It Starts With Trouble: William Goyen And The Life Of Writing

Clark Davis. University of Texas Press, 2015. 400 pages + 19 black-and-white photographs. $30.00.

By David Madden

While serving four years on an escort carrier, William Goyen began House of Breath, probably the most lyrical passages ever written on an aircraft carrier. 

“If that is the kind of literature you’re going to write,” William Goyen’s mother told him, “I hope you never succeed (and you won’t).”

Oh, but he did, as this comment on his first and finest novel, House of Breath, attests. “There are long passages of the best writing, the fullest and richest and most expressive that I have read in a very long time,” wrote Katherine Anne Porter, preeminent Texas short story writer, who passionately loved and pursued not only the writing but the man himself–Goyen’s longest heterosexual love affair, and, for literary history, most important. 

In letters to friends, Goyen often praised the loving care given him during his illnesses by his wife of 26 years, Doris Roberts, a fine actress whose fame derived after his death from her portrayal of the mother in Everybody Loves Raymond. The photographs of Goyen and Katherine Anne Porter and Goyen and Doris Roberts express his polar opposite relations with women.  

Women were powerfully attracted to the tall, handsome, courtly, soft-spoken Texan. He thought seriously of marrying Dorothy Robinson but his on-going love of Walter Berns and his intermittent affair with Stephen Spender rendered that relationship too untenable. Frieda Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence’s wife, and Dorothy Brett, a British painter who was for a while Lawrence’s mistress, both befriended Goyen during a long stay in Taos with his long-time lover Walter Berns. Margaret Hartley published many of his stories in The Southwest Review. Margo Jones, “the Texas Tornado,” cultivated Goyen’s talent as a playwright, producing several of is plays. A long-time friend, she was, according to Goyen, also attracted to him sexually. He wrote that of all his women role models “Margo is my sister—demonic, rapturous, sane in booze and in reverie and golden dream.”

Stephen Spender, a major British poet, exposed Goyen to the international literary life and was his lover in early years. Spender’s wife declared that Goyen was “a man eating orchid.”

Goyen was a bisexual who was the beloved friend of many heterosexual men, including my former student, Allen Wier, also a Texan and a successful novelist who knew Bill well as a colleague at Hollins College. “I still go often into those mystic, mythic woods where Bill Goyen resides.”  

Like Allen Wier, I corresponded often with Bill Goyen. His collected letters express the life of a writer who lived more in his imagination than in the world; although he certainly moved around in the world, every day was spent in an ecstasy and agony of creation. We spoke of him as having a saintly aura.

Because he wanted to help young writers, Goyen accepted a position as editor at McGraw-Hill in 1966. One example of the frustrations that plagued him was that the sales force nixed Goyen’s recommendation to publish my second novel. 

For a book I edited in 1971 called Rediscoveries, informal essays in which well-known novelists rediscover neglected works of fiction by one of their favorite authors, Daniel Stern chose The House of Breath. “We live in language as we live in a place.” Goyen’s “language trembles with Old Testament rhythms.” Another effort to renew attention to Goyen’s unique achievements was my persuading Random House to reissue A House of Breath on its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1975. 

Goyen’s early work spanned about 13 years. I began to know him when he was an editor at McGraw-Hill and knew that he was unable to write during that time because he worked so hard for his authors, just as a teacher of creative writing he left little time for his own writing. After he was fired, I witnessed a great burst of creativity as he sent me one new book after another. 

I was, then, understandably excited to learn of the publication of this biography, the first complete account of Goyen’s life and work. Clark Davis, author of Hawthorne’s Shyness and After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby Dick, narrates all aspects of Goyen’s roles as author of five novels, four collections of stories, five plays, critical writings, and composer (his first creative inclination was music); his turbulent relationships with editors and publishers; his disapproving family; his experiences as bisexual lover; as husband and father. Although he taught at four universities, worked as an editor, and was the recipient of several major grants, fellowships, awards, he never had enough money.

Davis is uncommonly adept at keeping the narrative of Goyen’s life in East Texas, Taos, New Mexico, Rome, New York, California, Germany, well-paced, while working in sensitive commentary on the art and substance of the writing. 

His work seldom taught in universities, Goyen is cursed with the label “a writer’s writer.” Some say his fiction is Southern Gothic, but he was disdainful of Faulkner and of the whole idea of the Southern writer. His tales may be Gothic and some characters may be grotesque, but the stereotype is ill fitting because the language in which they are described is unique. Critics like to say that the center of his life and his writing was the East Texas lumber town of his youth for which he had indeed a terrible nostalgia, but I think the center was the forge where he hammered out his style. 

Goyen delighted in praising his favorite writers for their various story-telling voices: Flaubert, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry James, Proust, T. S. Eliot, Milton, and especially Ezra Pound. But his lyrical sensibility seems more like the early Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, and the James Agee of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Davis discusses Goyen’s work as being experimental, mystical, spiritual, and knowingly obsessed with exploring the nature and effect of memory. Hovering over his fiction is an aura of comedy; it is sometimes lyrically satirical in tone. He strove to create an intense, extremely intimate teller-listener relationship. He sought “the buried soul.” His ecstatic embrace of Christ is expressed in A Book of Jesus, which I regretfully regard as not being as moving as Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son.

Davis conveys Goyen’s responses to the critical receptions of his works, which were sometimes scathing, but leavened by praise from McCullers, Capote, Anais Nin, Northrop Frye, and Joyce Carol Oates. He so craved literary celebrity that, even though his European reputation was gratifying, the general neglect of his writings caused great suffering. At the age of 68, Goyen, who drank too much and was epileptic, died of cancer after a lingering illness 33 years ago, during which time the dust of neglect has covered his work. Davis’ life of Goyen may inspire readers to dust off and open the works—among the finest in world fiction.

The author of fourteen works of fiction, the most recent of which is The Last Bizarre Tale (2014), David Madden (ΦBK, University of Tennessee, 1979) is founding director of the U. S. Civil War Center.