Navigation – Plan du site
Kay Boyle

“A Desert Cactus”: The Literary Friendship of Katherine Anne Porter and Kay Boyle



Conservées à l’Université du Maryland, les archives Katherine Anne Porter sont riches de soixante-seize lettres échangées par Porter et Boyle entre 1931 et 1976. Un examen de cette correspondance, jusqu’ici inédite, révèle l’admiration mutuelle, l’affection et le respect que se portaient les deux écrivaines.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1  The books include a copy of Boyle’s 1939 children’s book, The Youngest Camel and  two copies of Th (...)
  • 2  The bound galleys contain a few comments and Porter's corrections of typographical errors. See Oth (...)
  • 3  See Boyle, Kay, 1931-1976, Series 1, Box 23, Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections, Un (...)
  • 4  Kay Boyle, “Analysis of Katherine Anne Porter's ‘The Leaning Tower,’” [1957], Series 9, Box 1, Kat (...)

1A documentary record of the relationship between Katherine Anne Porter and Kay Boyle exists in Porter’s library and papers at the University of Maryland Libraries. The record consists of copies of five of Boyle’s books1; bound galleys for one of these2; two copies of a Boyle manuscript; and fifty-seven letters, notes and cards.3 Most interesting are the correspondence and the copies of Boyle’s “Analysis of Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘The Leaning Tower’” that were enclosed in two of her May 1957 letters to Porter.4 The existing correspondence begins with Boyle’s letter dated May 8, 1931, and ends with Boyle’s short handwritten note of July 1, 1976. The bulk of the letters, forty-four of the fifty-seven, were written by Boyle. Although Porter began retaining carbons of her outgoing correspondence in the late 1920s and more consistently in the 1930s, she apparently did not follow that practice with much of her correspondence to Boyle. A fragment from what appears to have been a letter sent to Boyle on April 14, 1933, is the earliest Porter item in the file. Two original 1940 Porter letters to Boyle were purchased by the University of Maryland Libraries in 1972. The remaining ten Porter letters, dating from 1957 to 1976, are copies.

  • 5  Quotations from the correspondence and notes of Katherine Anne Porter published by permission of t (...)

2The correspondence falls naturally into three chronological groupings—seventeen written between 1931 and 1942; ten written in 1957; and thirty written between 1966 and 1974. The impression left after reading these letters is of two mature women who have professional and personal respect, admiration, and genuine love for one another.5

3The correspondence and their relationship begins with Boyle’s May 8, 1931, acknowledgement of Porter’s New Republic review of Wedding Day and Other Stories and Plagued by the Nightingale:

  • 6  Porter's “Example to the Young,” reviewed Wedding Day and Other Stories and Plagued by the Nightin (...)
  • 7  “Magic,” transition 13 (Summer 1928): 229-31; “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” transition 15 (F (...)

I have just opened a copy of April 22 New Republic and read your review of my two books.6 The thing that I want to say to you now is exactly the same thing that  I have wanted to say to you after reading every word of you in transition [Porter’s short stories, “Magic” and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”7]—just you alone alive in the world and writing would be reason and to spare for living and writing too. A sentence of yours, sitting anywhere, makes me want to shout and wave and cry. I’ve been crying over the review. And I wept for joy when you got the Guggenheim scholarship. Will you be coming over to Europe and if you do would you let me know if you would like to see me too? (KB to KAP, May 8, 1931, Boyle, Kay, 1931-1976, Series 1, Box 23, Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.  Hereinafter cited as KAP Papers.)

4Even after the two had met face-to face in Paris in January 1933, Boyle’s letters continue in this vein:

  • 8  “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” Scribner's Magazine 91 (May 1932): 271-76, 313-20.

I wanted to write you soon after my return when someone sent me an old copy of Scribners in which appeared your long short story, or was it a short novel [“The Cracked Looking Glass”8], which was touching, stirring magnificent. There are so many sides and shapes and tastes to your words, natural, and good, and perfectly without strain. You ARE blooming—how can you say otherwise? A whole lot of sketchy stories turned out for the money they bring in isn’t writing, You’re rarer and fresher because you can’t do things in haste. (KB to KAP, March 17, 1933, KAP Papers)

This is a love letter—a declaration of love to the clarity of your mind, the warmth and balance of your emotions, to the sensibility of your decisions. Your simplicity is so perfectly achieved—given a language when you write it out, but not confused by words. You are rare, exciting, comforting—a judge to come eye to eye with without fear because you say clearly exactly what one has lacked the courage to say to oneself. Your justice is appalling—so good, so pure, so strong. I love your truth, no matter how bitter it might be.

  • 9   “The Art of Katherine Mansfield,” Nation 145 (October 23, 1937): 435-36.

5Your article on Katherine Mansfield9 was the immediate cause of this—although I do not agree with your estimation of her work—but the deeper cause is your work itself, your stories in the book you gave me, pieces of you found by accident here and there. I wish I could make some kind of public declaration about my admiration, my homage, my love for, my humiliation, and my pride in your genius. Pride, because you make one proud to be living and writing too; you make intelligence an honor, you give words a power one gets old and forgets all about. Out of this mix-up extract my gratitude to you and allow me to dedicate a book to you—a book of short stories, if I may. This might serve in some way as a statement of my admiration for you as the greatest woman writer we have had. (KB to KAP, November 1, 1937, KAP Papers)

6In 1940, Boyle made this private admiration public when she formally dedicated The Crazy Hunter to her. Porter’s delighted reaction expresses her own respect for Boyle’s work:

  • 10  Porter underlined “feelings” in the original letter.
  • 11 The Crazy Hunter is underlined in the original letter. Hereinafter all titles underlined in the cor (...)
  • 12  Porter underlined “could” in the original letter.

Dear Kay, Wonderful Kay, I am so filled with prideful delight over my book, the book you gave me, I go about cradling it, poring over it, showing it and talking about it. I suppose it is really no more than I always do with every new book of yours, but this one, yes, there is a difference in my feelings10about it, something added to what I think about the others (…)
(…) The Crazy Hunter11is as near perfection as any story I know. How could12you ever do better? but of course you will (…)
It is a beautiful present, and the first book ever I had dedicated to me, and it may be the last if it likes, for it should be unique in all ways. (KAP to KB, February 14, 1940, KAP Papers)
I wrote before how I love your book; it has had splendid reviews here, you are very well appreciated but still not half enough. Little by little that will come. (KAP to KB, August 9, 1940, KAP Papers)

7The next grouping of letters in the Boyle-Porter correspondence file was exchanged in 1957. At the time and unbeknownst to the other, both were living in Connecticut. Porter had declined an invitation to teach a summer course at the University of Delaware, and Boyle, in turn, was asked and accepted the assignment. She wrote on March 29, 1957:

I need you very much in my life at the present moment. I have become in some measure, in some way, partially you, ever since you found you could not take on the University of Delaware job for next summer and I accepted it (needing the money really desperately.)
And now I find that if I could talk a moment with you sometime, somewhere, a lot of things about analysis and criticism and the poor tortured short story might become very clear.  Could we not meet? I shall be waiting eagerly to hear. (KB to KAP, March 29, 1957, KAP Papers)

8Porter, who had just returned from a four-week retreat to work on her novel Ship of Fools, replied on April 1st:

  • 13  Porter underlined “always” in the original letter.

Imagine that I did not even know you were in this country, much less in the same state with me—yes, even in that state of needing money, always13more or less desperately! (…) I think three or four weeks more will see me through [the completion of the novel]. And then I’d love to see you, though what help I can be to you about the short story I don’t know! (…) Lets plan to see each other in mid-May—still time to gossip about what one says to students about writing and something  about us? (KAP to KB, April 1, 1957, KAP Papers)

9Boyle’s April 14 reply explains how she had begun the work of preparing for the summer course by making

the academic approach for the first time to work that I like reading, I’ve run into all these awful textbook analysis things which drive me mad. I am told that if I have come over to the camp of the enemy—that is, become the consumer instead of the creator—I must accept and respect the rules. I’m working to disprove that, but for the moment we’ve had lively and bitter discussion over the Ray B. West and Robert Stallman analysis of [“Flowering Judas”]. (KB to KAP, April 14, 1957, KAP Papers)

10Between her April 14th letter and one sent on May 12th, Boyle drafted a study of  Porter’s “The Leaning Tower,” which she enclosed with an explanation:

This you understand, is rather a hoax, and is a take-off on the kind of analysis West and Stallman might indulge in. I am doing this with a number of stories in hope that the authors may be roused to refute everything I say. Please argue about this with me—in the interest or defense of the creative mind! (KB to KAP, May 12, 1957, KAP Papers)

11Porter replied to Boyle’s April 14th  letter on May 13th, before Boyle’s May 12th letter and analysis reached her in Southbury, Connecticut:

I have been rather praying you might give me your telephone number, for it has been beyond me to write letters even the shortest most necessary notes. I am very much exhausted and this book, so near the end, has become almost an intolerable burden. I am leaving it and going up to New York tomorrow for about ten days; I shall take advantage of several things going on in the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Yaddo meeting, other things that may sound dull but I shall see people I like and rest from “this solitary, sedentary trade”—
I shall be at the Winslow Hotel. (…), and if you should happen to be in New York during that time, please call me, or let me know where to call you. (KAP to KB, May 13, 1957, KAP Papers)

12Boyle’s next letter, written after she had spoken with Porter by telephone, enclosed another copy of “The Leaning Tower” analysis, as they were to meet in New York on Monday, May 20th.

Let me explain quickly that the analysis is a hoax, a fraud, a satire on the critics of the new criticism that is now so old, and that you are expected to refute it angrily and bitterly. In some cases, the authors whose work I have so distorted are going to come down and refute it publicly at the University of Delaware during the summer, and if you found it possible to do this, I would be happier than I can tell you. (…)I neglected to explain in the letter I wrote you on Sunday that by the time I (…) had reached the café section of your story, my powers of analysis had given out. I couldn’t think of a possible symbolic interpretation to give the night-club scene, and I have determined to make it one of the tasks in the examinations which have to be given to these poor students in Delaware—to explain the political significance and the psychological conflicts in the night-club scene of Miss Porter’s “Leaning Tower.”(KB to KAP May 15, 1957, KAP Papers)

13The meeting in New York apparently was a success as Boyle sent, with her May 24th letter, a summary of Porter’s reaction to the analysis of the story:

I have tried to remember as well as I could the things (some of the things) you said about my hoax analysis of “The Leaning Tower,” and I have set them down on the accompanying sheet. I have done this because I felt you would not have time to write a refutation yourself, and I thought perhaps you would have the goodness to scratch out what you did not say, or do not want recorded, and add, if you could, to what I have set down. Do not think me ruthless, but I am determined to get some stimulation and fun out of this ghastly course at the University of Delaware, and this extraordinary story of yours, with the hoax analysis, and your refutation of it, will do for one lecture at least (I am hoping I may get two out of it!). (…)
Much as I despise this analysis business, it has its virtues if it makes so much amusing conversation possible. (…) As I write, it occurs to me that it might be fun —wholly in keeping with the Stallman and West approach (…)—to have the class at Delaware analyze and interpret your café scene with no assistance from the author or teacher, just to see what human stuff they could make of it. I am going to insist on humanity in spite of the new criticism that is now so old that it creaks. (KB to KAP, May 24, 1957, KAP Papers)

14When Porter did not respond to Boyle’s request, she mailed a plaintive note on June 19th:

I feel you have abandoned me—and just on the verge of my plunge into the miseries of Delaware. I leave on Friday—and if you would write me there, I would be happy. A word from you would give me courage. (KB to KAP, June 19, 1957, KAP Papers)

15Porter’s angry reply was composed on July 21st:

  • 14  Porter underlined “try” in the original letter.

It is rather frightful to be accused of letting a friend down, especially in the matter of such help as you asked: but I am exhausted. (…) I refused that job at Delaware not because I shouldn’t have liked doing it, nor because I didn’t need the money, but because I did need all my available time and energy to get a little writing done. My plan was to stay at home and be very quiet, and mind my own business strictly, for a change. This may sound dull to the by-stander, but it is deliriously exciting to me, and a beautiful dream of many years. So why should I come to Delaware and work on that project when I had just paid in effect two thousand dollars to stay away? You can’t suppose that I despise two thousand dollars for a few weeks of talking? So often I have been able to do for some one else what I really needed, but could not do for myself—that is something that no doubt happens to everybody; but now I have unfinished work and I cannot do for you, my dear, what I can do for myself and badly need.
I am sorry you were nervous about that job. I have supported myself for twenty odd years by trouping this country from center to every point of the compass, reading my stories, or other peoples’ poetry, or just talking about writing, which I love to do if I can find anybody to listen; so now I know more or less what I think and feel and believe on the subject, and I just stand up and open my mouth and until that split second I have no notion what my opening sentence is going to be. And it doesn’t matter. Because where ever you start, no matter how wide a lariat you throw it will close on the horns of your subject at last—maybe you know that by now! And you don’t have to make a circus of it—you shouldn’t try14 to be amusing, just say what you think and it is surprising how well your students will take it.
Yet I realize very well I am talking from all these years of work in Universities and colleges and I do remember my tremblings and frights and faintings in the midriff when I first began. (…) There was nothing to be done for it but to wear through and outgrow it. (…)
Meantime, I am on Roxbury Road, in a long, still quiet summer, dry and hot but then I am a salamander, with nothing to do but about twenty thousand words more on that ever-to-be damned novel, my first and my last. (KAP to KB, July 21, 1957, KAP Papers)

16After nearly three months Boyle replied on October 12th:

I do not know what I said to you in a letter last July which made you feel that I had asked you to go down to Delaware to work on the lecture project with me. My respect for your time and your work would have made such a suggestion impossible. I did, indeed, ask you to drop me a line to let me know if I might make use in one of my lectures of the things you said at lunch to me about “The Leaning Tower”—or rather your answers to the questions I asked about the story. I had sent you a copy of your comments (or answers) as I recalled and reconstructed them, and I did not wish to use them in discussing the story with the class unless you said I might. Because you did not answer about this, I wrote to you before I left for Delaware, asking you please not to let me down on this. I am sorry if the phrase was an unfortunate one. It did not for a moment refer to your coming down to Delaware, but to a “yes” or “no” concerning my recording of your remarks.
I did ask you to spend a night in my apartment in Newark on your way to or from the University of Maryland where you told me you would be going for the honorary degree. I am still sorry you were not able to. But this invitation was in no way intended to impose upon your time and energies. (KB to KAP, October 12, 1957, KAP Papers)

17Any residual rancor stirred by this series of exchanges was forgotten when Boyle resumed the correspondence nearly ten years later. The re-established epistolary relationship continued unbroken for the next ten years. It stretched from 1966 when Porter was comfortably settled in Washington, DC, after the 1962 publication of Ship of Fools, untilonly a few months before she suffered a series of debilitating strokes in February 1977. Boyle re-established the correspondence on November 8, 1966:  

I have just been reading carbon copies of your many letters to Bob McAlmon, and I have been so moved by them that I wanted to write to tell you so. They are strong & beautiful documents of love and understanding.
The explanation of why I am reading them is this: I am editing and adding to Bob’s “Being Geniuses”. (…) Your letters are the most intelligent and beautiful and honest he ever received, and I am learning much from them. (KB to KAP, November 8, 1966, KAP Papers)

18Porter’s warm response was written on November 10th:  

Your letter this morning made me so happy for so many reasons I hardly know where to begin, but most of these reasons are just feelings, anyway, and you will know without my telling. (…)
“Being Geniuses”—it is wonderful that you are going finish that for Bob—or rather, I hope put back all his first publishers made him take out, for fear of libel suits. (…)
I hope you are well and flourishing. it seems strange that we lost sight of each other after our fine start in sympathy, but we are still here, and I glad of it, and I hope you are able to do everything—well, nearly everything, for nobody can do more, that you have planned. My effort to keep my chin above ground has taken most of my time, and energy, but it would seem I can work again soon. Here I am, very fixed and settled, so please come to see me when you are in this odd part of the country.
Your letter is beautiful. (KAP to KB, November 10, 1966, KAP Papers)

19Boyle responded on November 21st:

  • 15  Boyle underlined "your" in the original letter
  • 16  Boyle underlined “before” in the original letter.

I am hastening to write because I want to re-assure you that it is only typewriter copies of your letters that I have—not the originals. (…) It is not my intention to use your letters, as I think you must know. They are, of course, your15property. It has occurred to me that I might quote from them, and from Gertrude Stein’s letters to Bob, in my introduction to “Being Geniuses Together,” but even that has not yet been worked out. In any event, please know that if any lines from yours are to be used, I shall let you know exactly and before16any possible public use is made of any of your words to him. (…)
I shall write you again soon, as [copies of your] (…) letters will go to you as soon as I can get them copied. Do be well, and do write again. I shall be praying for this. (KB to KAP, November 21, 1966, KAP Papers)

20On February 16, 1967, Porter replied:

  • 17  Porter underlined “have” in the original letter.

Dear Kay, if you write about our dear Bob, I should be happy for you to use any letter of mine and anything you may know otherwise about our long undemanding friendship—this is a very different question from those strangers who send my letters to be published without telling me they even have17 them. (…)
Please let me hear from you when you have time. If ever you come this way, do let me know. I shall be happy to see you. (KAP to KB, February 16, 1967, KAP Papers)

21Boyle’s delayed reply came nearly six months later on August 8, after the manuscript of Being Geniuses Together had been sent to the publisher:

I have (in an early chapter of the book) quoted from a letter or two you wrote McAlmon. These letters were given me (carbon copies, rather) by Victoria McAlmon, you will remember, and I sent you copies of them all last winter. (…)
In the revised version of Being Geniuses, I quote from a number of critics in an effort to put Bob in proper perspective, and your words are invaluable in this connection. Bob was annihilated as a writer by Cowley, Josephson, Slater Brown, and others, and this book will, I hope, help to reinstate him both as writer and publisher in our time. I know you had a great affection for him, and I know what a great effect the words you wrote him about his work will have in the present context. (KB to KAP, August 8, 1967)

22After this letter, the correspondence between the writers apparently continued, but the documentary record in Porter’s papers contains none of  her letters between the one of February 16, 1967, and another written on September 6, 1974. Those of Boyle written in the interim express her gratitude to and admiration of Porter and report on her own projects and writing.  

Thank you again and again and without end for your generous letter. It has meant much to me. Incidentally, the judgment Bob pronounced on your work is (was) in his original Being Geniuses Together (…)
Again with my deep gratitude. (KB to KAP, July 29, 1968, KAP Papers)

For two consecutive nights now I have had a recurring dream: that you had written and published a new and tremendously beautiful book. Please do so. We need it very much. (KB to KAP, June 12, 1969, KAP Papers)

  • 18 Boyle underlined “could” in the original letter.  

I am writing in sort of foolish emotion to you. Today I came across some letters of yours to me, written almost thirty years ago! (Have we really lived so long? I cannot believe it).
In one, written in 1940, you write: “The Crazy Hunter is a marvel of a story. (…) (it) is as near perfection as any story I know. How could18you ever do better?” These words were retrieved from the depths of a packing box at the very moment that I needed them, for—singularly—Beacon Press informed me just yesterday that they have 3,000 (!!) copies of this book, which they brought out in paperback some years ago, ready to throw away. They offer them to me for the shipping price from Boston to here. Three thousand statements of some kind of failure, it would seem. I had no idea that such a number remained. How to explain these rejections of ones heart and mind? (…)
Well, this is just a rather sentimental, nostalgic letter, and I do thank you again for having thought that, and written it, in 1940. I hope all is going well in your new home, and that the book will soon be written. I say now again, as I’ve written you before, we need your voice, your words. (KB to KAP, November 11, 1969, KAP Papers)

  • 19 Boyle underlined “Of course” in the original letter.

Thank you for the beautiful  and moving Christmas Story. I shall treasure it. Your understanding of so many things is again brought tenderly to light here. (…)
Of course19the publisher (Doubleday) will send you bound proof of my novel [The Underground Woman]—the very first one off the press. But it may be some time as I’m re-writing a scene in the last chapter, as this is holding things up. How hard it is to work for any length of time after being ill!
Again, my thanks, my love, and many blessings, if such still exist in our distorted world. (KB to KAP, January 19, 1974, KAP Papers)

I am horrified to learn that Doubleday has sent you unbound gallies of my book. This is truly inexcusable. Please refuse to read them in this shape and form.
Aside from the terrible imposition on you, I have made many changes in the text—particularly at the conclusion—and I would wish you to read it in the best possible version. I am writing to Doubleday in the same mail.
Let me just add that I am very unsatisfied with the last half of the novel. It all went wrong somehow, as writing often does. So if you would just read up to the point where Athena leaves prison, I would be satisfied.
In haste, and with apologies for everything. (KB to KAP, August 28, 1974, KAP Papers)

23Beginning with Porter’s September 6th response, the existing record includes both sides of this epistolary relationship:

Kay my dear—
Please don’t be distressed—I should have answered your letter at once, but am losing very slowly in this long decline, and all the things of my life are piling up around me—I have lived in hope that tomorrow would be better, but that’s nonsense.
Your book as it is stirred my memory of jails I have known though I never passed a night in one—. (…) I’ll read again with excitement and wonder whatever you send and will wait to take notes until I have read it again—I am frightfully tired of this treadmill I am on now, but I cannot see the end.
You are a wonderful living Being! That list of your books puts me most to shame—I did what I was able—but a kind of envy that is a pleasure, too, seeing what you have been able to do with your gift.
Life and health to you my dear. (KAP to KB, September 6, 1974, KAP Papers)

24Perhaps fearing that Porter would once again become resentful, Boyle responded on September 15th:

Your letter telling me you are not well has made me feel very guilty. My heart goes out in love to you, and in concern, and I implore you not to give another thought to my novel. You were good to read it as it is, and I thank you—and as Sherwood Anderson said to Faulkner long, long ago, there is always more paper and more ink and the next try will be better.
I am enclosing a poem for you which also should not be judged. I was in Paris last June, and the grief of the place is beyond description. (…) This poem is far from its final shape. I send it as a sort of postscript to this note. (KB to KAP, September 15, 1974, KAP Papers)

25Porter replied on October 28th:

I have been hoping you would send me the revised, changed end of your novel because I think it is a beautiful book and one of the best things you have ever done. I was not able to work or do anything at all for several months, I have had a very dull sort of time with my collection of infirmities. I have got a little better now and am trying to write and am getting along fairly, but for several things I dearly wish to do, I was not able and it is now too late. So, I am trying very hard to make a deadline within the next few days and believe I should make it. I think the thing that really troubles me is that Bob McAlmon was such a dear friend of us both and I really have something to say about his life and death and I may yet, but the pity is that I couldn’t do it at this time for your book. It clears up and finishes that sad history he walked step by step through, one incident after another which lead absolutely to his tragic end. He was to me a very extraordinarily good man, I mean in the sense of a stern kind of almost puritanical honesty, a completely natural integrity; he had one hell of a chance to survive in that mob that surrounded him in Paris, I got a few glimpses of them, as you know. Let me hear from you and, if you can, send me a copy of your revised last chapters and I will read them and send them back to you at once.
I always thought I was incapable of envy, but I find myself envying your enormous energy and direction and going on with your writing the way you do when we both know what hard work it is. Bless you, my dear, don’t forget me. (KAP to KB, October 28, 1974, KAP Papers)

  • 20  Hugh D. Ford, Published in Paris: American and  British Writers, Printers, and  Publishers in Pari (...)

26Boyle responded on October 31st, “Your letter has meant much to me.” After a short discussion of Hugh Ford’s Published in Paris and John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse,20 she returned to the subject of her most recent novel.

I have asked Doubleday to send you the final, revised pages of my novel, The Underground Woman. It represents about twenty pages. I hope they can do this.  I’m still not satisfied with the last quarter, or even half of it, but too late now. I’ll do better next time. (…)
Thank you for all your good and generous words. Be well, dear Katherine Anne, and know you are always in my thoughts. (KB to KAP, October 31, 1974, KAP Papers)

27Porter’s November 4, 1974, letter to Boyle is the longest of the last two Porter letters in the file, at three pages in length. Porter begins with an account of her physical infirmities and recent illnesses before turning to literary subjects:

  • 21  Sanford J. Smoller, Adrift Among Geniuses: Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties (U (...)

Of late I have almost persuaded myself that I could work steadily with help and I have help but alas I am not dictating my articles or reviews or things I have to write but just letters here and there of trying to catch up with all these incredible details of the life we lead after we have done a certain amount of work and incurred a certain number of obligations that cannot be ignored. Of course, it is that one doesn’t wish to ignore them, otherwise it would be such a relief to throw them all off and disappear with your manuscript and sit down in some far away little inn, having left no address, and write your stories. That hope is a childish fantasy and I have given it up; but that doesn’t mean that I have arrived at the point where I am really free to work at my own work. So don’t give this another thought except I wanted you to know that I have not been careless or indifferent.
I have not seen Hugh Ford’s Published in Paris, but I have, of course, seen Memoirs of Montparnasse since it has really got the reviews and the publicity and I am interested in anything that is written and published now about that particular period in Paris because in a sort of way I took part in it at a certain time and I was surprised a little at Glassco’s jolly mood all the way through his book because I knew and saw a great deal of suffering and anxiety and deprivation and disappointment, all kinds of bitter things that can happen to anyone in life, and it seemed to me they happened with a kind of constancy and weight exceeding what I had known anywhere else. Yet, there were trivial and frivolous people (…) I am going to send for Hugh Ford’s book at once because I have already asked Mr. Smoller and the publisher of (…) [Adrift Among Geniuses: Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties21] to be sure and ask some newspaper to send it to me for a review, (…) because (…) will have the freedom to say things that I would not want to say in an introduction to the book itself. The book itself is good and should have nothing but praise but some of the characters who were near Bob and played their filthy little tricks on him—well, it may be human malice but I shall be very glad indeed to say one or two unkind words about them. Your part in the book is very touching and lovely; I wish the writer had quoted our letters, yours and mine, more explicitly instead of paraphrasing them because when I wrote so gaily to Bob that the latest rumor of him was that he had been in the clink, that was the tone we always had; and Mr. Smoller makes it sound very (…) monotonous and solemn. However, that is a tiny dot of a thing that in this I think really extremely good book and I am so glad that it is written and is going to appear and I intend to write about it whether it is published as a review or not, I can make it an article of mine about the book and what I know of its background.
Bless you, my dear Kay, for your goodness and generosity in more than words to me and to so many others. You have the genius of friendship which is the loveliest kind of genius to have even with gifts so beautiful as yours. I rejoice in the way we first knew each other and this long life of seeing each other half a dozen times and for some reason the friendship between us has never faltered or changed, it lives like a desert cactus and that is not a bad way to live at all. I wish I could see you as we could talk and spend a little time together, but we can write occasionally. (KAP to KB, November 4, 1974, KAP Papers)

28The typed portion of Porter’s letter ends with a handwritten note:

Oh, what a long winded dull letter—sorrow sorrow! I am not used to dictating, and I have for the first time in my nearly five years of crippledom good help and this is the way I use it. But it is from the heart and a straight line—I’ll be glad to see your book—Yes, of course, you’ll do better next time. Isn’t that what keeps us alive? (KAP to KB, November 4, 1974, KAP Papers)

29Boyle responded on January 26, 1975:

I had hoped against hope that you would wish (or be able to) review my book, for your judgment means much to me. But I do understand the pressures. (…)
I wonder if you would have any objection to Doubleday using in an ad about The Underground Woman those lovely words you wrote me last October, after reading proofs of the book? (…) You wrote with such generosity: “It is a beautiful book and one of the best things you have ever done.” Of course, the “you” would be changed to my name for such a purpose.
I hope all goes well with you, dear friend. I think of you with great affection.(KB to KAP, January 26, 1975, KAP Papers)

30Porter quickly replied on January 31st:

I had some vague hope that I would be able to write at least a short review of your book, but you do understand what my last three or four years have been with accidents and broken bones and half-blindness and plain fatigue of the strain of this long life, that I suppose I should call myself lazy, but I don’t feel lazy, I feel exhausted in most channels of my life. The small cache of energy that I have I am trying desperately to use only for my own work, and am not going very well even at that. Just the same, I would have been glad to do something I have never done until now by my own consent, to have written a line or two to go on the jacket; but the publishers didn’t mention that to me. I am writing a note that will go in the mail with this letter today to Doubleday writing out again what I wrote to you but edited to be suitable for an advertisement or review.
You have the most wonderful energy and direction I know of and it goes on year after year after year; lucky you. I have really loved a great deal of the things you have done; I am sure I haven’t seen all and I re-read  to this day your Plagued By the Nightingale. It is still fresh and it has the delicate smoothness and spring-like scent—your special gifts of youth. This new book has a kind of complexity it would take another person who spent years of her life picketing for any cause that seemed to need another picket, and taking on any human wrong that chose to show itself in human  form as protest—to feel in fact as we did when we were young and tender and pitied suffering no matter what the suffering was. Don’t trouble—I’m getting the letter off today to Doubleday.
I think of you in that way I believe is natural to more than half a lifetime affectionate friendship—no particular thought, just a simmering sort of perpetual consciousness of you in the same world with me, and I think that this is love. (KAP to KB, January 31, 1975, KAP Papers)

31The final three letters record the attempt by Porter and Boyle to meet at Porter’s College Park, Maryland, apartment that was foiled by Boyle’s own health emergency. Boyle wrote on May 18, 1976, that she was going to be involved in the American University Writer’s Conference in Washington, DC,  the last week in June, and asked if it would be convenient for her to visit Porter during that time. Porter’s June 1st response expressed enthusiasm for the visit:

Let’s not miss seeing each other.  You could come for an afternoon.  I have no household help and I spend a great part of my time not getting any better, but a little worse every day. I can’t promise anything except delight in seeing you and a good catching up on the gossip of our time and place. (…) Please let me hear from you. (KAP to KB, June 1, 1976, KAP Papers)

32The final letter, Boyle’s of July 1, explains why the plan to meet failed, and ends the correspondence on a hopeful note:

Alas, no chance of telephoning you during my stint at the American [University] last week. I fell quite ill, and an incredibly sensational Washington doctor diagnosed my excruciating pain as “probably cancer of the intestines.” The good people at the university rushed me home, and while the various and unpleasant tests are not yet finished, it seems to have been in all probability a kidney stone.
Sorry for all these details, but I wanted to let you know the details (in part) of the drama which kept me from reaching you. (…)
I hope all is well with you, and I send you my love. Next time— (KB to KAP, July 1, 1976, KAP Papers)

33Of course, there was no next time, and, apparently, the correspondence ended with this note. It is a record of a literary friendship that persisted for forty-five years, despite the distances that separated them and the intervening years.

Haut de page


BOYLE, Kay. The Crazy Hunter: Three Short Novels. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940.

BOYLE, Kay. Primer for Combat. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942.

BOYLE, Kay. The Underground Woman. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975.

BOYLE, Kay. The Youngest Camel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1939.

FORD, Hugh D. Published in Paris: American and British Writers, Printers, and Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

GLASSCO, John. Memoirs of Montparnasse. Toronto, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

McALMON, Robert. Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930. Revised and with supplementary chapters by Kay Boyle. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968.

PORTER, Katherine Anne. “The Art of Katherine Mansfield.” Nation 145 (October 23, 1937): 435-36.

PORTER, Katherine Anne. “The Cracked Looking-Glass.” Scribner’s Magazine 91 (May 1932): 271-76, 313-20.

PORTER, Katherine Anne. “Example to the Young.” New Republic 66 (April 22, 1931): 279-80.

PORTER, Katherine Anne. “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” transition 15 (February 1929): 139-46.

PORTER, Katherine Anne. “Magic.” transition 13 (Summer 1928): 229-31.

PORTER, Katherine Anne. Papers, Katherine Anne Porter, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

SMOLLER, Sanford J. Adrift Among Geniuses: Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties.University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974.

Haut de page


1  The books include a copy of Boyle’s 1939 children’s book, The Youngest Camel and  two copies of The Crazy Hunter: Three Short Novels, which Boyle “dedicated in homage to Katherine Anne Porter.” Porter noted in the first of these copies: “K. A. P. Received this first book ever dedicated to her February 13, 1940 in Baton Rouge Louisiana.” The March 1970 inscription in the second copy reads With renewed homage to Katherine Anne—and my love Kay San Francisco.” Porter did not annotate or mark these copies, but her copy of Boyle’s Primer for Combat (1942) does contain lineation and a few comments. But Porter marked both copies of Boyle’s 1968 edition of Robert McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930. There are extensive markings in the copy Boyle inscribed “July 1968 With love—memories and gratitude—to Katherine Anne—Kay San Francisco,” and Porter marked “received Tuesday 25 June 1968.” Interestingly, in the indexes of both copies of this work, Porter put checks by the names of many individuals, most of whom she had known. Porter acquired two copies of Boyle’s The Underground Woman; in the copy received “with compliments of Ken McCormick,” she notes “received Christmas Eve 1974.” Porter's copies of these works by Boyle are housed in Porter's personal library at Hornbake Library, University of Maryland Libraries.

2  The bound galleys contain a few comments and Porter's corrections of typographical errors. See Other Works—(Kay Boyle, The Underground Woman)—Bound galleys), 1975, Series 9, Box 4, Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

3  See Boyle, Kay, 1931-1976, Series 1, Box 23, Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

4  Kay Boyle, “Analysis of Katherine Anne Porter's ‘The Leaning Tower,’” [1957], Series 9, Box 1, Katherine Anne Porter Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

5  Quotations from the correspondence and notes of Katherine Anne Porter published by permission of the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust; those from Kay Boyle's correspondence and inscriptions by permission of Ian von Franckenstein.

6  Porter's “Example to the Young,” reviewed Wedding Day and Other Stories and Plagued by the Nightingale. “Example to the Young,” New Republic 66 (April 22, 1931): 279-80.

7  “Magic,” transition 13 (Summer 1928): 229-31; “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” transition 15 (February 1929): 139-46.

8  “The Cracked Looking-Glass,” Scribner's Magazine 91 (May 1932): 271-76, 313-20.

9   “The Art of Katherine Mansfield,” Nation 145 (October 23, 1937): 435-36.

10  Porter underlined “feelings” in the original letter.

11 The Crazy Hunter is underlined in the original letter. Hereinafter all titles underlined in the correspondence of Boyle and Porter are regularized to italics.

12  Porter underlined “could” in the original letter.

13  Porter underlined “always” in the original letter.

14  Porter underlined “try” in the original letter.

15  Boyle underlined "your" in the original letter

16  Boyle underlined “before” in the original letter.

17  Porter underlined “have” in the original letter.

18 Boyle underlined “could” in the original letter.  

19 Boyle underlined “Of course” in the original letter.

20  Hugh D. Ford, Published in Paris: American and  British Writers, Printers, and  Publishers in Paris, 1920-1939 ( New York: Macmillan, 1975); John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse (Toronto, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

21  Sanford J. Smoller, Adrift Among Geniuses: Robert McAlmon, Writer and Publisher of the Twenties (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Beth ALVAREZ, « “A Desert Cactus”: The Literary Friendship of Katherine Anne Porter and Kay Boyle », E-rea [En ligne], 10.2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.3114

Haut de page



Curator of Literary Manuscripts Emerita, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries
For nearly twenty years, Beth (Ruth M.) Alvarez served as Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD. Among the collections for which she had curatorial responsibility during her tenure are the papers of Katherine Anne Porter and those of Djuna Barnes. Her published work includes Katherine Anne Porter, Un país familiar: Escritos sobre México [“My Familiar Country”: Katherine Anne Porter on Mexico], 1998 (compiled and wrote introduction and notes), Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter, 1993 (edited with Thomas F. Walsh), and Katherine Anne Porter: An Annotated Bibliography, 1990 (with Kathryn Hilt). She has also published book reviews and critical articles on Porter that have appeared in scholarly journals and collections of essays.

Haut de page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals