To write fiction is to place before the reader the objects of one's own attention and curiosity and passion. This is just as true of fiction that does not seem to be based on the writer's own experience as it is of autobiographical fiction. In fact, as all writers of fiction, even the most impersonal, know, it is nearly impossible not to write autobiographically, not to imply one's own deep concerns and allegiances, enthusiasms and losses, one's own stake in life. When the fiction is very close to the writer's own experience, writing opens ways for the writer to enter imaginatively into more remote identifications and to explore them as well. When a writer of fiction writes autobiographically, perhaps what we see is not the previously half-hidden emotional life revealed fully, but simply another, more explicit, way of giving it expression.
Several emotional notes together form the chord of the writer's temperament and moods, sounded in each work in different ways, but in the case of a writer who has that greatness that comes from focus, access to feeling and the unconscious, and a great ear, this sounded chord, however different in each work, whether in autobiographical or impersonal fiction, is recognizably that writer's own chord and no one else's. Without doubt William Goyen is such a writer.
Even in a brief, fairly late nonfiction prose piece that Goyen wrote for the brochure of an exhibition in France ("On Francis Mockel's Etching 'Suite funèbre I,'" presented herein as the epilogue) one sees the ostensible subject give way to some of Goyen's long-standing personal preoccupations—in this person of passionate friendships and extravagant alienations, the preoccupation with the reconciliation of two persons, one of whom has gravely wounded the other (as in his 1976 story "Precious Door"); in this Texan who was forced to wander across oceans during World War II and who then left Texas once more and encountered persons and places that significantly affected his writing (especially Taos, New Mexico, and New York City, but also the Pacific Northwest, London, Rome) the feeling of being "the passerby, the glancer" whom he mentions in several places as a late key self-conception that he found reinforced in Beckett; in this man who was capable of unbridled, theatrical anger and haughtiness, yet also of spiritual calm and humility, the simultaneous feelings of threat and tenderness; in one who fell in love with both women and men the sense of being a forever divided being, such as we see in the title character of his last novel, Arcadio.
Goyen wrote fiction with a deliberate and conscious method that transformed his own most intimate experience and inner life into something impersonal. In creating fiction he freed the human experience that he underwent and also observed in others from the happenstance of reality so that it might represent some shared aspect of our humanity, whether that aspect was very ordinary or astonishingly visionary. We are not surprised to encounter a preoccupation with the past in any writer who must work—even if at the pitch of imagining the as yet unseen—from the repertoire of feeling and thinking preserved in some especially dynamic chamber of memory and imagination; from the beginning, the author of The House of Breath pondered the problem of how to think about the past, about the life of feeling that one had had in the past—that whole ghostly scenario that seems still to be alive, somewhere, but not here, not now. Perhaps explicitly autobiographical writing was an inevitability in such a writer as Goyen; however, he was also the inventor of a "lyrical" form of the novel that did not at all depend on prolonged or sequential narration, so it is no surprise that he did not, or could not, write of his own life as a chronological passage through stages of human experience. He did outline such a work, but he never wrote it. Yet he commented, "Everything is auto-biography for me" ("Recovering," presented in Part I as the second of "Two Last Lectures").
It was tempting to include in this autobiographical collection Goyen's short stories "The Horse and the Day Moth" and "The Moss Rose" from his Collected Stories (1975), because they seem to speak so directly of Goyen's own daily experience of feeling, of his exploring the emotions aroused by ordinary experience in search of the flashing light of a feeling, even a small one, that could serve to shape a story—one's own or someone else's, real or imagined—and to draw from a moment of emotional intensity some small meaning that redeems loneliness and sorrow. But on the other hand, the great thing about those two stories is that with the fiction writer's modest device of writing in an autobiographical mood but in the third person, Goyen has already transformed the materials of his life into finished and impersonal works, because that small device fundamentally, however subtly, transforms the impulse of writing from being one's own cry or call into a drive to shape, to form, to "adumbrate" (as Goyen wrote in a little unpublished sketch, "A Crossing"), "which means casting forth the shadow and shape" of life, of a moment in a life.
For Goyen, his unique prose style was simply a kind of transformation of his materials, or, as he put it in my 1982 interview with him (published in TriQuarterly in 1983 and reproduced here as the third interview in Part II), "Style is, or has been, for me, the spiritual experience of my material," a dimension of the spiritual that he defines in opposition to craft; he says that to write a character he must have "a spiritual revelation of the human being that I would not have got by studying the work of other writers." And he says simply that the "spiritual" is that which is "not physical." "Style is a spiritual manifestation of the experience of the story, for me." When Goyen was writing, it was this transformation that he always sought with such steadiness and stamina—despite disappointments, frustrations, and self-thwarting, both artistic and professional. One might even say that without achieving this sort of transformation of his material—which would of course be much harder to do if the piece being written were autobiographical rather than fictional—Goyen was nearly unable to write.
He sustained for decades a creative method that functioned in two stages: he said that he had to hear a voice narrating for him, within his imagination, before he could then narrate for a reader. Hence the paradox of the difficulty, for him, of writing an autobiography, in which "I" must seem to be not an other but one's supposedly single self.
One aspect of Goyen's early life as a writer (through 1950, the year of the publication of his first novel, The House of Breath) that made his delicate, tentative, impassioned, and ultimately triumphant attempt to create a new novelistic form even more difficult was that his family of origin, and especially his mother, persisted—in a way that was naive but understandable in less educated people—in seeing all of Goyen's fiction as autobiographical and in reacting with horror, shame, and anger to what Goyen had so painstakingly crafted and envisioned with love and art. Yet very early, Goyen thought through and held to a position from which he never moved: that he must see himself as an artist (a rare and highly suspicious creature in most of his native Texas, generally, and entirely foreign to his family of origin), not as a person obliged to remain silent for fear of offending a member of his family—or anyone. Even when Goyen set down straightforwardly autobiographical sentences—either contemporaneously with his experience in notebooks and small unpublished pieces or later in retrospective finished essays—he felt the impulse to make clear the artistic basis of his work: this was the contradictory combination of his kinship of spirit with impersonal Modernists like Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett and his intimate voicing, which came from his experience of the expressive language exemplified in the humble practice of informal storytelling and in the vitally necessary activity that, thanks to his showing us its nature, we might call storylistening. An East Texas Modernist, he repeatedly located his artistic origins in remembering or re-imagining the storylistening experience of his early childhood; he spent his early childhood in the small town of Trinity, Texas, and then his parents moved to a whole neighborhood of small-town, talkative exiles in the growing city of Houston. For example, he writes:
I remember them lined in their chairs on the front porch at dusk, some womenfolks in the swing, talking of kinfolks and farms and nearby towns, the fortunes or failures of sawmills and roundhouses and packing stands, or weal or woe of carpentry, smallcrop gardening, road-building and time cutting, or crises of drought or gulleywasher. They were describing and creating for the imagination of the young who were listening, a world that was folk drama; and so was passed on the small-town Texas inheritance, talked down on porches at twilight through the generations.
It was all so gentle and melodious, this speech and its burden, rising and falling and singing, a kind of choric keening on the ways of the world, its weather and families, destinies and patterns; it bore a heroic shape for me, was a winding, swelling and murmuring saga of more than a breed of human being toiling on the landscape of a region in the world. It was grand and sweet, this lyric despair that rose from a ground-tune of clear-ringing faith chanted by these old people on the porch, born "right here and around here," breakers and finders and blazers, prevailers. (Unpublished HRC Manuscript)
Yet this was the realm of family and social intimacy that was least able to embrace or even comprehend what Goyen was trying to do as an artist and that in the person of his parents reacted with shock and anger to his early writings.
Despite Goyen's lifelong pondering of the autobiographical impulse, but perhaps because he invested so much artistic energy in transforming autobiography into fiction, Goyen did not write an autobiographical book. He left us a few autobiographical essays and fragments; in the last years of his life, he was by fits and starts writing an autobiography, but he struggled so with the form of it, and for so long, that at first glance it seems to be only a sketch of something larger.
Goyen also made certain to preserve what may be almost all of his notebooks and letters in research archives; others that he carried around as he worked with them in his last seven or so years have been preserved. In that last period, which began when he stopped the alcoholic drinking that had progressively debilitated him over many years, he began to write fiction again, and he achieved once more his brilliant and passionate originality—in both his novel Arcadio (1983) and in his last stories (some of which were included in a posthumous collection, Had I a Hundred Mouths, 1985). Again he created his visionary emotional openness and his Modernist lyricism of ordinary speech. Yet even while Goyen again felt very creative and productive in his last years, he also felt the accumulated toll of his life of creative and vital struggle, and his mood was of a valedictory reflectiveness about the life of writing and the writing of life.
Goyen was thinking about and planning an autobiographical work and talking to his literary agent about it at least as early as 1977, when he typed out a prospectus for it. This prospectus he repeatedly revised, and on July 7, 1982, a little more than a year before his death, he retyped it as a preface for an editor who might read the brief sketches that he had so far completed of his Six Women, sketches that he was trying to see as the seeds of a larger work. But I think that, if he did wish to get access to more of his recollections and feelings about the subjects of these six sketches, and even if he was disappointed that he did not finally do so, nevertheless it was not only illness and his deep engagement in writing and endlessly rewriting Arcadio that forestalled his writing a larger version of Six Women. I think that in these compressed scenes of the six women he had already found a finished albeit very elliptical work that exists as a collage of fragments—or as he might say, a quilt of medallions. The sketches are mostly elegies—and how long can an elegy be? This series of elegies, then, may really have been the work that Goyen wanted to write. So despite the additional passages and episodes that he mentions in his prospectus for a whole book that was to be based on these sketches, the impulse behind the pieces is not a chronological narrating filled with information about this place and that, this person and that.
Goyen's temperament, given to the most intense compression of narrative, the most evocative illusion of the speaking voice, and the most resonant use of symbol and image, must have made it extraordinarily difficult for him to remake himself into the writer who could put one event after another in a text that followed the ultimately arbitrary logic of temporal sequence instead of the artistically freer and more expressive paralogic of association, narrative, dramatic surprise, and feeling itself, especially the erotic. Yet Goyen seems to have kept trying to think of the autobiographical work that others might wish him to write and reward him for writing. This seems evident in the language of the 1982 preface, in which, below, I italicize the phrases that signal Goyen's intimate, necessary connection to the six women—his choosing of them in order to strengthen, restore, tend, his sense of his own dilemma as an artist:
What I'm writing is six separate but over-woven or interlocking (through me, the narrator) biographical narratives. What follows are presentations of six women as introduction to them. The six biographical narratives really ride over, or under, a larger, encompassing autobiographical narrative that will, in the whole, constitute a social and literary document covering the years in which I knew the people (1945-1981), but also covering the span of each life (i.e., Frieda Lawrence in Germany, Mexico, etc.), Katherine Anne Porter in Texas, Paris, Mexico, New York, etc.
These lives that my life encountered and involved itself with and was notably influenced by are, I believe, interesting if not extraordinary. A couple were revolutionary in influence and action; all were unique individuals out of the mainstream following their own way, not yet known, or not written about in any depth of scope if they are. They were women of style and fashion (Millicent Rogers), art (Dorothy Brett), theatre (Margo Jones), Letters (Katherine Anne Porter); all seemed to me to be searching for, enjoying or fleeing an image of life that was counter to the conventional one of woman as Serving Wife, Listener Only, Mother.
Goyen did try to construct that chronological narrative, even if it would be focused on other lives; he wrote that altogether the lives he would narrate would be "those of Frieda Lawrence, Dorothy Brett, Margo Jones, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Millicent Rogers, Katherine Anne Porter, Ann Green, my father, an American editor (Robert N. Linscott of Random House), a distinguished British poet [probably Stephen Spender], a great European critic and translator of my first novel (Ernst Robert Curtius), Anaïs Nin, and more" (unpublished HRC manuscript "Note on an Autobiography in Work"). Two names are notably absent—those of the men with whom Goyen had important relationships: Walter Berns, with whom he served in the U.S. Navy and lived in Taos, later a political scientist; and Joseph Glasco, a painter.
The cause of this absence might lie as much in Goyen's creative psyche as it does in his prudence. Goyen said in our 1982 interview, "It's often a woman's voice talking to me" (TriQuarterly interview in Part II). He would speak of his contradictory relationship with his mother, whose emotional blackmail had made him suffer and yet whose Texas voice remained one of his great sources of life and art. "As a literary person I truly am the offspring of my mother and women like my mother," he said in an interview (published in The Paris Review and reproduced here as the first interview in Part II). "Hers was a singing way of expressing things, and this I heard so very early that it became my own speech; that's the way I write. I love spending money to talk to her on the phone in Texas an hour at a time because it's just as though the curtain that came down on an opera last night goes right up when I call her tonight. The aria goes right on; it's wonderful."
Yet he also told of how, not long after he had returned at last to Texas from the Navy and World War II, his mother had fallen ill—perhaps, we might think, partly in order to keep him from leaving her. She had been hospitalized, he told, and during her recovery he had become more and more apprehensive about staying in Texas; he really could not bear it and had to get out. What would evoke in him his artistic work was elsewhere; what she and Houston then evoked in him was oppressive and stifling. On the day when he brought his mother home from the hospital to the little house at 914 Merrill Street, in the old Houston neighborhood called the Heights, she saw, as soon as the two of them entered the front door, Goyen's small cardboard suitcase standing in the front hall. Containing the very little that he owned, it was packed, and he was ready to leave. "What is that?" she had asked. "I'm leaving," he replied. "If you leave, I'll die," she said. And he replied: "If I don't leave, I will die."
A monitory, prohibiting, emotionally exhausting figure of woman was threatening yet at the same time vital to his creativity. Among his manuscripts is a single typed sheet, dated March 15 but not by year, on which Goyen wrote:
In the doctor's office—a sudden trance, illuminations into dreams, memories, all relating, one leading into another, so that a mass of experiences came upon me, many layers, faces, houses, living presences, living spirits invaded my consciousness. I was almost overwhelmed and when I came to, or out of it, I felt lost for a moment, did not know where I was, or quite who I was, amnesiac, could hardly think of how to get home, where home was, when I had left home to come to the doctor, or what time it was.
This morass of deep memory of dreams hovered over by the spirit, figure, presence of a woman. The visions in this trance-state had to do with physical sickness, something about blood, somebody who was supposed to come but didn't arrive . . . and much more that I cannot now recall; but each vision brought on another, and so I was overwhelmed, when I came to, by a loss of sense of place, identity, time, reality.
The sheet was probably typed when Goyen lived in New York, for in a few handwritten words beneath the typed paragraphs he mentions his wife, Doris Roberts, whom he married in 1963: "Was the woman Doris, faith, my mother, my sister, the pervading Woman Presence?" I do not know if he meant to capitalize "faith" as a proper name. But a kind of yielding faith to what cannot be proven, or perhaps even understood, in this case in the form of the presiding (female) spirit that Goyen here characterizes, produced an effect on him that was sometimes necessary for creation, for he often said that for him writing was a being possessed by an other, a listening to another voice speaking. In a notebook late in life he summarized this in a way that also recalls his statement, above, that in his vision there was "somebody who was supposed to come but didn't arrive":
>1. Writing and waiting (for:)
2. Finding the voice
Hearing the voice. Story is told to me, I tell it to you.
Otherwise I don't write—or can't write.
It is not surprising that Goyen's prospectus of short autobiographical pieces represents only the first six persons—all of them women—of his full list. But then in a typescript dated April 12, 1983—that is, in the last months of his life in which he was able to work and while he was finishing Arcadio, he outlined a third conception of a proposed autobiographical work, returning to the persons he had named in his longer list and even adding others, but this time following a conventional chronological unfolding of his own life:
Autobiography of William Goyen
I. Texas, Small Town (1920's).
II. Texas, Young City (1930's).
1. cf. "While You Were Away," letter to father, as model.
2. Margo Jones.
III. South Pacific. War life on an aircraft carrier (1940-1945).
IV. New Mexico (1945-1957).
1. Building adobe house with Taos Indians.
2. Kiowa (D. H. Lawrence) Ranch.
3. Frieda Lawrence.
4. Dorothy Brett, Mabel Dodge, Millicent Rogers.
V. New York in the Fifties and Sixties.
1. Writing and Publishing. Robert N. Linscott, Capote, McCullers et al.
2. Katherine Anne Porter.
3. Easthampton. A writer living among painters (Abstract Expressionists).
4. Early Yaddo. Elizabeth Ames, Elizabeth Bishop, Eleanor Clark et al.
VI. Another Man's Son. Marriage, Step-fatherhood.
1. New York Publishing. On being an editor.
2. Illness. The dark.
VII. New Life, New York. The palms of Los Angeles. The light.
To read this now seems to me painful—Goyen, ever more valedictory, tries to imagine a way of making his autobiography, and thus his own artistic accomplishment, more acceptable to the conventional appetite for chronological sequence while suppressing not only his writerly impulse, which would have created a work more in keeping with his artistic method, but also (again) any mention of two important relationships. But recall that Goyen turned twenty in 1935 and lived for decades of love and writing in danger of public humiliation and even penalty if he were to acknowledge his love of both women and men. And recall that he knew the publishing business very well from his years of working at McGraw-Hill and understood what kinds of books that business wanted.
Perhaps to help him locate himself in chronological time, where Goyen was not always best at dwelling, he also typed out a one-page aide-mémoir that he titled "Address of residence of period from January 1, 1960 to June, 1963," in which he noted in detail his apartments, hotels, rented houses, travels. (In conversation in the last years of his life, he would cite this thought from Beckett, "The writer is a passager"—a mere passing figure in this world.) Even though at some moments Goyen wanted nothing more than to be permanently settled, hidden away in a "nest," as he would put it, he also tried repeatedly and at least sometimes successfully to encourage himself by thinking of figures and instances of isolation and transitoriness, by using the thought of his own isolation and, as he felt it, near invisibility as a writer, as a kind of reassurance that this apartness, whether he wished it or suffered it, freed him artistically. Taped onto the first page of a notebook dated 1978 and 1979 is a tiny newspaper clipping that reports Vicente Aleixandre's comments after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1977: "The Nobel Prize is an honor . . . but it is also an accident, one which cannot touch the substance of the poet. I have my own world. I have completed and am completing my destiny. To be a poet is to be. The Nobel prize has not changed my life in essence. I have been working for 50 years. I continue working." The clipping is torn off, leaving this final, incomplete fragment expressing what was for Goyen a complete thought: "Mr. Aleixandre, little known outside the Spanish-speaking world until . . ."
Somehow arising out of Goyen's sense of isolation, of forbidden as well as permitted love, and of being in transit is his artistic method of writing in voices. Or perhaps it is the writing in voices, which he pursued almost from the beginning of his artistic career, that added to his sense of isolation and of being a passager. In a notebook, Goyen copied out the following passage (which he identified only as coming from a biography of Beckett), and he underlined the last sentence:
. . . Jung spoke of the complexes that form personalities of themselves, appear as visitors and speak in voices which are as the voices of real, definite people. Beckett has often called his prose writing a series, with each character supposedly evolving from all the preceding ones. His characters speak with different voices, sometimes assume different names and identities, tell their own stories and sometimes tell the stories of each other . . .
Interesting enough in itself as an articulation of a concept of fiction with close conceptual affinity to Goyen's, however different their work is in manner, this account of Beckett is even more telling where it appears in yet another place, copied out by hand on a loose sheet from a lined 8.5-by-11-inch pad where, at the bottom of the page, it follows this quotation, which was evidently taken from a letter that Goyen had received:
Jean Wagner, Prof. of Amer. Studies
Université de Grenoble III
Domaine Universitaire de Saint Martin de'Heres
BP 25X 38040 Grenoble Cedez
"While we assumed that Berryben is the narrator throughout, we ran up against the character of Boy, of whom honestly we do not know what to make. Would you please be so kind as to give us some assistance in this respect? Who is he exactly? Some passages induce one to believe he is just an alter ego to Berryben, but this interpretation is not always satisfactory. Also, if this theory of a dual character holds true, is [this] the relevance of your quotation from Rimbaud, 'JE est un autre'?"
That famous sentence from nineteenth-century France, in which the young poet Arthur Rimbaud asserts that "I" is in fact an "other," is one of two epigraphs to The House of Breath. How was such a writer to produce an autobiography, except at least partly by entering the being or at least hearing and then ventriloquizing the voices of others? Of his extraordinary first novel, Goyen says in our 1982 interview, "In fact, I am every one of the characters, men and women" (Part II, TriQuarterly interview). By being all of them in turn, Goyen could get at the ground of his own being: a lifelong struggle between conflicting and yet complementary impulses—not only between listening and telling, but also between woman and man, between creativity and despair. He wrote on a small sheet from a hotel notepad, without dating this thought: "A spiritual autobiography. Search for purity (of spirit) vs. Sensuality of body, & lust, and erotic sense of life."
And so these values and many others are legible in both Goyen's fiction and the autobiographical writings in this volume—values that include a profound acknowledgment of the emotional wounds that life inflicts on us and indeed a tender compassion for the afflicted and wounded; a love of the sounds of the storytelling English of East Texas; an openness to the exaggerated, the magical, and fanciful, and the terrifyingly dreamlike; and a fascination with searching, waiting, passing through.
In addition to Goyen's writing, both fragmentary and finished, this volume presents three retrospective interviews. There is much more interview material, both in print and in Goyen's papers, but these three instances seem essential to any volume that would give a sense of how Goyen saw his own development and achievement as he looked back. The interview in the French magazine Masques is one of the very few instances in which Goyen spoke directly about how he saw sexuality, which after all is of central concern to him in his fiction. The interview in The Paris Review, conducted by Robert Phillips and edited by Phillips and Goyen, is especially valuable because it fills in a great deal of biographical detail. The interview in TriQuarterly gives us his retrospective sense of what he had wanted to accomplish as an artist and what he saw as the meaning of that accomplishment. The reader should not expect perfect consistency in what Goyen says in the interviews or even consistency of manner, yet even though Goyen's voice and emphasis may differ from interview to interview—understandably, given the three different interlocutors and occasions—it is always a most recognizable Goyen who is speaking. As his fiction shows repeatedly, Goyen was many. In this volume Goyen, the great listener to how human identity (including his own) is created in a way of speaking, Goyen the visionary ventriloquist, does his own different voices.
In all the material in this collection that has been transcribed from unpublished sources, those typographical errors, idiosyncratic punctuation, and obvious omissions or repetitions of words that seem to me not to invite interpretation in themselves have been silently corrected. Some, however, have been left intact, precisely because of their interest—for example, Goyen's misspellings of a few words. Goyen's underlining in works left unpublished has been preserved, but in those works that were published, and thus for which Goyen corrected proofs, conventional italics have been used. Goyen's handwritten corrections of typescripts have been incorporated into this published text except when the context and corrections convinced me that the handwritten words had remained for Goyen unresolved alternatives. In the fragments and in other unpublished works, Goyen's habit of capitalizing certain nouns that seem to deserve special emphasis in country speech has been mostly preserved; the effect is of a kind of mild awe at a word of genuine moment.
Of the previously published material reproduced here, the most difficult case has been the interview from the French magazine Masques. This particular textual problem is complicated—with his interlocutor, Goyen recorded an audio tape that did not capture the entire interview, which was in English; Goyen or his interlocutor or both of them apparently then compressed the meandering conversation very greatly and elaborated some additions; the resulting text, which was evidently rather different in many small ways from what Goyen said on the tape, was then translated into French. The original raw interview, newly transcribed by me from the audio tape, is not suitable for publication; this retranslation into English of the published French text has been corrected by reference to Goyen's original words in English when passages are parallel but the French version clearly includes a misunderstanding of what Goyen said or mentioned in English. But nothing in the French that was added to what was originally spoken has been removed now, and when the two sources diverge from each other more substantively, the retranslation of the French into English has been preferred because I have assumed that Goyen approved of this compressed version either before or after it was translated.
The previously unpublished work in this collection is all drawn from William Goyen's papers in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I offer special thanks to Cathy Henderson, who many years ago first began to help me with the Goyen papers; to Kurt Heinzelman, who invited and aided this project, and to Eric Lupfer, who assisted; to Thomas F. Staley, the director of the HRC, whose custodianship of these papers and the innumerable other priceless manuscripts in the collection makes possible our detailed attention to the process of literary creation; to Emma Stapely, for her draft of the retranslation from French back into English of the interview with Goyen in Masques; and to Emma again and to Brian Garfield and to Kyrra Rowley for research assistance. In what follows, reference is occasionally made to William Goyen, Selected Letters from a Writer's Life, edited by Robert Phillips (University of Texas Press, 1995), as Letters.