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Kay Boyle: A Writer's Duty to Speak for the Disfranchised

October 12, 1986|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

Boyle's husband died of lung cancer in 1963 in San Francisco. Soon she began teaching at San Francisco State. She backed the black students' protest there in the days of S.I. Hayakawa's university presidency, and wrote about it in "Long Walk at San Francisco State."

Boyle taught--what else?--writing. Not that she approves of creative writing courses: "Every time I teach one, I say, 'Geez, never take another one.' " Some of her students at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she taught this spring, had taken eight creative writing courses and planned to take more, she said, shaking her head in horror. "It's ridiculous. Go out and live. Do anything. I flunked kindergarten. Actually, I never went to school at all. If I had, I probably wouldn't have written all the books that I wrote because I didn't know that other people had written so much."

Live. And stand up for what you believe, Boyle said. She and poet Denise Levertov spoke against the war in Vietnam on the Boston Common during her year at the Radcliffe Institute in 1964. People threw bottles, eggs, "everything you can imagine," at them because opposition to the war was limited then. Later Boyle, singer Joan Baez and Baez's mother served jail time for sitting in at the Oakland induction center.

"What did we gain? We--when I say we I mean the younger generation and the stand which older people took--I think we stopped the war in Vietnam. And I just wish that the students of today would take action about the Nicaraguan situation before Reagan dares to stage an invasion, which he apparently is planning to do, I would say, against the will of the American people."

Age does not slake the spirit. This spring at Bowling Green, Boyle was told indirectly that "politics should not be discussed in the classroom, so therefore I discussed politics always in the classroom."

When American planes bombed Libya this spring, 25 people marched in protest on the quiet Bowling Green campus, Boyle of course among them. "I think older people taking part is very important . . . . We marched all around, and as we passed the fraternity houses, the young men came out and yelled, 'Bomb Libya! Bomb Libya!' One young man was heckling young people who were walking ahead. He was roaring at them. When he caught up with where I was walking with some of my students, he said, 'Oh, my goodness, I didn't know you were in this.'

"White hair gave another meaning to it; there weren't just kids. I think there's a responsibility for us to do that."

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