Afew years ago, Kay Boyle showed me a caricature she had made of herself at the request of a journalist. What I saw was a long, slender female body gliding through the air, one elongated arm aimed straight ahead, the other straight behind, and resting in the palm of each hand, I saw what were unmistakably outsized bombs, their wicks short and smoldering, ready for dropping. Above this aeroballistic figure hovered a halo. The caption (by the author qua artist) read: "Since receiving several volumes of censored data through the Freedom of Information Act, I see myself as a dangerous 'radical' (they themselves put it in quotes) cleverly disguised as a perfect lady. So I herewith blow my cover."
Boyle's self-caricature represents both what she has always been and what she intends to go on being. She cannot remember a time, after age 6, when she was not for or against something, when she was not committed. Nor can she remember when she was not a writer. In her teens, she composed poems with titles like "Arise, Ye Women," collected money for the defense of the jailed socialist Eugene Debs, and helped her mother feed and shelter the children of conscientious objectors who stopped in Cincinnati, her home from 1916 to 1922, on their long march to Washington to protest their fathers' incarceration. From stalwart ancestors, including a general in George Washington's army and an aunt who drew cartoons for the National Women's Party, Boyle traces her pioneering spirit and penchant for free inquiry. From her mother, she inherited a devotion to literature and a dedication to social issues. "Because of my mother, who gave me definitions (she wrote in "Being Geniuses Together," 1968), I knew what I was committed to in life; because of my father and grandfather, who offered statements instead of revelations, I knew what I was against."
As a young American in France in the '20s (she was 21 when she settled in Brittany with her French husband in 1923), Boyle made writing her full-time commitment. Hers was a long, lonely apprenticeship, exacerbated by false starts and abandoned projects and wrenching personal crises. Occasionally, a little magazine in Paris, usually This Quarter or Transition, accepted one of her poems, or a story, or a review. In 1926, she met Ernest Walsh, an American poet dying of tuberculosis, lived with him until his death in October of that year, and five months later bore his child. After a brief reconciliation with her husband, she moved to Paris, supported herself as a ghost writer and saleswoman, consorted with expatriates, and, in 1929, joined Laurence Vail, a third-generation Paris-American artist and writer. Vail would become her second husband and father of three of her six children.
What Boyle had seen and done in the '20s became the substance of the stories and novels she wrote in the '30s. Personal experiences and public events have always
informed her work. Her first novel, "Plagued by the Nightingale" (1931), examines a marriage threatened by warring priorities and radical beliefs strained by economic necessity. "Year Before Last" (1932) probes the desperate, tragically short, yet joyous and deep union that linked Boyle and Ernest Walsh. The third, "Gentlemen, I Address You Privately" (1933), explores the psyche of the French (they suffer from a reverence for the substantial as opposed to the visionary and mystical) and the seething subterranean world of vagabonds. The last, "My Next Bride" (1934), prophetically connected to "Underground Woman" (1975), her most recent novel, describes the deplorable conditions in a commune, near Paris, where the author and her daughter lived in 1928, and exposes its director (based on Raymond Duncan) as a charlatan and slick advertiser. A contrasting figure in the same novel is modeled on the eccentric poet and publisher of Black Sun books, Harry Crosby, who in 1929, having called Boyle "the greatest woman writer since Jane Austen," published her first book, a collection of stories. "Year Before Last" and "My Next Bride" have just been re-issued by Penguin in the Virago Modern Classics series.