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 Tehran, and 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.