It Starts With Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing

Clark Davis

June 18, 2015 
The following is from Clarke Davis’s It Starts with Trouble, the first complete account of Goyen’s life and work. Goyen wrote about the language of East Texas, and this biography explores his personal and artistic development, from his early years in Trinity, through his adolescence and college experience in Houston; his Navy service during World War II; and the growth of his writing career, which saw the publication of five novels, including The House of Breath.

I remember Marian Anderson was my first experience with what truly was a spiritual moment. Suddenly when she sang she was purely an instrument for the spirit, pure spirit. Through her mouth, here was this blessed moment, the light and the fire were on her, way beyond her training or the song itself. I was sixteen; I identified thoroughly, purely, with her. “That’s where I belong, I come from that,” I said. “That’s why I feel so alone, because I belong to whatever that was.”

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—William Goyen, TriQuarterly interview, 1982

Unlike Truman Capote, William Goyen matured without betraying his sensitivity, he became stronger without surrendering the qualities which made him both human and subtle, able to handle overtones in relationships without destroying them in the process. The balanced, harmonious maturity of sensitiveness is a rare quality in our culture, for it usually does not have the endurance to survive.

—Anaïs Nin, The Novel of the Future


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William Goyen is a unique and lonely figure in American literature. Though praised and recognized as a remarkable talent, particularly early in his career, he never felt welcome in the literary world. When asked in 1975 if he saw himself as part of the writing generation that included William Styron, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer, he admitted that he “felt immensely apart. . . . I still feel apart and, well, I am apart from my contemporaries. And they don’t know what to do about me, or they ignore me. I am led to believe they ignore me.” This isolation was partly the result of a fundamental feeling of estrangement–from home, family, from most forms of community. In part it was a function of his commitment to an idea: that the artist is his only subject and art a sacred act of finding a form for the soul’s disorder. 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. “It’s given me a good sock in the hipbone in the wrestling. My eyes often open when I see a limping person going down the street. That person’s wrestled with God, I think. . . . Work, for me—writing, that is—has been that renewal through wrestling, that naming, that going home, that reconciliation with old disharmony, grief, grudge.”

In her 1983 introduction to Goyen’s final collection of short stories, Joyce Carol Oates attempted to capture the wounded Texan’s unique place in his country’s literature, calling Goyen “the most mysterious of writers. He is poet, singer, musician as well as storyteller; he is a seer; a troubled visionary; a spiritual presence in a national literature largely deprived of the spiritual.” The description is apt and perceptive. Yes, Goyen remains a mysterious, almost elusive figure; his obsessive, worried stories do indeed live in the spaces between music and narrative; and his language, though dramatic and insistent in its way, pushes at clarity, hoping to see through the skin of the real. And yes, there’s trouble—lots of it: deep disturbance and unspecified desire that push his lonely characters to tell their haunted stories.

But how exactly is Goyen a “spiritual presence”? And how can American literature be thought of as spiritually deprived?

It might have been more obvious to suggest that spiritual concerns have dominated American literature, particularly in its early phases. Literary historians often speak of the biblically soaked language and mindset of American writing at least until the Civil War, and it’s difficult to see the Transcendentalists, for example, as nonspiritual, whatever their other attributes. But to recognize a religiously derived culture or an Old Testament style is not to identify the spiritual itself as a mode or content of the writing. And one of Goyen’s primary goals for his fiction was precisely this—the embodiment of spirit in language, the evocation through colloquial music of a real, human presence. In an interview conducted near the end of his life, he tried to explain how a story, through the discipline of style, can create a heightened form of personal encounter:

Something happens to me which changes my attitude toward . . . you. What is that? It’s not that you’ve given me a lot of money, or bought me a house, or given me a reward. What changed my attitude toward you? Something, I say, came from outside me. And I see as I say this that I tend to look up, because we’ve been told that heaven is above us, though it may not be at all, it may be quite lateral, I don’t know. But it has come from beyond me somewhere, it is not anything I have learned, been taught, or even done. So that the spirit is involved in the change of feeling between me and you.

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Style, then, is directly related to that experience. So that style is a spiritual manifestation of the experience of the story, for me. My stories are spiritual.

It’s important to recognize that Goyen’s sense of spirituality is grounded in the face-to-face encounter, the emotional exchange between two people. And by style, he tends to have in mind a musical but dramatically present speech (present in the sense that it is directed intimately toward the other person), an ordinary language pushed to the limits of the ordinary, edged toward the inexpressible. In a review of Goyen’s Collected Stories in 1975, Richard Rhodes suggested that to experience a Goyen story “is to read as if through a layer of fire-darkened mica. He is not deliberately obscure, but he is writing about qualities of memory and feeling, shifts in loyalty and love, that ordinarily function or occur outside any frame of words.” These shifts of feeling–or the occasion through which they are registered–emerge from a staged (that is, deliberately intensified) moment of speaking and listening. Through a technical elision, the reader becomes the listener, the intimacy of the speech reaches across the page, and the usual filters of literary form, language, and time seem to break down. It is as though the fictional speaker had turned directly to face us, and in that facing made an instant and unavoidable claim not just on our attention but on our lives.

The critic George Steiner has written of art’s demand on the reader or listener as a form of “answerability.” The reader is responsible for, answerable to the claim made on her attention. The work of art is not a distant object to be contemplated by a protected consumer (a Grecian urn in a glass case); it is a “real presence” that demands “vital welcome and habitation.” We must make room for its voice, and this displacement of our own satisfaction and selfhood is fundamentally uncomfortable. “Embarrassment” is the term Steiner relies on to describe this sense of breached decorum. Goyen’s originality stemmed in large part from his ability to raise such emotional claims to the level of method, and yet this very quality assured that his audience would always be limited. In a century increasingly devoted to the ironic investigation of a listless materialism, his work could seem backward or out of step. Though a modernist, his style was not pruned or pared down; a self-proclaimed rhapsodist, he directed his language not toward effusion but seductive invitation. He risked everything: the charge of sentimentality, the vulnerability of directness, the awkwardness of sincerity. Indeed, he now retrospectively resembles the post-ironic, future “rebels” imagined by David Foster Wallace in his 1993 article “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”—those who “eschew self-consciousness and fatigue,” who are “[t]oo sincere,” “[c]learly repressed”: “Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. . . . The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘How banal.’ Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. Willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”

As Oates implies, writers devoted to so bare an emotional exposure are rare in American letters. Walt Whitman comes immediately to mind, but very few others. In recalling his early reading, Goyen admitted an attraction to what he called “singing people,” a category that included poets like Whitman and a very few fiction writers: “And when I read ‘Song of Myself’ for the first time, again I was given voice, resounding in the little Texas room: ‘Salut au Monde!’ ‘O take my hand, Walt Whitman! Such gliding wonders! Such sights and sounds!’ I was given freedom to speak of myself out of long isolation and out of the captivity by my own family.” Along with William Saroyan and Thomas Wolfe, Whitman offered a lyricism that gave voice to the exile’s longing for contact. He spoke directly to an audience conceived as an ally or friend. The gesture that ends Song of Myself suggests the isolated longing and deliberate address so characteristic of Goyen’s fiction:

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

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Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

The faith in organic unity that underlies this invitation appears with less certainty and optimism in Goyen’s work, but the delicate mixture of the forlorn and the possible caught in Whitman’s last line is an important part of Goyen’s inheritance. “Waiting” is the exile’s stance, a way of establishing desire while tending to the self’s fragile but necessary separation.

When Goyen’s first novel, The House of Breath, was published in 1950, the critical reception was mostly warm, at times effusive, and yet many critics had difficulty placing him. For a majority he seemed another of Faulkner’s cast-off children, grouped with the “decadent” set of Capote, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams. The mistake was easy enough to make. Goyen counted all three as friends and rivals, and he shared their shaded but daring approaches to sexuality. But he rejected any attempt to label him or his work as “southern.” He considered himself southwestern, a modernist grounded in the emotional terrain of East Texas but not limited to the colorist aesthetics of regionalism. Subsequent reviews of his novels, short stories, and plays often recognized the strangeness and difficulty of his writing—its combination of folk storytelling and lyric intensity, its wedding of myth and aria—but more often than not the response was confused or impatient. As a result, Goyen lived on the edges of literary celebrity, occasionally honored but seldom rewarded, quietly admired by readers and writers attuned to his gifts, overlooked or forgotten by the rest.

Perhaps this oblique, uncomfortable relationship with U.S. letters accounts in part for Goyen’s greater welcome in Europe. His intensely poetic style, often counted as a failure of clarity in America, found a receptive audience in France and Germany in particular. The great scholar-translator Ernst Robert Curtius, for instance, considered Goyen one of the finest American writers of the mid-century in part because the author of The House of Breath seemed one of the few Americans attuned to European models: “From the American novel we expect brutality and cynicism; intellectual over-refinement but also primeval eruptions; morbidity and neurosis. In William Goyen’s book we shall find very different elements: substantive poetry . . . ; harmony with the deepest simplicities of existence; reunion of sexuality with love; but also an artistic discipline that is more reminiscent of Flaubert, Proust, Joyce than of Melville, Wolfe, Faulkner.” Goyen’s precise attention to lyric states of feeling attracted French intellectuals raised on the symbolists; unlike other American writers of the 1950s, he sought to register refinements of consciousness rather than the bump and hustle of postwar life. The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard was so taken with The House of Breath that he included a brief account of its central image in his influential The Poetics of Space. To Bachelard, Goyen was one of the “poets and dreamers” who “find themselves writing things upon which metaphysicians would do well to meditate.” By “overlaying our memory of the childhood house with daydreams,” he continues, Goyen “leads us to the ill-defined, vaguely located areas of being where we are seized with astonishment at being.”

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In other countries, particularly those with a tradition of fabulism or oral storytelling, Goyen found and continues to attract fervent admirers. (To give but one example, the only edition yet produced of Goyen’s complete stories is a Spanish translation published in 2012 by Seix Barral. It is both startling and shameful that no English edition of his complete short fiction exists.) Again, the devotion to the spiritual—to “the music of what happens,” as Goyen once put it—may explain these disparate attentions. The American ironic mode diagnosed by Wallace as a feature of postmodernism, and of television in particular, is protective, an armor against illusion, and therefore suspicious and intolerant of the oracular or prophetic. The validity of such roles seem reserved for writers who emerge from alternative cultures, from traditions new or ancient enough to be allowed their clarity and innocence. Both despite and because of his upbringing—isolation, the simplicity and at times poverty of country life—Goyen claimed this intensity of vision as his own: a voice for the isolated, impoverished self, a prophetic speaking that ignores the protective gestures of sophistication in favor of an art of feeling. To reclaim him, to make a place for him in American letters, is 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.



From IT STARTS WITH TROUBLE: WILLIAM GOYEN AND THE LIFE OF WRITING, copyright © 2015 by University of Texas Press, used with permission of the publisher, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Woodson Research Center in the Fondren Library at Rice University.

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