Anne Boyd Rioux on “The White Horses of Vienna”


By Ann Boyd Rioux

A Lost Story of the Rise of Fascism:

Kay Boyle’s “The White Horses of Vienna”

Last week in my “Forgotten Books” class we read some stories from Kay Boyle’s The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories. The title story dominated our discussion. (See the end for where to find “The White Horses of Vienna.”) It was published in Harper’s magazine in 1935 and won the O. Henry Award for best story that year. Today it’s a rather surprising story, as it’s about a doctor living in the Austrian Alps who breaks his legs going up into the mountains to help light swastikas on fire. He is a member of the Nazi Party, which was outlawed in Austria, so his acts are a threat to the local population, not unlike the KKK’s burning of crosses. Since he can no longer go on his rounds to his patients, he sends to Vienna for a replacement doctor, who turns out to be a Jew. The doctor’s wife has a hard time accepting him, but the doctor himself treats him fairly. In the end, after the chancellor’s assassination by a Nazi, the doctor is hauled off to prison and the visiting Jewish doctor promises to throw peaches and chocolate up to his prison window.

Many of my students were confused by the story’s seemingly positive portrayal of the Nazi doctor. This is how I felt when I first read the story. I felt disoriented and confused and realized that I had to seek out more information to understand exactly what was going on “in real life” at that time. It became clear that we couldn’t really understand this story without its historical context, namely that Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, Austria was ruled by a Mussolini-leaning dictator (Dolfuss), and the Austrian Nazi Party (which was very strong in the Tyrol region, where the story is set) was outlawed but growing in numbers and trying to overthrow the government and join with Germany. 

This raises an interesting question that another student posed in her discussion starter: should literature be accessible to us without knowing much outside the story? She had been taught that we should be able to interpret a work of literature without a lot of historical or biographical context. This is certainly the traditional approach to literature. As a student, I had always been dissatisfied with such an ahistorical approach because any text that piqued my interest inevitably made me want to know more about the author and the time it was written in. It’s no wonder, then, that my scholarly focus has been on literary history and biography, seemingly old-fashioned approaches to literature. Yet, scholars are again recognizing the importance of historical context. In the case of “The White Horses of Vienna” and, to some extent, “Count Lothar’s Heart” (another story in the collection that we read) you absolutely must have that context, or the stories remain closed books. I have rarely read works so grounded in a precise time and place (whereas setting seems completely irrelevant in “The Astronomer’s Wife,” the third story from the collection that we read). Boyle seems to drop us in media res, or in the middle of things, with little explanation or background, or not enough to orient us completely. This can create a disoriented feeling in the reader but also, if we’re lucky, intense curiosity. Reading Boyle’s stories feels to me like time travel, as if I’m suddenly right there among real people at a specific time and in a specific place. The setting can be so specific, as in “White Horses,” that you feel like the events of the story actually happened. (She wrote many stories about wartime France and post-war Germany that have the same quality.)

       The context required to understand many of Boyle’s stories can also be a reason why they aren’t widely read today, because, frankly, that historical knowledge is being lost. “The Astronomer’s Wife” is an exception, and it is included in some fiction anthologies. Not surprisingly, it requires very little context to interpret. “White Horses,” has also been anthologized but somewhat less successfully. During the period of canon expansion (which has more or less come to an end), it was added to the Norton Anthology of American Literature. However, it didn’t stay in for long. When editors create new editions (every few years), they survey teachers to see which pieces they are assigning to their students. If a text isn’t being taught much, they will remove it from the new edition. This is what happened to “White Horses.” Consider how much work is required to explain to students what is happening in the story. How many teachers want to take the time (or have the time) to educate themselves about Austrian politics in the 1930s? Some might have also questioned how “American” a story like this is. It was written by an American, but it is not set in America, and none of the characters are American. I can imagine teachers having a hard time figuring out not only how to teach the story but where it belongs on a syllabus. What works would you pair it with? What other American literature is it in conversation with? Boyle was, admittedly, writing about things that few others were considering. Yet, “White Horses” was published in America (in Harper’s magazine) and thus was written for and read by an American audience (and it was considered so powerful as to be chosen as the best story of the year). It is interesting to consider that context as well—not only the context in which the story is set or was written, but also that in which it was read. At the time, American readers did not yet know a whole lot about the Nazis in Germany, Hitler having been in power for less than two years, nor did they take him very seriously. In fact, they thought he was rather a joke.

What intrigues me about the particular time and place that Boyle documents in “White Horses” is that it was near the beginning of the hazardous road that would lead to the Holocaust. We know what happened in the end, but do we know what led to it? The story is a reflection of Boyle trying to figure what this new political movement means, and the conclusions she comes to in the story suggest a lot about the roots of genocide. First some biographical context: Boyle was living in a small alpine village, Kitzbühel, in the Tirol region in western Austria, which was a hotbed of Nazi activity. Here she explains the situation:

[From the 1988 Afterword to Death of Man, originally published in 1936, about similar themes.]

(The Duke of Windsor was then Prince Albert, who would become King Edward VIII of England, and abdicate to marry the American Wallace Simpson, who became the Duchess of Windsor. They were notorious Nazi sympathizers. It was an era when many famous people in America and England flirted with the Nazis.)

As Boyle explains, she had hired a governess to take care of the children, and they got along very well, and then Boyle learned she was helping to light the swastika fires and was a Nazi. How could she make sense of that? The young woman had been kind and good with the children. Boyle also knew a doctor in Innsbruck whom she respected very much and who also was a Nazi. I think what she does in this story is give us two kinds of Nazi sympathizers, one rather noble and able to look beyond prejudice (the doctor) and one who is more small-minded and very much hampered by her prejudices (the wife). Yet both are leading Austria down a dangerous path. The defining characteristic, in Boyle’s eyes, the thing that marks them as either good or evil, so to speak, is their attitude toward Jews and those who are outsiders. Even after the Holocaust, people wondered if a good Nazi was possible. In 1935, however, most people weren’t yet asking that question.

One of my online students dug into how Boyle portrays prejudice against Jews (referring to how the wife helps save Dr. Heine from the fire but then pulls back again): “Boyle writes on page 16, ‘And then she bit her lip suddenly and stood back, as if she had remembered the evil thing that stood between them.’ I thought this was interesting not only because she has to remind herself of her prejudices after reacting like a normal human being, but I think that Boyle’s word choice here is interesting: the ‘evil thing that stood between them.’ To the wife, the ‘evil thing’ is the fact that Doctor Heine is Jewish–to us, the evil thing is her prejudice and Nazi ideas.” And another student considered the doctor more fully during our online discussion: “I realized that I find the doctor to be a lot more scary than when I initially read the story. Here is a compassionate, loving man who literally cares for the people in his community. He is in a position of power, and he is a Nazi. That’s terrifying. People like that have much more influence than people such as the wife.” However much Boyle may be portraying the doctor positively, he certainly poses the greater threat because he knows better but is unwilling to challenge the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.

Another student was also very perceptive about the doctor’s attitude toward the visiting doctor, Dr. Heine: “[Boyle’s] trying to get us to see the normal, caring and concerning sort who saw these sorts of beliefs as necessary for a people. If he is welcoming and perhaps supportive of Dr. Heine, then he’s one who got into Hitler for the pro-German, pro-working class rhetoric and not for the anti-Semitism or belligerence. It feels a lot like people now who say they voted for the tax cuts and not the white supremacy or the concentration camps.” This is so well-put, and also rather chilling. I think the particular context Boyle was writing about is more important than ever for us to understand now, because it is easy to see parallels between her story to the rhetoric we hear now and the deep divisions we face as a country.

What is truly remarkable about “White Horses” is the way that Boyle predicts the devastating consequences of Nazism for Jews, at a time when very few people could see the Nazis as truly dangerous. (People began to wake up after Kristalnacht, in 1938.) As Dr. Heine watches the fires on the mountain, he feels nothing but foreboding: “He felt himself sitting defenseless by the window, surrounded by these long-burning fires of faith. They were all about him, inexplicable signals given from one mountain to another in some secret gathering of power that cast him and his people out, for ever out upon the water of despair” (20). By presenting his point of view in the story, she absolutely shows us where this all can lead.

“White Horses” made one student reflect more generally on the Holocaust and slavery: “Those types of things are mind boggling to me, almost to the point that they don’t seem real. But this line [‘’But don’t you see, don’t you see what he is?’ asked his wife’s wild whisper.’] suggests that reality, and I guess that is an important part of literature. It shows the reality of life.” Yes, Boyle brings to light how such atrocities begin. As another student pointed out, by simply saying “It’s just politics,” Dr. Heine excuses the Nazis and thus also helps to normalize them. His denial is naïve and also contributes to the problem. They have made a connection in a very turbulent time when they are being asked to be enemies, but it is uncertain whether their bond will last.

            Perhaps more important than the question of whether or not the Nazis are portrayed sympathetically is the question of whether the Jewish character, Dr. Heine, is. America was a highly anti-Semitic country in the 1930s. (Here is an overview of American anti-Semitism in the 1930s from Wikipedia: At key points in the story, such as that already quoted, we see Dr. Heine’s point of view and realize that he is the one most in need of our empathy. Although the doctor is carted off to prison in the end, I don’t think we are supposed to feel very sorry for him. He has brought this on himself, by climbing the mountains to light the fires and by belonging to an outlawed party. As he tells Dr. Heine, “I used to play cards . . . But now there is something else to do. One’s hands are not tied” (21). So he is doing something, and he seems to welcome the consequences. Dr. Heine, on the other hand, has done nothing to incur anyone’s wrath. The only negative ideas or descriptions attached to him come from the wife’s point of view, which the narrator undercuts, such as when the wife thinks he “his skull was lighted with bright, quick, ambitious eyes” (“ambitious” implies that she thinks he is greedy and conniving), and the narrator continues, “But at lunch he talked simply with them . . . He listened to everything the doctor had told him about the way he liked things done; in spite of his modern, medical school and his Viennese hospitals, taking it all in with interest and respect” (15). In other words, he could feel superior to them, but he does not. This certainly presents him in a light that counters the wife’s (and likely many of the readers’) prejudices.

The story ends at a very interesting point in time: Chancellor Dolfuss has been assassinated by Nazis in an attempted coup. All known Nazis where then rounded up all over Austria and thrown in jail to prevent an uprising. What would happen after this assassination was unknown. Many thought the Nazis might take over and/or the Germans would invade, but in fact the Nazis were suppressed. Interestingly, Boyle doesn’t fill in the aftermath for us (nor does she in her novel Death of Man). She leaves us hanging with the Heimwehr soldier’s words, “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow” (27), creating the impression that the Nazis have not been suppressed and could still come to power—through violence. The burning swastikas weren’t simply pretty night fires, they were threats of violence and bloodshed. The Heimwher, we should note, was a repressive paramilitary organization supporting the chancellor, who had basically become a dictator. Democracy never did take hold in Austria after WWI. It was a bloody period of Austria’s history. So while Boyle and her family had gone to this ski resort in the Alps to live peacefully for a while in the mountains, what they found there was the beginnings of the next war. As one student perceptively wrote, “She couldn’t have known how awful the following decade would be, but like the student-doctor and likely the people living in Europe at the time there must have been a sense of foreboding as they witnessed the political unrest and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.”

            Another important passage to examine is that where the wife has a negative reaction to Dr. Heine’s appreciation of the doctor’s play:

“Yes,” she said, “Yes, I suppose you do think a great deal of art.”

“Yes, of course,” said Dr. Heine, quite guilelessly. “Art and science, of course.”

“Yes,” said the doctor’s wife, saying the words slowly and bitterly. “Yes, Art and science. What about people being hungry, what about this generation of young men who have never had work in their lives because they factories never opened since the war? Where do they come in?” (22-23)

In other words, the wife is here opposing art and politics. If one is interested in art, then one is above or apart from political and social conditions, ignoring what really matters. This story, of course, is not doing that. In the 1930s, many writers became more socially engaged. In the U.S., they were writing about the Depression and its affects on workers and farmers. In Europe, which also felt the effects of the Depression, they were writing about the political situation and poverty. But there was still a tension between those who believed art lived outside history, and those who believed, like Boyle, that is should live within it. And indeed, the more a story or work of art speaks directly to its immediate time, the more likely it is not to endure. It is then considered to be anything but “timeless.” Yet, I think that our discussion of “White Horses” indicated that although it might not have seemed that important for many years after the war, it is once again speaking to us and our present moment.

“The White Horses of Vienna” is currently available in print in Kay Boyle, Fifty Stories, published by New Directions. The collection covers her entire career, from stories of her youth and race relations in America to stories about her time abroad in pre-war Austria, war-time France, and post-war Germany.


Anne Reynes-Delobel

Anne is associate professor in the English Department at Aix-Marseille Université and a member of LERMA ER 853. She is the current president of the Kay Boyle Society. Her research focuses on transatlantic modernism and avant-gardes in the interwar period. She has co-authored, with Mary Ann Caws, Glorieuses Modernistes (PuL, 2016). She has also translated Boyle's 1932 novel Year Before Last into French (Fuir avant demain, UGA, 2019).

More Posts - Website

“At Night”

At Night


By Ian von Franckenstein


When he steps in her bedroom late at night, so softly she breathes,

so softly he moves, and always like a burning candle a lamp

lit, lit by her head shrouded by a scarf whose fibers fill one

thousand days and nights, days and nights from a past that now

casts a pales glow.

“There,” he whispers to the shadows, “there lies a figure of Time…

Time once spent prancing like a long-legged colt down Rue

Montparnasse always radiant to men, to children too. And nights of

Laughter, late night talking, of endless waking, love-making ‘til



“And now?” he says to the lamp’s soft light. But there is only silence.

He reaches out and touches her white hair softly, so softly she stirs,

Her lips open so slightly as if to speak but here is just that stillness.

He leans over that motionless frail form curled like a baby gray bird

And his lips touch her blue-veined white head, so softly kissing her

Ancient brow.

On Boyle’s short stories

By Chistine Grogan

I first read the work of Kay Boyle when I was preparing to teach a course titled “American Literature, 1912-1945.” I had taught this course before but this time I was using the latest edition of the Norton Anthology, which contained a story called “The White Horses of Vienna.” Because of my involvement with the Katherine Anne Porter Society, I knew the name Kay Boyle. I decided to include this story in my syllabus.

To my pleasant surprise, my students loved “The White Horses of Vienna.” We kept checking the publication date because we had a hard time believing that a story about swastikas and a burning Jewish man was printed in 1936. In American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics and Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford, and Hellman, Thomas Austenfeld writes of Boyle’s “political clairvoyance” (12). One of my students shared similar sentiments but worded it differently—as “freaky foreshadowing.” By the next edition, Norton had replaced “White Horses” with another story, and I unfortunately haven’t taught it since.

In the spring of 2017, the Katherine Anne Porter Society and the Kay Boyle Society were organizing a joint session at the annual American Literature Association conference. This proved to be the second time I explored the work of Boyle. In preparing a paper for the session, I performed preliminary research, discovering that these women had much in common, including having published in Eugene Jolas’s transition and having converted to Catholicism. I was to find out later in my research that Jolas was a cradle Catholic and had even studied for the priesthood. As my research unfolded, I realized that to do justice to my conference essay, I would need to read every poem and short story Boyle printed in Jolas’s periodical—all 20 of them.

I found in these pieces a very different writer than the one who wrote “White Horses.” These stories were much more poetic, experimental, and seemingly apolitical. The most interesting ones to me were those that fictionally depicted Boyle’s time with Ernest Walsh, the man who fathered her first child but who had died before the birth. I learned that it was after his death when Jolas started transition in an effort to continue what Walsh could not finish as an editor.

One particular story commanded another look. This story carried the simple title “Theme,” and it was published in transition’s inaugural issue. Admittedly, my first reading of this story did not reveal anything too insightful. I gathered it was about a mother who fears that her grown-up son will abandon her. There isn’t much action or even dialogue. Most of the piece’s conflict relies on the mother’s internal thoughts versus what she actually says. After the initial reading, I put down the story and continued my search for a Boyle story that would pair well with Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.”

And yet, I kept going back to “Theme.” As it is with most brilliant tales, I discovered something else with each read—such as references to George Moore, the incestuous overtones, and Catholic imagery. The more I reread the story, the more I saw Boyle’s mother-character as a figuration of Mary, Jesus’s mother. But this was not the submissive, selfless Mary of Catholic teachings. This Mary, who had a questionable past, was aching for sexual connection in a fallen world. After months of research, I concluded that the “theme” of Boyle’s title is the longing for communion with the Divine amidst the insatiable urges of a sinful humanity.

The essay I delivered at the American Literature Association conference was revised and is being published as I write this. In the article, I perform a comparative reading of Boyle’s “Theme” and Porter’s “Jilting” and argue that Jolas published these works in his journal not just because of their experimental nature but because of their engagement with Catholicism.

I think there’s more to be said about Boyle and Catholicism—and how her reading of George Moore influenced her thoughts on religion. She states in Being Geniuses Together that she read Moore’s The Brook Kerith a few years prior to writing “Theme.” This book portrays Jesus as fully human and not dying on a cross. She also read Moore’s The Lake shortly before writing her story. This work tells of an Irish priest discovering that instinct is man’s true mode of communion with his soul.

Boyle was baptized a Catholic one year before she left this world. I can’t help but think that in addition to “political clairvoyance,” Boyle’s stories, at least “Theme,” contain religious clairvoyance and perhaps were published ahead of its—and her—time.

Christine Grogan is an assistant Professor of English at the University of Delaware, Dover campus, and the president of the Katherine Anne Porter Society. ​She is the author of Father–Daughter Incest in Twentieth-Century American Literature and has published articles on works including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehranand Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. Her most recent article on Kay Boyle’s and Katherine Anne Porter’s contribution to transition was published in South Central Review. 



By Ian von Franckenstein

It was a “Year Before Last,” “1939,” she recalled, when all of Europe was teetering on the edge of a certain human calamity of epic proportions. She was soon to become witness to that “Generation Without Farewell.” But now she was part of another generation, a generation that found itself immersed in a land foreign to her native tongue and customs. Some called it the Lost Generation, yet she never included herself in that group. Instead, she now found herself part of a new and vibrant time, lending fresh voice to the turbulence that permeated her world. “The Underground Woman” stood poised and confident, ready to spread her literary wings like “The Seagull on the Step” she spied one early morning a lifetime ago.

“A Frenchman must Die”… “there can be no other way,” she said softly to herself, as wartime chaos engulfed her.

It was on a “Monday Night,” a night that she perched herself high above the flank of “The Smoking Mountain.” “The White Horses of Vienna” pranced proudly, haunted and vain below her. Her thoughts cascaded about her, suddenly smothering her in a sea of sorrow, an “Avalanche” of wrenching emotion. She climbed ever higher far above the smoldering ashes of a lost humanity below. A stillness settled upon her, like that day she remembered so far away, that “Wedding Day,” her wedding day when she became wife to “The First Lover” in her young life. Then came a second one: “My Next Bride,” he shouted gleefully, even triumphantly! Known to many in bohemian circles as the ever-impetuous thrill-seeker, when infused with French spirit, this man, this artist was “The Primer of Combat” in her life. He was forever “The Crazy Hunter” of all that was eccentric and mad. “This might not all have happened,” she thought, “had not the “Death of a Man” with whom she bore her first child occurred.

“A Frenchman Must Die,” she cried out again. But her King of Bohemia did not hear her for so “Plagued by the Nightingale” of the Parisian nights was he.

Rain began to fall, first gently, then soon in torrents. It pounded the land and washed the countryside clean of burned bones and black blood. And then the sun broke through brooding skies. “Gentlemen,” she whispered softly, “Gentlemen, I Address You Privately,” but there was no response. “His Human Majesty” was nowhere to be seen. That did not deter her. She became resolute once again, consumed with courage, steadfast in the presence of adversity even when a nightingale reminded her that “Nothing Ever Break Except the Heart. So it all came to a quiet ending. Her lips formed the words but barely could one hear them say:

“Auf wiedersehen Abend.”

Ian von Franckenstein is Kay Boyle’s son. “Titles” was his contribution to the inaugural panel of the Kay Boyle Society, on 27 May, 2006, at the annual American Literature Association conference in San Francisco.

Kay Boyle: A Twentieth Century Life in Letters

Kay Boyle, A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters

Edited and with an Introduction by Sandra Spanier,  University of Illinois Press, July 2015


Source : University of Illinois Press

The intimate and epic chronicle of a life lived in full

One of the Lost Generation modernists who gathered in 1920s Paris, Kay Boyle published more than forty books, including fifteen novels, eleven collections of short fiction, eight volumes of poetry, three children’s books, and various essays and translations. Yet her achievements can be even better appreciated through her letters to the literary and cultural titans of her time between 1919 and 1992.

Kay Boyle shared the first issue of This Quarter with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, expressed her struggles with poetry to William Carlos Williams and voiced warm admiration to Katherine Anne Porter, fled WWII France with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, socialized with the likes of James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, and Samuel Beckett, and went to jail with Joan Baez. The letters in this first-of-its-kind collection, authorized by Boyle herself, bear witness to a transformative era illuminated by genius and darkened by Nazism and the Red Scare. Yet they also serve as milestones on the journey of a woman who possessed a gift for intense and enduring friendship, a passion for social justice, and an artistic brilliance that earned her inclusion among the celebrated figures in her ever-expanding orbit.

Both intimate and epic, Kay Boyle is a chronicle of a life lived in full and an essential document for anyone interested in the literature of the twentieth century.

“More than a collection of letters by Kay Boyle, this volume functions as a cultural history. . . . Boyle’s talent as a letter writer and Spanier’s skill as an editor guarantee that this volume with be of enduring value. Highly recommended.”–Choice

“Boyle’s letters, often relayed in breathless and passionate prose, make clear that for her, as Spanier argues, there were ‘no boundary lines between the public and the private, the person and the political, between art and life.'”–Times Literary Supplement

Kay Boyle: A Twentieth Century Life in Letters is an achievement to celebrate.”–Resources for American Literary Study

“Kay Boyle is one of those alluring figures of literature who exist at the corner of our eyeball. She wrote forty books. She may have written 30,000 letters–to the likes of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, to say only two. She seems to have known everyone who ever haunted the Left Bank of our imaginations. And yet hers has remained a certain kind of genius in the shadows–until now, that is. With exemplary scholarship, Sandra Spanier has brought into light a crucial American life.”–Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost

“Kay Boyle has distracted us from the magnum opus of her letters by the extensive record of her poems, stories, and novels. But here is a rival to Malcolm Cowley and Edmund Wilson as a correspondent, and editor for the literary culture of her times. . . . An unparalleled resource for students of twentieth-century literature and its cultural contexts.”–Suzanne Clark, author of Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word

“As a teacher, Kay Boyle started the career of countless writers, but as a citizen with a will and a conscience, she saved countless lives, and showed all of us the path to follow. Sandra Spanier reminds us that Kay Boyle’s words might be even more relevant in our current century. And, who better to learn from than a poet and storyteller rather than a 24-hour news channel pundit and spin doctor?”–Shawn Wong, author of American Knees

“Through Boyle’s prodigious correspondence, the volume presents a comprehensive overview of twentieth-century politics, events, literature, and art and offers an important look into Boyle’s life and relationships. The notes read much like a who’s who of twentieth-century literature: Boyle’s correspondents include many of the era’s most significant European and American writers.” —Marilyn Elkins, author of Metamorphosizing the Novel: Kay Boyle’s Narrative Innovations

Anne Reynes-Delobel

Anne is associate professor in the English Department at Aix-Marseille Université and a member of LERMA ER 853. She is the current president of the Kay Boyle Society. Her research focuses on transatlantic modernism and avant-gardes in the interwar period. She has co-authored, with Mary Ann Caws, Glorieuses Modernistes (PuL, 2016). She has also translated Boyle's 1932 novel Year Before Last into French (Fuir avant demain, UGA, 2019).

More Posts - Website

“The Lost” adapted for the stage

From Page to Stage

THE TALL BOY is a solo play starring actress Tandy Cronyn. Based on Kay Boyle’s short story, “The Lost” (1951) it was adapted for the stage by British playright Simon Bent and directed by David Hammond.

The play won best adaptation at the United Solo Theatre Festival in 2014.

About the story

“The Lost” (first published in Tomorrow, March 1951) was inspired by Kay Boyle’s prolonged time as New Yorker’s European correspondent in post-war Germany.

Boyle was assigned by The New Yorker magazine as European correspondent in November 1946. She travelled to Germany where her husband, Joseph von Franckenstein, was stationed with the U.S. Civilian Occupation Forces. On 23-24 January 1947, she visited a DP (displaced persons) camp in Wildflecken run by  Kathryn Hulme. Wildflecken was a huge former S.S. base, not be to be found on any map, about 50 miles north of Wurzburg. The camp, operated by 18 UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Refugee Association) workers, housed about 20,000 Poles.

Windflecken Camp, Bavaria

“The Lost” tells of three boys, between twelve and sixteen, who are driven to a Children’s Center run by an American Relief Team where children uprooted by the war are “processed” before a final decision is taken by the American consul regarding their future. In compliance with UNRRA procedure,  those with living relatives in their country of origin are renationalized and repatriated, while those whose relatives are found to be dead can file for emigration and be sent to adoption centers in the United States. The fate of the three boys thus rests on a large body of rules and assumptions about what constitutes the “best interests” of displaced children in the context of the postwar reconstruction of European nations.

What complicates matters further is that the boys have been adopted as G.I. mascots by U.S. troop. For the last three or four years, they have travelled throughout Europe with their respective infantry units. Czech, Italian and Polish by birth, they speak American English “as good as you might hear at home,” one with a Brooklyn accent and another with a Southern one. Having but dim memories of their countries of origin and attracted by the prospect of a fresh start overseas, they have set their hearts on immigrating to the United States.

Dondi was a comic stip created by Gus Edson and Ewin Hasen in 1955. The boy, an orphan of Italian descent with no memory of his parents or his name, is found by two  soldiers who adopt him as a mascot and eventually bring him back to the Unitd States with them.

Boyle’s story tackles the conflicting issues of self-identity, national interests and internationalist idealism by questioning vocal identity. Much in the same way as their ill-fitting or cut-down G.I. clothes, the boys’ speech does not seem to “fit” their bodies but rather sounds like a non-natural, prosthetic construct whose overall effect is to introduce a disquieting negativity into the story and undermine presumptions about origin and authority.

The story was rejected by The New Yorker on the grounds that “there was a good deal of doubt around here about whether such things could really happen. So enquiries were made at two agencies which deal with the European displaced persons, and the answers from those agencies tended very strongly to support the doubters here,” as New Yorker editor Gus Lobrano wrote Kay Boyle in June 1947. Boyle was incensed by his “insensate” rejection and wrote back that she felt “The Lost” “an important story (and so true that it breaks your heart)” (Kay Boyle, a Twentieth-Century Life in Letters. Ed. Sandra Spanier. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2015, p. 438-39).

In a letter to her agent, Ann Watkins, dated 2 August 1947, she lucidly wrote: “The actual work of writing is about as depressing as anything else in the world, but the accumulated pages give life a meaning […]. Remembering this gives me some comfort when I think I just can’t sit another hour or another night and bang out the necessary explanations for those who will not read, anyway, and will not want to understand” ( p. 448).

About the play

At a KBS-sponsored session of the 2015 ALA conference, actress Tandy Cronyn discussed the dramatization of the play and gave an extract of her solo performance which is an amazing blend of technical precision, vocal creativity and narrative energy.

In an issue of The Scofield, Cronyn has also written: “‘That’s right,’ said the tall boy. ‘His wife, she done pass on back in ‘43, and he ain’t got no one left to care for. He’s an ignition expert, and I learn how to suhvice cars with him.’” So speaks a fifteen-year-old Czech boy of his G.I. mentor (a black sergeant from Chattanooga, Tennessee) in the southern drawl he learned from the soldier who has taken him under his wing. Or the fourteen-year-old Polish boy—“I done everything that every son-of-a-bitch in the army ever done”—spoken in a Brooklyn accent the boy has picked up from his G.I. buddies. The characters, fully formed, leap off the page and onto the stage with full theatrical impact—a joy for the actor to play (“Tandy Cronyn on ‘The Lost’ by Kay Boyle.” The Scofield, 1: 43, Fall 2015, p.19).

Cronyn’s deep appreciation of Boyle’s transatlantic perspective on the issue of DPs during WWII deserves the attention of a wider audience, including students of drama and all those who are interested in the interconnections between human rights, history and literature.

Contact and information:

Anne Reynes-Delobel

Anne is associate professor in the English Department at Aix-Marseille Université and a member of LERMA ER 853. She is the current president of the Kay Boyle Society. Her research focuses on transatlantic modernism and avant-gardes in the interwar period. She has co-authored, with Mary Ann Caws, Glorieuses Modernistes (PuL, 2016). She has also translated Boyle's 1932 novel Year Before Last into French (Fuir avant demain, UGA, 2019).

More Posts - Website

“Kay Boyle and Love” in The Scofield

The Scofield

Issue 1.2 Kay Boyle & Love Fall 2015

Our guiding principle here at The Scofield is to create a place where lovers of literature gather. Of course, we aren’t actually gathering. We are still in solitude, reading these words alone. The hope though—as is the hope, I suspect, with all artistic endeavors—is to transcend our loneliness, to populate our solitude with others.

Selected excerpts

“In her best work Boyle will never take us to the resolution of a story … In reading much of Boyle’s work, you’re left there to figure out what just happened, and it’s challenging for the reader, and yet the themes that she takes on are very much matters of the heart whether on the personal scale or a global scale” — Sandra Spanier, “Uniting Aesthetic and Political Revolution in Love,” p. 48-49.

“Kay never gave me assignments that were traditional writing exercises. She just said, ‘Writing is about belief.’ It should be about what you believe in. I teach the same way she taught me. I tell students the same thing. I alter it a little these day by adding that they shouldn’t write what they already know, but what they’re trying to learn or understand. When you read Kay’s work, you see almost the entire 20th century in her work and everything she believed in. Her writing is tied to every traumatic human event in the 20th century. Historical fiction is the life we’re living right now” — Shawn Wong, “Writing is About Belief,” p. 26.

“After all, even though she taught creative writing at San Francisco State from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, she always harboured a realistic attitude regarding her job, publishing, during that time, an essay in which she argued, tongue perhaps only partly in cheek, that “all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” And even though she was my graduate supervisor, it wasn’t like we had the usual teacher student relationship. We would simply meet, first in her office on campus, and then, once the 1968–69 student strike was under way, at her home on Frederick Street in the Haight. I remember our first conversation concerned a short essay I had written about discovering the work of writer Jorge Luis Borges. It wasn’t about Borges’s writing so much as about the pleasures of discovery, and how that particular discovery came about” — Woody Haut, “If Written It Must Be True: Remembering Kay Boyle,” p. 175.

“If more people knew her story, then perhaps more people would stand up and do the things they want to do—to have courage to do them. If you stand up for what you believe in, will you be ‘successful’ in the conventional sense? Probably not” — Kelley Baker, “There’s No Plot to a Life,” p. 184.

“So let Kay Boyle be a writer no one reads no longer” — Tyler Malone, “The Absolute Essentiality of Love,” p. 8.

Anne Reynes-Delobel

Anne is associate professor in the English Department at Aix-Marseille Université and a member of LERMA ER 853. She is the current president of the Kay Boyle Society. Her research focuses on transatlantic modernism and avant-gardes in the interwar period. She has co-authored, with Mary Ann Caws, Glorieuses Modernistes (PuL, 2016). She has also translated Boyle's 1932 novel Year Before Last into French (Fuir avant demain, UGA, 2019).

More Posts - Website

Kay Boyle in Le Havre

In his article, “Le Havre de Kay Boyle,” published in Cartographies littéraires du Havre, Pierre Dieulafait discusses Boyle’s vision of Le Havre and the possible influences of the town on her aesthetics and politics.

Cartographies littéraires du Havre, Sonia Anton (ed.), Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2015. ISBN: 9791024000855

Anne Reynes-Delobel

Anne is associate professor in the English Department at Aix-Marseille Université and a member of LERMA ER 853. She is the current president of the Kay Boyle Society. Her research focuses on transatlantic modernism and avant-gardes in the interwar period. She has co-authored, with Mary Ann Caws, Glorieuses Modernistes (PuL, 2016). She has also translated Boyle's 1932 novel Year Before Last into French (Fuir avant demain, UGA, 2019).

More Posts - Website