A minor modernist’s major letters

B5b2633a-eb7c-11e5_1215869hRona Cran at the Times Literary Supplement:

The roster of correspondents in Sandra Spanier’s Kay Boyle: A twentieth- century life in letters reads, as Spanier herself observes, “like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century arts and letters”. It includes James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Carson McCullers, Samuel (“Sam”) Beckett, Richard Wright, Kurt Vonnegut, Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Beach, Alfred Stieglitz and Louise Erdrich. Also on the roster is Spanier herself, whose friendship with Kay Boyle was sparked when she sent her a copy of her PhD thesis in 1981. To her surprise, Boyle responded in depth “over a period of several months”, and the resulting friendship is marked by “more than five hundred pages of correspondence”. It is marked, too, by this lavish collection of letters, commissioned by Boyle in 1991, the year before her death at the age of ninety, and meticulously edited by Spanier.

This is a long book, covering seventy-four years. It is astonishing to realize, therefore – and this goes some way towards mitigating the perhaps unavoidably frustrating time lapses that occur within the correspondence – that the 378 letters included are but a tiny fraction of the 7,000 obtained by the editor, which is itself only a proportion of the estimated 30,000 letters Boyle wrote during her lifetime. A minor modernist – part of the so-called Lost Generation associated with Paris in the 1920s – Boyle published over forty books, including novels, poems, short stories and non-fiction, in every decade since 1920 up until her death, but without much mainstream success. Her relative obscurity partly owes something to Edmund Wilson’s derision of her only bestselling novel,Avalanche (1944), as “a piece of pure rubbish”, and partly (ironically) to her relatively broad profile in the 1920s and 30s, when she appeared in almost every little magazine from Broom to transition, as well as in publications such as the New Yorker, Harper’s and Town and Country, making it difficult to place her as either a popular writer or a member of the avant-garde.

more here.