SURELY NO greater reward is offered to a writer than the knowledge that other men are reading the words that he has, by some miracle, retrieved from the depths of his own silence; the knowledge that other men are actually listening for the sound of his voice to call out from the page to them, and, above all, the knowledge that they believe the words they hear." -- Kay Boyle
Few Americans have written so beautifully of the human condition with love and courage as Kay Boyle. This collection of 25 essays, reviews and memoirs spanning over 50 years wonderfully catches her career as a writer and social activist.
Boyle has written more than 30 volumes: the memoir Being Geniuses Together (1968) with Robert McAlmon, perhaps our best portrait of Paris in the '20s; superb short stories that have earned her critical praise and honors (Katherine Anne Porter wrote that Boyle's "The Crazy Hunter" was the story "closest to perfection" that she had ever read); novels ranging from Plagued by the Nightingale (1931) to The Underground Woman (1975), and her own favorite form of artistic expression -- the poetry of Glad Day (1938) and Collected Poems (1962). From her teens until now she has never stopped writing.
Now, happily, we have her essays gathered across a lifetime from magazines like Transition, The New Republic and The Nation that show where Boyle has lived and what she has loved in her life. She knew many of the world's important writers, a familiarity that produces evocative prose. She is exceptionally good on down-and-outers and misfits like E. Carnevali, dying bravely of life and sleeping sickness, killing the promise of a new literature that William Carlos Williams saw in him; Katherine Mansfield, unable to connect with the life outside; and Edward Dahlberg, author of the minor classic Because I Was Flesh, for whom a book is "a battle of the soul and not a war of words."
In her praise for William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain (1927) for refusing to romanticize the American experience, Boyle evinces an abiding love for the vitality and grandeur of America -- but a deeper love for truth. As a child she was lucky to have a mother "exactly my age" who offset a domineering grandfather's statements with revelations, one who championed literary causes ranging from Joyce's then controversial Ulysses to Boyle's early writing. A mother who taught that the thing in life that matters is the relationship of one human being to another.
These ideas formed her, giving a moral slant that was to rule her life and permeateher writing without compromising her artistic integrity. (David Daiches aptly puts it, "Her writing is compassionate without being sentimental, moral without being didactic, contemporary without being ephemeral.") A slant that led her to denounce fascism whether Nazi or McCarthyite, to be active in the Civil Rights movement, to protest America's involvement in Vietnam and to promote Amnesty International.
THESE SELECTIONS show a heart and head at work. Here is the preface to The Smoking Mountain, in which she writes of H. Baab, that small-time Eichmann, who is indicted in 1950 for indirect involvement in 56 murders. A brute who thought he'd beat the rap because of German resistance to the Allied denazification campaign after World War II, Baab is found guilty when his victims and their relatives and friends doom him in a Frankfurt courtroom. In other selections, she writes of trying to block cops from entering the San Francisco State campus during the 1968 disorders, telling them, "This campus belongs to the faculty and students, not to the police"; of spending 21 days in prison for sitting down in a doorway of the Oakland Induction Center; and of joining the American Indian encampment on Alcatraz in 1970. And she speaks out against the shah's imprisonment of 4,000 Iranian women ("Sisters of the Princess") and surveys San Francisco morticians as they pretty up American corpses from Vietnam for the folks back home. (One tells her, "We feel we owe it to the boy's family that he goes home looking just as good as he did when he went away -- and sometimes even better.")
In "The Triumph of Principles," she gives us words to take away with us, words as contemporary as the weather report -- and a good deal more important. Here, in dealing with the duty of the writer to speak out on current problems, she quotes George Kennan on ridding ourselves of nukes, Stuart Chase ("It is no longer a question of defending one's home by defending one's nation. Now it is only by defending all mankind that one can save his country"), and Chester Bowles ("the Bill of Rights might not be voted today because too few of us understand the need to protect the freedom of those with whom we disagree").
An old Irish prayer goes, "God says take what you want -- but pay for what you take." Kay Boyle chose her portion of life fully aware of the cost. None of it, she'd say, was courageous -- it was simply the thing one had to do at the time. Had she truckled to the establishment and not made waves, her literary reputation doubtless would have been enhanced. But this endearing writer will always be too busy to care about that.