Sexual Politics in Kay Boyle's Death of a Man

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Author: Burton Hatlen
Editors: Jeffrey W. Hunter and Polly Vedder
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,659 words

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[(essay date Fall 1988) In the following essay, Hatlen reconsiders Death of a Man from a feminist perspective in an attempt to explain why the novel has been misinterpreted as Pro-Nazi.]

When Kay Boyle's Death of a Man was first published in 1936, many reviewers, and even one member of Boyle's own family, read the novel as expressing pro-Nazi sympathies. Mark Van Doren, writing in the Nation, said that the book tries to "hypnotize the reader into a state of what may be called mystical fascism." In the New Republic, Otis Ferguson characterized "Miss Boyle's case for the Nazi spirit" as an instance of "special pleading." As Ferguson read the novel, "Those who plot in the wine cellars and keep the swastikas burning on the mountains at night are the outstanding characters; the author's sympathy and understanding are theirs." The anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement spoke of "the glamour which Miss Boyle casts over the National Socialist movement," and the anonymous reviewer in Time described the novel as a "Nazi idyll." In the Forum, Mary Colum, prefacing her discussion of Death of a Man with the statement that "between the tyranny that is fascism and the tyranny that is Communism, there is something more suited to western people in fascism," described Boyle's novel as "a revelation of an almost mystical Nazism that is as startling to us as it was to the American heroine." And Colum quoted with approval, implying that the words represented Boyle's own judgment, a passage in which a Nazi youth describes a speech by Hitler as "like great music, like a poem being sung!"

Finally, Sandra Whipple Spanier reports that even Boyle's own sister apparently read both Death of a Man and "The White Horses of Vienna," a widely reprinted short story of the same period, as pro-Nazi, and refused to speak to their mother for a full year "because Mrs. Boyle defended Kay's purpose" in writing these works.

The possibility that Kay Boyle wrote a pro-Nazi novel in the mid-1930s must startle anyone who knows anything about her life. For Boyle has been, as the subtitle of Spanier's critical biography states, an "activist" as well as an "artist" throughout her life, and her politics have been consistently Left. In one of her inter-chapters in Being Geniuses Together, Boyle reports that the Sacco-Vanzetti case--one of the great Left-wing causes of the period between the wars--awoke her to political consciousness. During World War II, Boyle wrote two Saturday Evening Post serials and many other works designed to bolster American morale in the struggle against Nazism, and after the war she published two novels designed to warn against the danger of a lingering fascism in Europe (The Seagull on the Steps) and in American culture itself (Generation Without Farewell). In the 1950s Boyle was blacklisted for her presumed "Communist" sympathies. And in the 1960s she became an important figure in the civil rights and anti-war protest movements: her most recent novel, The Underground Woman,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100018271