Texas’ Strangest Son: The Exile and Creativity of William Goyen

A new book explores the unconventional life of a writers' writer.

William Goyen — Texas writers
Harry Ransom Center/University of Texas at Austin
Dorothy Brett, Frieda Lawrence and Goyen in Taos.

A young boy with pitcher ears sits in a closet, hunched over paper piano keys pasted onto a piece of cardboard. The boy’s mother has made him the cardboard piano so he can practice silently, without fear of discovery by his father; in this East Texas home in the 1920s, the longing for artistic expression is a punishable offense, at least for a boy.

In his revealing new biography of the writer William Goyen, It Starts with Trouble, Clark Davis offers this episode from Goyen’s childhood as a kind of primal scene: a boy forced so deep into himself by a stern father and well-meaning mother that his artistry develops as a desperate, autotelic feedback loop, masterful eloquence in search of a listener. As metaphor, the closet is almost too perfect — especially given that Goyen’s artistic urges grew in tandem with, and seem to have become intertwined with, intense and nonconforming sexual urges. Even as his writing began to find a limited but appreciative audience, Goyen’s bisexuality remained, for lack of a better word, closeted; throughout the more permissive 1970s and until his death in 1983, the open secret fueled some of his strangest and most inventive fiction.

The cardboard piano was one of many life-drawn metaphors Goyen himself used in his fiction; it appears in his first and best-known novel, the 1950 autobiographical The House of Breath. Achingly beautiful and utterly without plot, The House of Breath is a masterpiece of the kind of lyrical, stream-of-consciousness modernism that, by 1950, already felt belated. In the first of what Davis calls Goyen’s “spiritual autobiographies,” Goyen’s restless narrator walks in memory through the streets of his East Texas hometown, Trinity (renamed Charity in the book): “In you, Charity, there stands now, as in the globed world of my memory there glimmers the frosted image of it, blown by all these breaths, the fallen splendid house, sitting on the rising piece of land … And the house appears, now, to be an old old monument in an agony of memory of us, its ruined friezes of remains, full of our speech, holding our things that speak out after us as they once spoke into us, and waiting for one of us to give it back its language and so find his own.”

The narrator addresses himself to the house’s “remains” — as well as the river, woods and town itself — which answer back with monologues about the family who once lived there. Hardly a novel at all, it is almost a memory palace in words.

Although championed by, among others, German translator Ernst Robert Curtius and French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, The House of Breath has remained something of an oddity in its home country. Perhaps too slight and dreamlike for the American canon, it has often been out of print. This seems fitting, since Goyen made a home out of the very notion of exile. By the time he wrote The House of Breath, Goyen had endured many expulsions from his rural Eden: first to Houston, whose Depression-era ugliness he endured in misery, then, briefly, to the Navy, and then to Taos, where he started up a lopsided romance with a friend from the Navy who eventually left him for a woman.

If there had ever been a question of his returning to Texas, a letter his mother sent him soon after the publication of four sketches from The House of Breath may have sealed the question: “[I]f that is the kind of literature you are going to write, I hope you never succeed (and you won’t),” she wrote, probably referring to its depictions of masturbation and homosexuality. “I hope this hurts you as badly as it hurts me.” It did. Goyen never lived in Texas again, except, compulsively, in his fiction.

As if fulfilling his mother’s malediction, Goyen never saw mainstream success, despite his first novel’s positive critical reception. Davis, who clearly admires Goyen, explores the reasons why with a remarkably evenhanded critical perspective. For one thing, Goyen’s dreamlike, allegorical fictions, populated with homosexuals, hermaphrodites, onanists, bisexuals and castrati, were supercharged with a sexuality many found unsettling, and sprinkled with violent and incestuous fantasies.

More than his subject matter, however, Davis posits that it was Goyen’s insistence on a naive, almost primitivist style amidst the sophistications of postwar American fiction that alienated him from his audience. He became a “writers’ writer,” regularly drawing the attention of small presses and literary critics but never achieving financial or mainstream success in his lifetime. Living in New York, he felt like an outsider in literary circles, and a move to Los Angeles with his wife — actress Doris Roberts — further disoriented him.

Davis balances his sensitive exploration of themes of exile and orphanhood in Goyen’s work with a portrayal of the communities that were, in fact, crucial to his life and artistic output. At Rice University, for example, a young Goyen found his first relief from the unrelenting dreariness of his parents’ Houston in the emerging gay and lesbian art scene known as the “Left Bank of the Bayou,” which included playwright Zoë Leger, painter Nione Carlson and Margo Jones of the Houston Community Players. In Taos, he built his adobe cottage, where The House of Breath was written, on land given him by D. H. Lawrence’s widow, Frieda Lawrence, whose social circle included Mabel Dodge Luhan and the British artist Dorothy Brett. He had brief but generative love affairs with both Stephen Spender and Katherine Anne Porter, literary mentorships that helped him socially and financially. Increasingly, it was his own alcoholism and difficult personality that alienated him from those who might otherwise have helped him. A late-life conversion to an offbeat but earnest Christianity put him further out of step with his peers.

Davis is a strong, clear-eyed biographer and an engaging writer, and It Starts with Trouble will do its job of drawing critical attention back to one of the strangest of Texas’ native sons. Yet, ultimately, Goyen’s strangeness is such that you almost hate to think of him ever being well and truly canonized, and perhaps placed too firmly within a literary tradition that rejected him in his lifetime. Like all mystics, from William Blake to Flannery O’Connor, Goyen belongs less in a lineage than in a constellation, illuminating one tiny corner of the dark, wide-open sky.

Amy Gentry reviews fiction regularly for the Chicago Tribune, and her work can be found in Salon, Austin Chronicle and other venues.

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Published at 9:00 am CST