ever the audacious artist, Walsh agreed to reprint Kay Boyle’s “Harbor Song,” which originally appeared in Poetry. Boyle had made a number of revisions at Monroe’s suggestion, and Walsh jumped at the opportunity to “us[e] her censorship of Kay Boyle’s poem to differentiate his magazine from hers” (Mellen 75). “Harbor Song” was re-released as “Summer” in This Quarter, and Boyle would forever idolize Walsh as an artist who wrote and edited with passion and integrity.11
26“Flight,” one of the stories Boyle published in This Quarter, captures the same social detachment of the artist that we see in “Shore.” The author developed her poetic themes in more detail in her short fiction, which is arguably stronger and was more professionally successful than her poetry. Even in those stories that focus on artistic pursuits she unflinchingly exposes the detrimental impact that art can have when its practitioners are detached from their surroundings and unable to function in the outside world. In “Flight,” Minot, a pianist who has fled Oxford to teach in a seaside town in France, is acutely aware of his isolation but cannot seem to bridge the gulf that divides him from others. When the story opens, he is alone with his cat, who does not know that her kitten is gone. Boyle never reveals whether the kitten died or was given away, but as Minot looks at the cat his eyes are “dark with shame,” suggesting that he is responsible for the separation and that he cannot bear to share his home with even one more creature (“Flight” 167). In fact, the intensity of this shame seems to drive his artistry, for he finds the scene “beautiful” and retreats to his piano, his “angular hands [fleeing] up and down the keys” (167).
27As Minot continues to play, he observes the local sea-men from his window and makes an explicit comparison between their station and his own, recognizing with an acute sense of pain his own disconnection from the outside world. He is jealous of the men’s laborious work and their singular focus on the task at hand:
Out of the water the chain emerged, drawn like a miracle from strong rings of sea. The men as they worked were suspended and mindless, with the individualized intensity of a nostril momentarily bleached, a lip contracted with strain. Their palms opened and reopened to feed out the raw flow of chain, their flesh deep with rust and the cushions of the thumb and the knuckles scarred white. (168)
28Yearning “rather delicately to be one of them, dark and obliterated in work, instead of self-destroyed in isolation,” Minot acknowledges the dangers of both professions (168). Ultimately, though, he finds theirs preferable, for the obliteration is physical and communal, affecting all of the men similarly. By repeating the plural possessive adjective “their,” Boyle subtly emphasizes that even corporeal pain is shared and equally distributed.
29Such a lifestyle is impossible for Minot, who lacks the sea-men’s stamina—his fingers “drooped from his palms, the bones curved in fatigue”—and capacity for collective work (169). Given his profession, he must interact with others, but this leaves him “without substance, like a wraith,” and once his pupils depart he “open[s] the windows to dispel the alien breath, diluting the warmth and odor with thin shafts of rain and sea” (169). Able to tolerate his pupils during the span of a lesson, and even to treat them politely, he is noticeably disconcerted; the one woman who comes to visit in the story “loom[s] heavily and vigorously” so that he feels “himself diminished, stepping aside like a shadow drifting across the window” (170). Though “Flight” is certainly not the first story to treat what Spanier calls “artistic souls in exile,” it rather uniquely criticizes the artist’s need for this isolation (36). Minot’s own discomfort and desire for change, his fervent plea for his hands to “burn with rust,” suggest that while alienation might enable him to play, it also leaves him emotionally malnourished, desirous of a more complete life, and unhappy with his self-imposed exile (168).
30Boyle delivers one of her most pointed criticisms of our capacity for exploitation in the name of art in “Kroy Wen,” published in Front in 1930. Edited by Sonja Prins of Amsterdam, Front was one of the more political little magazines in which Boyle published and, short-lived, ran only four issues between December of 1930 and June of 1931. While it began as “a literary magazine with leftwing tendencies, but interested primarily in literature per se,” it came to recognize the “urgent necessity for a socially informed literature and art,” ultimately privileging writing with a potentially transformative impact (Hoffman, Allen, and Ulrich 295). While Boyle’s “Kroy Wen” is certainly not a didactic proletarian piece, it does, nevertheless, expose certain prejudices that would come to be chief concerns for many writers of the 1930s. The story chronicles the descent of a movie director, Mr. Wurthenberger, who is so obsessed with his craft that he dehumanizes the very people whose experience he is trying to capture. Traveling to Italy by ship, he is on a doctor-prescribed break from his work, ordered to escape the “art and humanity” that plague him as a creative being (Fifty Stories 45). As the narrative opens, he is on the ship’s top deck, looking down at an Italian couple confined to the steerage; from his superior vantage point, the artist in him takes over. “I could use those two,” he announces, particularly excited by the woman’s pregnancy (45; emphasis added). Noting how far along she is, he wants nothing more than to record her agony, the “big human crisis” of giving birth unprepared and unaided on the ocean (49). As a director, Wurthenberger has a very particular idea of what such a “crisis” should entail and chastises the woman when she won’t scream aloud. Needing an outward expression of pain consistent with his views of “art and humanity,” he forgets that the two are not actors, mindlessly telling the woman’s husband, “She can’t just sit there kind of mooning and dozing along . . . . After all, you aren’t doing it for the love of the thing” (49). Relying heavily on irony and symbolism to capture the director’s self-righteousness, Boyle writes that “every human emotion was as clear to him as the day” (47). What is clear, though, is that the director, void of any sympathy or respect for the laboring mother, can only capture emotion through a creative lens, and he becomes increasingly impatient with the couple’s failure to cooperate. Presented as an ironic Christ, he fights the “[b]eads of anguish . . . lying like a crown of thorns upon his head,” having sacrificed his own humanity for his art (48). Boyle captures his perversion of art symbolically, too, by attributing to him a unique symptom: in his nervousness, he sees words spelled backwards, hence the “Kroy Wen” of the title.
31“Kroy Wen” engages with important social problems as well. Through the story’s details, Boyle suggests that Wurthenberger’s dehumanization of the pair is enabled at least partially by their class and foreignness. Admiring the picturesque “wops with their pretty skins,” he is nonetheless appalled by the scent of their garlic, “part of their own breath to them,” without which “their tongues and nostrils repined” (44). Though a narrative observation, the comments are indirectly attributed to the director, who watches the pair and, later in the story, can hardly tolerate the overwhelming scent of garlic in their tiny cabin. He does so only because he is intent on capturing the birth of their “bambino” (47). It is clear, too, that the director has been successful financially as well as artistically, for the “gems of his fingers” glisten in the sun as he gestures toward the couple from his elevated vantage point early in the story (45). The less wealthy couple—the husband is an acrobat—is “struck” by the refraction, the “blade of fire” that cuts through and divides them from Wurthenberger (45). Boyle was sensitive to ethnic and racial stereotypes throughout her life and willing to expose them, and other damaging social injustices, through her activism as well as her writing, which became increasingly polemical over time.
- 12 See “The Ideology of Modernism,” for example, where he discusses the “negation of outward reality” (...)
32Although Boyle cultivated relationships with a number of magazines, one of her longest-lived was with Eugene Jolas’s transition, rather surprising given its privileging of aestheticism at the expense of social engagement. Indeed, shortly before the publication of “Kroy Wen” and “Black Boy,” Boyle was the first signatory of transition’s “Proclamation,” which concluded, “The Writer expresses. He does not communicate” (13). Romantic in its Blakean roots and emphasis on imagination, the proclamation announced, among other things, “Pure Poetry is a lyrical absolute that seeks an a priori reality within ourselves alone” and “Narrative is not mere anecdote, but the projection of a metamorphosis of reality,” (13) positing the precise sort of modernist insularity that critics such as Georg Lukács found so troubling.12 In her discussion of transition in Women of the Left Bank, Shari Benstock calls the magazine’s underlying principle, expressed in the “Proclamation” manifesto, one of “Word-worship, the most extreme example of the Modernist faith in the Logos” (374). A glance at the table of contents of any issue of transition reveals Jolas’s dedication to linguistic experimentation. In addition to surrealist literature—prose by Philippe Soupault and sections of André Breton’s Nadja, for example—transition regularly featured work by Gertrude Stein, including Tender Buttons, and sections of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, then titled “Work in Progress.” Jolas remained remarkably consistent in his views, declaring in “Frontierless Decade,” published in 1938,
Throughout its ten years of existence, transition has faithfully adhered to a belief in the primacy of the creative spirit. Nor did it climb on the band-wagon, when a split occurred in the ranks of writers everywhere simultaneously with the world-depression in 1930, but took its stand on the side of a metaphysical, as opposed to a materialist-economic, interpretation of life. (9)
- 13 Linda Wagner-Martin sees a similarly communicative quality in many of Boyle’s occasional poems, th (...)
33Most of Boyle’s poetry and fiction, even at her most experimental, is at odds with the sentiments expressed by Jolas throughout his transition editorials and in “Proclamation” specifically. And years later she would directly contradict herself, asking “Writing is communication, isn’t it?” (qtd. in Spanier 2). Spanier suggests that the two statements are compatible, that at every point in her career Boyle was concerned, first and foremost, with the “moral responsibility of the artist” (3). And it is likely that Boyle was interested in the revolutionary goals of the proclamation rather than it its concrete manifestations. As was the case with the political causes that she supported, Boyle’s interest in “The Revolution of the Word” appears to have been a reflection of her personal loyalties and emotions rather than a well-wrought ideology. Similar to her appearance in Contact and friendship with Williams, her interaction with the Jolas was likely based on her feelings toward him and her eagerness to assert herself as an artist. Elizabeth Bell has argued, too, that Boyle “signed the proclamation and agreed with its general intent to revitalize literary language,” but that “her writing did not typically adhere to the principles outlined, especially the last two [those that “damn” the “plain reader” and advocate expression over communication], which struck at the heart of her storytelling talents” and that she “seldom distorted language to the extent that communication with the reader became secondary” (15). Boyle appeared repeatedly in transition throughout the late-1920s and early 1930s, publishing over twenty pieces of critical and creative work there, including a number of stories that would appear in her 1930 Wedding Day and Other Stories. This collection was favorably reviewed by many critics, most of whom noted, rather ironically given her self-positioning, Boyle’s ability to communicate with her readers.13 In a review for the London Mercury, for example, Helen Moran, no fan of Boyle’s, “grudgingly” admitted the “sharp clarity and crisp beauty” of her stories and her ability to “write with a certain controlled strength and disarming simplicity” (qtd. in Bell 138). And Katherine Anne Porter, writing for New Republic, noted that Boyle’s stories were somewhat uneven but that her best were marked by “the beginnings of objectiveness, a soberer, richer style” (qtd. in Bell 137).
34Boyle published poems as well as stories in transition, and some of these explicitly address the political concerns that “Proclamation” would have authors ignore in favor of an “a priori reality.” Supportive of her transition peers and their experimental work, Boyle nevertheless refused to conform—despite any manifesto signatures to the contrary—to group expectations. “The Only Bird That Sang,” published in June of 1930, exposes the dangers of war and the blind patriotism that can accompany it. Joan Mellen even calls the piece Boyle’s “most powerful antiwar poem,” a bold declaration given Boyle’s active role in protesting and writing about the Vietnam War later in her life (142). The poem reveals the thoughts and actions of a dying corporal in Albert, France during the First World War, commenting generally on the destructive power of war and more specifically on American perceptions of their efforts.
35Using powerful natural metaphors and images throughout the poem, Boyle writes that “Pneumonia cool as edelweiss/ Was the last thing blooming into song for” the corporal and calls the war the “only bird that sang” for people that century (Collected Poems 11-12, 15). Two stanzas later spring appears and is particularly painful for the young soldier:
Without pulpit flowers
Or boiling tubs of sassafras
A long time
Since spring had come in a new way
The cannons bucked like goats
Along the edge of it
The veins broke wide and flowered
The corporal at Albert
Fell into decay (23-32)
- 14 Boyle found this notion particularly disturbing. According to Boyle, she and Laurence Vail, her se (...)
36Lineation shifts throughout the poem, and this particular stanza recalls Williams’s short lines in Spring and All, published only a few years before “The Only Bird That Sang.” Moreover, it is difficult to disengage Boyle’s discussion of spring from what we see in Williams, though hers has an intensely ironic bent in which the soldier’s death encourages natural growth. The unexpected pairings of “spring” and “decay” and “cannons” and “goats” also suggest, paradoxically, not only the disruptive effects of war, but also the quickness with which people might come to see it as a natural, cyclical process.14
37What is most unsettling for Boyle is the corporal’s attitude about his position. He dies on foreign soil “happy to have had/ A flower nourished by his nine red yards/ Of clogged intestines planted where he fell” (50-52). Empowered even in death, he continues to serve instead of being buried in an unmarked mass grave where hundreds might “be disposed of without a loss to history” (56). Throughout the course of the poem, we see that civilians are happy to send their sons and daughters to fight, too, idealizing their roles abroad while remaining safe at home:
The towns were proud the trains the sky liners
Staterooms wharves the skyline proud
The army proud to wear them strong as hyacinths
The surgeons were happy and proud
The wings of airplanes and proud the sheets
The pillows bedpans congressmen the subways proud
The president the frigidaire turned proud
We are proud of our girls who are over there. (36-43)
38By running nouns together with no punctuation or syntactical patterns and by pairing people with inanimate objects, Boyle renders “pride” an empty and overused term, suggesting the mindlessness with which people cling to their beliefs and repeat their mantras during war. And that the stanza notably ends with “over there” implies a measure of distance that perpetuates such romanticized notions.
39While condemning war, “The Only Bird That Sang” offers no clear alternative and closes with a startlingly prophetic claim that gestures at the next approaching World War: “There will be more sons/ More husbands fathers/ To breed for another springtime” (77-79). The last lines of the poem go on to argue that war is a part of our very being, that we are unhappy without it: “Now we are stricken with peace/ We are stricken with peace/ We are stricken” (83-85). Boyle’s use of “stricken” clearly frames peace in a negative way in the first two lines, and the progressive repetition, ending with “We are stricken,” provides a broader commentary on the human condition. The poem ends rather bleakly, expressing the need for a core behavioral change, not merely new leaders or political practices.
40The work’s 1930 publication is significant, for it directly undermines Jolas’s claim in “Frontierless Decade” that transition favored a “metaphysical” aesthetic after the “split” caused by the depression. While not the sort of proletarian protest poem Jolas was likely referring to, “The Only Bird That Sang” nevertheless demonstrates Boyle’s awareness of the human toll of politico-military engagement and the resulting exploitation of citizens in the name of blind patriotism. Despite her bold endorsement of transition’s romanticism only a year before, Boyle continued to cultivate her political aesthetic in practice, reveling in the rebellious nature of the magazine venture but publishing stories and poems meant to speak to rather than damn the “plain reader.”
41During the late 1930s and 1940s, Boyle’s aesthetic turned increasingly political. Expanding on the depictions of isolation and detachment that foreshadowed her later work, she focused on exploring the growth of Fascism, clarifying American misconceptions about European politics, and exposing the immediate and remote effects of war in a practical, straightforward way. Primer for Combat (1942), Avalanche (1943), and A Frenchman Must Die (1946) are among some of her most explicit World War II pieces, and the lucrative Avalanche was even bought in bulk by the Armed Forces “so that airmen bailing out over France might be aware of the resistance and its dynamics” (Mellen 293). In a short Ladies’ Home Journal article advertising Boyle’s work, Bernadine Kielty observes, approvingly, that Avalanche and A Frenchman Must Die “are a departure for Kay Boyle, the intellectual, whose books used to be of the long-haired variety. Before the war she was one of the small esoteric group of literary experimenters who appeared regularly in transition, the Paris-American little magazine. She wrote poetry and short stories, beautiful but sometimes baffling” (qtd. in Spanier 144). Accurately placing Boyle at the heart of avant-garde production, Kielty nonetheless exaggerates the author’s “esoteric” prose and ignores the consistency at the heart of her aesthetic, mistaking the intensification of her themes for a shift in values.
42While Kielty seems to have approved of Boyle’s “departure” from her experimental little magazine work, other critics did not. In particular, the publication of Avalanche, which chronicles the French resistance, marked a decisive decline in Boyle’s reputation. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, the novel was clearly written for periodical publication, and she admitted that the regular installments required her to “stop being a precious, careful writer” (qtd. in Mellen 293). Though Boyle defended the ideological underpinnings of her work, arguing that she was attempting to convey a message to the general population, Avalanche was criticized by a number of reviewers, including Edmund Wilson. Worth noting in Wilson’s 1944 New Yorker article is not the ferocity with which he attacked the actual book—many contemporary critics did the same—but the way that he contextualized it within the larger publishing culture, calling it “the usual kind of thing that is turned out by women writers for the popular magazines”:
I have not read much else by Kay Boyle since her very early work, so that I do not have a definite opinion about the value of her writing as a whole; but I know from those early stories, written when she lived abroad and printed in the ‘little magazines’ of the American émigrés, that she was at least making an effort at that time to produce something of serious interest. Today she is back at home, and ‘Avalanche’ was written for the Saturday Evening Post. I did not see it there, but I have been haunted since I read it by a vision of Saturday Evening Post illustrations. (74, 78)
43Dismissing the possibility that one might contribute quality work to The Saturday Evening Post, Wilson expresses contempt for the popular magazine as a genre, roping it off as the province of silly lady novelists. His evident cultural bias against ostensibly low-brow fiction manifests itself in the gender division at work in his piece, in the suggestion that women are responsible for the flippant melodrama he perceives to be at the heart of popular magazines. Moreover, he clearly distinguishes the fiction produced for such periodicals from the “serious” work done in the little magazines. Noting later in the review that transition and This Quarter contained much “nonsense,” he still admits a certain nostalgia for those publications with their worthy goals (78).
- 15 This estimate is based on information provided by the Saturday Evening Post web site. According to (...)
44Acknowledging the stylistic deficiencies of Avalanche, Boyle nevertheless believed in the importance of her content and knew that The Saturday Evening Post reached an impressive number of readers, roughly three million at the time.15 By this point in her career, her priorities had simply shifted, as had those of many people affected directly or indirectly by World War II, and she turned to a wartime context for her work. Living in France and Austria for almost two decades and witnessing firsthand the rise of Fascism and Nazism, Boyle was well-positioned to comment on the impact of the socio-political changes sweeping across Europe. “‘[C]ompletely taken aback’ at American anti-French sentiment,” she felt especially obligated to clarify American misconceptions about the French people (qtd. in Holt 9). Moreover, as Spanier astutely notes, “the fine art of alienation and despair with which Kay Boyle and other serious writers had battled the unhealthy prosperity and satisfaction of the twenties would have been self-indulgent in the forties, when individuals were being crushed under the weight of a cruel external world . . .” (163). In the midst of a devastating war, the effects of which were felt the world over, Boyle provided some much-needed optimism with her adventure story.
45Unfortunately for Boyle, the production of these wartime texts had a detrimental impact on her critical—though not financial—success. Struthers Burt, in a Saturday Review article on Avalanche, astutely noted the implications of Boyle’s choice to forsake careful attention to craft in order to garner a large readership, anticipating that “a number of Miss Boyle’s admirers, unless I am mistaken, are going to rebuke her for this story, and although they are going to be right technically, they are going to be enormously wrong theoretically and practically” (52). Burt’s prediction turned out to be correct, and Boyle never truly regained her critical foothold despite five more decades of writing. The criticism she faced in the 1940s shaped her reputation as a writer in noticeable ways. When a New Critical turn towards institutionalizing works of technical mastery was helping to solidify the canon, the writer of a book like Avalanche could easily be brushed aside, despite years of praise for her stylistic acuity.
46Boyle recently has been gaining purchase, however, especially given the increasing interest in politicized and socially integrated versions of modernism. Though the array of publications she appeared in attests to her stylistic flexibility, Boyle remained remarkably consistent in her views, always writing under the mantra that writers should “not separate ourselves from our time” (qtd. in Spanier 3). In a 1942 New Republic article she went so far as to posit that Poe, Rimbaud, Dickinson, and others were damned by their failure to recognize “a functioning world to which they could belong” (qtd. in Spanier 92). Boyle made it her mission to reveal both the beauty and oppression of this “functioning world” in her poetry and fiction, explicitly protesting injustices in some cases and merely hinting at the causes of our isolation and inhumanity in others. Thomas Austenfeld suggests that Boyle’s socio-political engagement places her outside of the “modernist coterie,” which boasted the “supremacy of aesthetics over politics” (“Introduction” 3). But such a reading minimizes the importance of her engagement with other modernists and her participation in the network of little magazines that enabled the publicizing of avant-garde work. Instead, we might consider how Boyle’s writing challenges notions of modernist insularity, particularly in regard to the little magazines, some of which, like transition, fashioned themselves as the elite guardians of a detached aesthetic. By publishing work antithetical to the stated editorial policies or ideological underpinnings of these magazines, Boyle disrupted such self-positioning and imposed her own worldview.
47Boyle took advantage of the tremendous range of publications that the American market boasted in the first half of the twentieth century. Though circulation numbers rose and fell with the economy and the Second World War, the author consistently retained the ability to produce and disseminate work, marketing it for particular audiences and placing it accordingly. Some of her contemporaries, of course, felt that her mastery of the industry was tantamount to a betrayal of her avant-garde compatriots, or merely a crude ploy for financial game. But Boyle’s career shows, instead, a modernist project firmly entrenched in professionalism and, more specifically, in a concrete knowledge of the publishing industry. Consistently writing about the consequences of disengagement, both political and artistic, she understood that the stylistic adjustments required of popular readerships need not mean undermining one’s belief system. The liberal politics evinced throughout her oeuvre attest to an underlying coherence that has been questioned by those critics who observed, and rightly so, the intensification of her political themes in the late 1930s and 1940s. But this escalation should be seen for what it is—a more explicit rhetoric and not a reversal of values.