Gathering What We Have Lost: The Buried Song of William Goyen

By Peter GrandboisAugust 6, 2015

It Starts with Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing by Clark Davis

HE WAS a novelist and short story writer, poet and playwright. He hung out with Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, Anaïs Nin, and Frieda Lawrence. He was an editor at McGraw-Hill and teacher at such prestigious universities as Brown, Princeton, Hollins College, and USC. He should have cut a broad swath through American letters of the mid-20th century, but he did not. Ask a person on the street about William Goyen, and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Ask a writer, and you’ll see a slow change come over her face, as if you’d reminded her of a love she’d almost forgotten. Soon you’ll be in deep conversation about this most mysterious of writers, how his novels are more like poems, or rather songs; how the reader becomes a listener, becomes part of the performance; how he was “ a seer,” as Joyce Carol Oates famously said, “a troubled visionary; a spiritual presence in a national literature largely deprived of the spiritual.” Then you will wonder out loud, both of you, why he received so little critical attention, at least until now.

University of Denver professor Clark Davis’s It Starts with Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing is important not because it is the only book-length work on one of the most intriguing and stubbornly private writers of the 20th century but because it works as both biography and critical analysis, seamlessly moving between the two to offer a rare portrait of the artist as well as an investigation of what it meant to be an artist at a time when art was becoming a commodity. Davis positions Goyen as a unique and lonely figure in American letters:

As justifiably celebrated as they are, books such as Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952), J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea (1952) offered readily accessible narratives and often consciously restrained or colloquial styles. None could be described as difficult or challenging reads. In those notable novels that did push the boundaries of content or language — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953), or William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) — the ambition was consciously intellectual, the scope of the text encyclopedic, and the subject matter urban, modern, and ironic.

At the same time, Goyen “rejected any attempt to label him or his work as ‘southern,’”; he refused, too, to be lumped with “the decadent set”: Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, or Tennessee Williams. He continually pushed the bounds of language and form while at the same time exhibiting a willingness to lay himself out on the page, to face emotions directly. As Davis so meticulously proves, Goyen created his own strand of American fiction, one quite different from the minimalism of Hemingway or the Southern Gothic of Faulkner, one that, in its tendency toward fabulism seems handed down directly from Hawthorne.


When Goyen’s first and perhaps most famous book, The House of Breath, appeared in 1950, critics weren’t sure what to make of the way he infused the East Texas landscape with voice. As Davis remarks, “There is nothing else quite like The House of Breath in the history of the American novel.” The “teller/listener” structure, in which “the point is not to move forward in time but to stand listening before a porch-like stage, to replicate a child’s captive hearing of his elders’ tales,” became part of Goyen’s signature style, as did an emphasis on spirit (again echoing Hawthorne), which Goyen defined as “that portion of experience not reducible to the physical, particularly to the life of the body.” His work, highly personal, made readers and critics alike uncomfortable: in fact, in his willingness to risk accusations of “sentimentality” he now “retrospectively resembles the post-ironic, future ‘rebels’ imagined by David Foster Wallace.” What Davis makes clear is how for Goyen this wasn’t a matter of wanting to be “edgy” or provocative; it was a matter of survival, pure and simple. His sincerity was a direct result of writing that “starts with trouble,” writing born from a deep wound.


One of the wonders of reading a book that interweaves biography and critical analysis is catching an occasional glimpse of the complicated symbiosis between life and art. In The House of Breath, a book dealing with an exiled narrator who attempts to reconstruct his family from the voices of the past, the main character, Boy Ganchion, plays a cardboard piano hidden in a corner of his house. The image turns out to be a metaphor for familial repression, for the ways in which Goyen’s own inner song was squashed by a stern, homophobic father and a controlling mother. Born in the small town of Trinity, Texas, in 1915, Goyen moved to Houston at the age of eight. Davis presents for us a picture of a sensitive, possibly epileptic child prone to fits of sadness in large part because his father interfered with each and every one of his passions: music, theatrer, dance, and writing. Goyen himself played a piano like the one in his novel, as revealed in a The Paris Review interview, “The Art of Fiction No. 63”:

My mother secretly cut it out of the local newspaper and sent off a coupon for beginners’ music lessons. I straightaway devised Liszt-like concerti and romantic overtures. And so silent arts were mine: I began writing. No one could hear that, or know that I was doing it, even as with the cardboard piano.

Though his mother appears supportive, it soon becomes clear that her love was contingent on a complicated codependent relationship with Goyen, one that left no room for him to discover his own artistic and sexual identity. Davis’s extensive archival research is apparent on nearly every page in the biography but perhaps nowhere more powerfully felt than in a letter from Goyen’s mother upon the publication of one of his first short stories, “Four American Portraits as Elegy,” a sketch of four characters all who bore striking resemblance to members of Goyen’s family. As Davis clarifies, “The section devoted to Folner — the overtly gay, cross-dressing uncle […] may have been the catalyst for Emma’s [Goyen’s mother] larger condemnation of both the writing and Goyen’s life.” She wrote:

I hope you never succeed (and you won’t). […] I will never leave Taos if I were you, that is where you belong, where you can live your own morbid selfish life […]. I have prayed and hoped so long, for you to be what you were intended to be, but as I have told you before, You were not. So my hopes are all gone, for I can see your type of writing now, so I think it best for you to have all your mail and magazines such as Accent sent there for I don’t want to ever read anything else you write. […] I hope this hurts you as badly as it hurts me. May God bless you and help you to see the way you should. This is all for now. Love Mom.

Rather than crush Goyen’s spirit, this act of fear and desperation pushed him toward the fervent belief that he should never have to justify either his writing or his lifestyle. In his own letter to a friend, written shortly after he received the one from his mother, Goyen wrote:

This has been my greatest and most valuable principle so far in my life — to take the responsibility for my choices and for my actions. […] Too many of us are cowards in this world; we are afraid to say what we mean, we compromise.

He was as good as his word. After serving as an officer on the USS Casablanca during World War II, he moved to Frieda Lawrence’s commune in Taos, New Mexico, where he and former shipmate Walter Berns built a small adobe home, settling down to nightly dinners with the likes of Lawrence herself, the painter Dorothy Brett, and the playwright Tennessee Williams. It’s clear from Davis’s extensive reading of Goyen’s journals at this time that the two years Goyen spent in the commune marked him forever — Lawrence becoming a sort of mother figure to him while his unreciprocated love of Berns worked a strange alchemy within him that would fuel his choices in both work and relationships for a lifetime.

Davis is graceful and discrete in his slow untangling of the complex sexuality that played prominently among the reasons why Goyen’s work met such a mixed critical reception. He presents Goyen’s unreciprocated passion for Berns as the impetus for Goyen’s throwing himself headlong into other relationships. A brief engagement to a young woman named Dorothy Robinson, an affair with the poet and translator Stephen Spender, and a romance with Katherine Anne Porter can all be traced back to his first important love. His only long-term relationships — a 10-year commitment to the painter Joseph Glasco and a 20-year marriage to the actress Doris Roberts (of Everybody Loves Raymond fame) — provide further evidence of his bisexuality, which became more and more explicit in his work.

No surprise, meanwhile, that his work became more and more controversial. In 1947, the editors of Mademoiselle rewrote one of his early published stories, “The White Rooster,” to remove the violence and sexuality, and make it “comfortable” for their audience. His second (and arguably most transgressive) novel, Half a Look of Cain (published posthumously), was roundly rejected, even by his own press, Random House, which went so far as to push Goyen to alter some of the more overt sexual references in the 25th Anniversary Edition of The House of Breath. Here Davis furthers his argument for Goyen as an artist ahead of his time, one unwilling to offer up the sort of commodity that the New York publishing houses demanded. Throughout the book, he powerfully argues for Goyen’s artistic integrity, portraying a man not interested in money or fame, though he desperately craved the attention of that one person who might understand his work. In this letter from Goyen to his agent, we see a writer who writes because he has no other choice:

I have little respect for your client who decides not to write what he must […]. He is a whore; on every page of the New York Times Literary Supplement is the story or picture of a literary whore, all the women with three names, all the sickly, craven, slick plots — they are dross, nothing; they amuse, entertain the sloppy and the half-alive. Such is not my mission.

Davis reminds us that Goyen’s “need to break through, emotionally, to another person” pushed him to avoid “not only the stylistic trappings of realism but also its fundamental mimetic theories,” and that the price paid was misunderstanding. His quest took a toll: each new book had increasing difficulty finding the audience it deserved. Here, in a scene Davis takes from Doris Roberts’s memoir, Are You Hungry, Roberts, just after Goyen has accosted several guests at a party given by Norman Lear, a drunken Goyen gives vent to his frustration:

I write a book and what happens to it? […] It gets taken off the press. I write another book and they don’t even send it out for blurbs. It’s like giving birth to these babies and they die. They’re stillborn. […] You get up to the top of the mountain and you go sliding back down. And it takes everything in the world to come back up.

Eventually Goyen joined AA and became a born-again Christian, even rewriting the Gospels in a work that would become one of his bestsellers: A Book of Jesus. But Davis reminds us that Goyen never stopped fighting: The writer of five novels, three story collections, four plays, two nonfiction works, and a volume of poems had one more book to write, a novel in which he would finally give full expression to his complex understanding of the interrelationship between sexuality and spirituality. That book, Arcadio, remains one of the most wholly original works of fiction of the last half of the 20th century. “Less fantastic or fabulistic than Half a Look of Cain or Come, the Restorer,” Davis explains, “Arcadio is arguably the most personal and revealing of Goyen’s many spiritual autobiographies.” Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Reginald Gibbons proclaimed that Arcadio’s “song may be Goyen’s finest achievement. The work of a master fabulist, it was one more courageous foray into fiction unlike anyone else’s.” And Joyce Carol Oates, often Goyen’s champion, called Arcadio, “Goyen’s most powerful symbol of this inexplicable doubleness — the physical expression of a paradox that is primarily spiritual.” She added, “All serious art celebrates mystery, perhaps, but Goyen’s comes close to embodying it.”

So many biographies mythologize their subjects to give us a portrait of the artist as we wish him to be — a Hemingway who turned writing into an adventure or a Capote who turned it into celebrity — but Davis has a more naked portrayal in mind:

For Goyen, writing was never simply a matter of self-expression, nor was it a kind of economic manufacture; it was a struggle to stay alive, to wrest a blessing from the angel. “I’ve limped out of every piece of work I’ve done,” he revealed in a lecture just before his death.”

This deft weaving of the art and life of William Goyen creates that rare sense of wonder and insight that comes with a deeper understanding of the ways in which the one is an answer to the other. Add to this personal history a critique of the literary culture of the time, and you wind up with a book that is difficult to put down.

Ultimately, what makes It Starts with Trouble an essential read for anyone interested in literature and art is Davis’s painstaking research combined with the passion and intelligence he brings to his subject, bolstering a compelling case to reclaim Goyen’s place in American letters, and in so doing

to acknowledge, despite our jadedness, these unusual, or simply unfashionable, virtues: the idea of art as a direct encounter between selves; the notion that what passes beyond the physical, even beyond articulation, is vital to human connection; that telling one’s story is a deep inner demand, an undeniable responsibility that cannot be shirked through ironic shielding or intellectualism; that writing is living, is being alive, and is a form of finding recognition in the world, of fundamental encounter with an other, a form of love, of being.

And he quotes Goyen, himself, stating his artistic philosophy most clearly:

We must return to the mystery in our beings and in the earth. There is a higher reality, a reality-beyond-reality; it lies in legend and symbol and fantasy and mystery, all of which must be penetrated by our lives in the world […]. “We must give ourselves up to the land and its mysteries …. It is all ritual and legend […]. And we cannot find the secret anywhere but in ourselves, by opening ourselves all up, unfolding, then go deeply digging for it; and by living close with the earth, sun and rain and river and field. By not caging and locking up a spontaneous thing in ourselves.

Like Goyen, Davis understands what writing is for. He reminds us of the stakes of art, of being an artist. If we are still waiting for David Foster Wallace’s “future rebels,” this beautiful book goes a long way toward pointing out that the “rebel” arrived long ago. That if we’re waiting for anything, it’s for William Goyen’s work to get the credit it deserves.


An award-winning novelist, Peter Grandbois has been shortlisted for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. He’s an associate editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.

LARB Contributor

Peter Grandbois is the author of two award winning novels: The Gravedigger and Nahoonkara, a memoir, The Arsenic Lobster, and a collection of short fictions, Domestic Disturbances. His essays, plays, and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals, and been shortlisted for both the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. He is an associate editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio.


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