American Literature Kay Boyle
Thomas Austenfeld, Anne Reynès-Delobel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0099


Kay Boyle (b. 1902–d. 1992) produced more than forty volumes, including novels, short stories, poems, essays, an autobiography, translations, and children’s books. A modernist who helped revolutionize literary style, she was also a politically engaged writer with a keen eye for social injustice and political oppression who wrote with lyric intensity. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and raised in Cincinnati, she was initiated into the world of art, literature, and politics by her mother, Katherine Evans Boyle. In the early 1920s, Boyle worked on Broom with Lola Ridge in New York and met William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. After marrying a French exchange student, Richard Brault, she left for France, where she completed her first novel, Process (2001). The first decade of her life in France directly inspired her first four novels, volumes of short stories, and poems. In 1926, Boyle worked and lived with Ernest Walsh, This Quarter’s editor and the father of her first child. After Walsh’s premature death, she actively contributed to Eugene Jolas’s transition. These years were later recalled in Being Geniuses Together (1968), the autobiography Boyle produced by revising Robert McAlmon’s memoirs and interspersing chapters of her own. Divorced from Brault and married to Laurence Vail, Boyle spent the early 1930s in the South of France, the French and Austrian Alps, and in England. Death of a Man (1936), a fictional analysis of Fascism’s dangerous attraction, was her first overtly political novel. Her short stories of the 1930s propelled her to national visibility in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Saturday Evening Post. The fiction and short fiction she produced at the end of the 1930s is generally considered to be her finest. Yet her emotional investment into wartime France also produced such “potboilers” as Primer for Combat (1942) and Avalanche (1944). Boyle returned to the United States in 1941, divorced Vail, and married the Austrian expatriate Baron Joseph von Franckenstein. In 1946–1953, working in France and occupied Germany as a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker, she assembled The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany (1951) and later published Generation without Farewell (1960). Boyle and Franckenstein suffered setbacks during the McCarthy era, when they were subjected to Loyalty-Security hearings. After Franckenstein’s death in 1963, Boyle settled in San Francisco as a university teacher and activist. These experiences provided material for her essays in The Long Walk at San Francisco State (1970b), her poems in Testament for My Students (1970), and her novel The Underground Woman (1975). Through eight decades, Boyle embodied many of the contradictions of the 20th century but also helped write its literary history.

General Overviews

Boyle scholarship has produced various substantial biographical overviews and valuable thematic analyses, yet there is ample room for further comprehensive critical studies. Koch 1980 is a useful starting point for further investigation. Clark 1991 ably identifies Boyle’s position as a woman and a writer within the changing and fluid discourse of modernism. Spanier 1986, the first book-length critical study and first biography of Boyle, provides knowledgeable coverage of Boyle’s literary and political commitments for beginner and specialist alike. Reliable and amply documented, Spanier’s book remains the major reference for scholars. Mellen 1994 provides a useful bibliography of Boyle’s periodical publications. An introductory guide to Boyle’s novels is Jackson 1981, while a comprehensive study aimed at specialists is provided in Elkins 1993. Weik 2008 surveys the early novels’ cosmopolitan ambitions. Another significant study highlighting Boyle’s accomplishments in short fiction is Bell 1992.

  • Bell, Elizabeth S. Kay Boyle: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.

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    Offers far more than the title suggests. Six individual chapters assess the phases of Boyle’s short story production through her major volumes from Wedding Day to Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart. Second section offers interviews with Elizabeth Bell, Leo Litwak, and Irv Broughton and some unpublished notes by Boyle. A third section reprints critical excerpts also available elsewhere.

  • Clark, Suzanne. “Revolution, the Woman, and the Word: Kay Boyle.” In Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word. By Suzanne Clark, 127–152. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

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    Description of Boyle’s lyrical prose is both subtle and engaging. Without falling prey to a simple reversal of gender roles within a modernism that seeks to leave sentimentality behind, Boyle conveys female energy through a refusal to give in to binaries. She instead “softly moves to put the contradictions into motion” (p. 129).

  • Elkins, Marilyn. Metamorphosizing the Novel: Kay Boyle’s Narrative Innovations. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

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    Analyzes Boyle’s contribution to American novels by establishing her place within modernism, assessing female autonomy and gender roles, and outlining Boyle’s creative response to male models of novel writing. Elkins’s chapter “Adapting the Male Model” (on Monday Night, His Human Majesty, and Generation without Farewell, her versions of the “heroic quest formula”) is particularly relevant for her argument.

  • Jackson, Byron K. “Kay Boyle.” In American Novelists, 1910–1945: Part 1: Louis Adamic-Vardis Fisher. Edited by James J. Martine and Orville Prescott, 83–92. Dictionary of Literary Biography 9 (1). Detroit: Gale, 1981.

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    (Author misidentified as Brian K. Jackson in MLA.) From a perspective of 1981, offers useful summaries and judicious assessments of all of Boyle’s novels known at the time, locates Boyle’s core motivation for writing in her self-professed “guilt for every act of oppression that has been committed in our time” (p. 85), and calls for a “definitive book assessing her achievement” (p. 90), a call that would be answered by Spanier 1986.

  • Koch, David V. “Kay Boyle.” In American Writers in Paris, 1920–1939. Edited by Karen L. Rood and Malcolm Cowley, 46–56. Dictionary of Literary Biography 4. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1980.

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    A 1980 bio-bibliographical essay written by the director of Special Collections at Southern Illinois University, which houses the majority of Boyle’s papers. Koch summarizes the major novels and provides contexts for other works. The essay also features a picture and a reproduction of a typescript of “A Comeallye for Robert Carlton Brown.”

  • Mellen, Joan. Kay Boyle: Author of Herself. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

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    Largest publication ever to appear on Boyle to date (670 pages including index), this book has at times been received reluctantly by the academic community. Mellen’s unearthing of facts is unparalleled; however, the conflation of fiction and biography can sometimes be misleading and warrants an alert and critical audience. Contains detailed and helpful bibliography of first publications of Boyle’s works.

  • Spanier, Sandra W. Kay Boyle: Artist and Activist. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

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    A landmark achievement in Boyle scholarship. Spanier sets the pattern that scholars would follow for the next quarter-century. The first biography of Boyle, authorized by its subject. Boyle’s life and, in particular, her political commitments, are set in relation to her work. A detailed bibliography is provided.

  • Weik, Alexa. “The Wandering Woman: The Challenges of Cosmopolitanism in Kay Boyle’s Early Novels.” In Kay Boyle for the Twenty-First Century: New Essays. Edited by Thomas Austenfeld, 151–168. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2008.

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    Boyle’s early fiction, written during her expatriation in the 1920s and 1930s, is a case in point for Martha Nussbaum’s assertion that powerful literature is “always cosmopolitan.” Presenting heroines who are drifting, wandering, and utterly displaced, Boyle asks her reader to understand and indeed to feel what emotional price the cosmopolitan woman pays for her abandonment of family and nation.

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