Born on February 19, 1902, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Kay Boyle has been known for her work and achievements as a poet, short story writer, novelist, journalist, teacher, and political activist. One of the most prominent American expatriates during the 1920s and 1930s, much of Kay Boyle’s work reflects the influences of that literary circle.
Kay Boyle’s first contribution to a national publication was a letter to the editor, published in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1921. By 1922, with the support and encouragement of her mother, Boyle moved to New York City and began working for the fashion writer Margery Welles. Later that year she began working for Lola Ridge, the American editor of Broom, an art and literary magazine published by Harold Loeb in Rome and later in Berlin. While working in New York, Boyle had contact with many literary persons and developed her writing. In January of 1923, her poem, “Morning,” was published in Broom.
In 1922, Kay Boyle married a French exchange student, Richard Brault. A 1923 visit to meet Brault’s family in Brittany, France, turned what was to have been a brief visit into a twenty-year stay in Europe. During her years in France, Boyle was associated with several innovative literary magazines and became acquainted with many of the literary figures writing for them. Her writing appeared in issues of This Quarter, edited by Ernest Walsh, and transition, edited by Eugene Jolas. Through these editors and others she associated with such writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Robert McAlmon, Emanuel Carnevali, and Harry and Caresse Crosby. It was the Crosby’s Black Sun Press that published Kay Boyle’s first book of fiction, Short Stories, in 1929. Crosby also published her translation of the first chapter of Rene Crevel’s Babylone as Mr. Knife and Miss Fork in 1931.
In respect for her friendship with Emanuel Carnevali, Kay Boyle made a commitment to see to the posthumous publication of his autobiography. Her promise was realized in 1967, when The Autobiography of Emanuel Carnevali was published. She compiled it from bits and pieces of writing Carnevali had sent through the ten years of their friendship.
Robert McAlmon was Boyle’s lifelong friend. Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930, McAlmon’s memoirs, was revised by Kay Boyle in 1968, with several supplementary chapters that chronicle her own experiences during the 1920s and 1930s.
By the summer of 1928, Kay Boyle had met Laurence Vail, who was then Peggy Guggenheim’s husband. They were married in 1932. In addition to three children of their own, Boyle also cared for Vail’s two children from his marriage with Peggy Guggenheim, and her own daughter by Ernest Walsh, Sharon. Many of Boyle’s experiences during the 1920s found expression in her novels, Plagued by the Nightingale (1931), Year Before Last (1932), Gentlemen, I Address You Privately (1933), and My Next Bride (1934).
In 1934, Boyle compiled an anthology which was to have been titled “Short Stories 1934.” The original idea for the anthology was to gather 365 single-page stories to represent the year 1934 in fictional accounts. The anthology was eventually published in 1936 as 365 Days and included 97 stories by Boyle. Other contributors to the anthology included Nancy Cunard, Charles Henri Ford, Langston Hughes, James Laughlin, Robert McAlmon, Henry Miller, William Saroyan (who originally submitted 365 stories), Parker Tyler, and Emanuel Carnevali.
The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories, also published in 1936, was a significant collection of Boyle’s short stories. The title story won the O. Henry Short Story Award for 1935. She continued to write short stories throughout her life, including a late collection, Life Being the Best and Other Stories (1988).
In her later years, Kay Boyle was recognized for her political activism. Fostered by her mother in the belief that privilege demanded social responsibility, she championed integration, civil rights, the ban of nuclear weapons, and America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.
Kay Boyle died December 27, 1992, at the Redwoods, a retirement community in Mill Valley, California.
Maritine, James J. (ed.) American Novelists, 1910-1945. Part I. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981. Pages 83-92.
Quartermain, Peter (ed.) American Poets, 1880-1945. Second Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1986. Pages 45-51.
Rood, Karen Lane (ed.) American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 4. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980. Pages 46-56.
The Kay Boyle Papers, spanning the dates 1930–1991 (bulk dates 1960–1986), comprise over six linear feet of correspondence, manuscript drafts written by Boyle, research notes and articles collected by Boyle, and various ephemera.
The correspondence section includes letters from family and professional colleagues, with a significant collection of eleven letters from British writer, James Stern. Additionally, Series I includes letters from such literary notables as Maya Angelou, Ishmael Reed, and Virgil Thomson.
Series II, which consists of manuscript material written by Kay Boyle, includes articles, a play, book reviews, a novel, poems, and drafts toward several works of nonfiction. Research material and drafts of her unpublished histories, "The Noblest Witnesses: A Modern History of Germany" and "A History of German Women," comprise over four boxes of these papers. Boyle's one act play, "The Double Cage", based on the life and letters of Rosa Luxenburg, is also unpublished and the only play known to be written by Boyle. Drafts of Boyle's translation of Rene Crevel's Babylon and Boyle's letters to Robert McAlmon, which were included in her revision of his Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930 are also included in this collection
Series II also includes drafts of articles, poems, book reviews, speeches, and pages of the underground novel, The Underground Woman, all written by Boyle. Although the majority of Boyle's articles concern topics related to Germany, there are essays in this section on the American male, American writers, and writing and language. Boyle's book reviews are almost exclusively related to books written by German authors. The section of lectures and speeches includes an eulogy for San Francisco mayor George Moscone, a speech delivered at a protest against the Vietnam war, and an address written for a 1991 meeting of Amnesty International.
Drafts of three poems composed by Kay Boyle are found in Series II, including two titled "Sanci" and "Mothers." Several other poems, or fragments of Boyle's poems, are also available on the verso of notes found in the research file in Series VI.
Series III consists of two pieces about Boyle: an introduction to Sandra Spanier's biography, Kay Boyle, and Helga Einsele's "A Friendship Across Two Continents." Series IV comprises miscellaneous items related to Boyle, including her 1976 passport, an appointment book (which includes thoughts about William Carlos Williams and Rene Crevel, as well as chapter outlines for The Underground Woman), a contract for the publication of Fifty Stories, an autograph notebook, and a copy of her lawsuit against The Paget Press. Series V includes a variety of journals, magazines, clippings, and tear sheets collected by Boyle. The material supports her research on Germany or pertains to social issues with which Boyle was concerned, such as the Vietnam War and labor issues.
Series VI contains Boyle's file of research material arranged by subject. It includes her autograph notes and collection of articles toward her history of Germany. Because Boyle recycled paper by using the back, the notes in this file are occasionally written on the verso of poems or correspondence. These poems or letters are noted in the folder descriptions.