William Goyen was a writer of startling originality and deep artistic commitment whose work attracted an international audience and the praise of such luminaries as Northrop Frye, Truman Capote, Gaston Bachelard, and Joyce Carol Oates. His subject was the land and language of his native East Texas; his desire, to preserve the narrative music through which he came to know his world. Goyen sought to transform the cherished details of his lost boyhood landscape into lasting, mythic forms. Cut off from his native soil and considering himself an “orphan,” Goyen brought modernist alienation and experimentation to Texas materials. The result was a body of work both sophisticated and handmade—and a voice at once inimitable and unmistakable.
It Starts with Trouble is the first complete account of Goyen’s life and work. It uncovers the sources of his personal and artistic development, from his early years in Trinity, Texas, through his adolescence and college experience in Houston; his Navy service during World War II; and the subsequent growth of his writing career, which saw the publication of five novels, including The House of Breath, nonfiction works such as A Book of Jesus, several short story collections and plays, and a book of poetry. It explores Goyen’s relationships with such legendary figures as Frieda Lawrence, Katherine Anne Porter, Stephen Spender, Anaïs Nin, and Carson McCullers. No other twentieth-century writer attempted so intimate a connection with his readers, and no other writer of his era worked so passionately to recover the spiritual in an age of disabling irony. Goyen’s life and work are a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling and the absolute necessity of narrative art.
Clark Davis is Professor of English at the University of Denver. He is the author of Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement and After the Whale: Melville in the Wake of Moby-Dick.
Mr. Davis has done a great service in recounting the major events of Goyen’s life, and reminding us, along the way, of his remarkable literary achievement.
~Micah Mattix, The Wall Street Journal
More than three decades after [Goyen's] death, his stubbornness finds its reward in this smart, admiring and attentive biography by Clark Davis.
~Louis Bayard, The New York Times Sunday Book Review
In this stellar biography, Davis (After the Whale) deftly examines the life of a complex and overlooked figure in the history of American literature . . . This lively and enlightening biography will resurrect Goyen’s brilliant writing for a new generation of readers.
~Publishers Weekly, starred review
This biography offers a thorough and illuminating grounding.
By writing a biography that focuses on an author’s work as much as it focuses on his drama-filled biography, Davis has successfully avoided writing a sensationalistic book. As an added benefit, he has avoided speculating about the unknown facts of the life of a man who was 'often sharply protective of his personal information,' who 'worked very hard to maintain control of his image.'
In It Starts With Trouble, Clark Davis makes the compelling case that William Goyen deserves to be discovered again by American readers.
~Dallas Morning News
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 . . . . Like Goyen, Davis understands what writing is for. He reminds us of the stakes of art, of being an artist.
~Los Angeles Review of Books
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.
~Amy Gentry, Texas Observer
An excellent new study of Goyen’s life and work.
Clark Davis has undertaken the challenge of setting William Goyen among his contemporaries, a place where he should have always belonged . . . Exploring the extraordinary life that began in Trinity, Texas, It Starts With Trouble is a great guide for those wishing to learn more about Charles William Goyen as a writer, a husband, and a human being.
~Texas Books in Review
Davis is uncommonly adept at keeping the narrative of Goyen’s life in East Texas, Taos, New Mexico, Rome, New York, California, Germany, well-paced, while working in sensitive commentary on the art and substance of the writing. . . . [His] life of Goyen may inspire readers to dust off and open the works—among the finest in world fiction.
~David Madden, The Key Reporter
It Starts With Trouble is a confident, compelling biography and critical assessment based on prodigious research. William Goyen is highly regarded in Europe, and a book this good should revive interest in an author who has been unfairly neglected in his home country.
~Gregory Curtis, former editor of Texas Monthly and author of The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists
William Goyen was one of the great, great writers of the twentieth century, and Clark Davis’ terrific book is an incisive study of the relationship between an author’s life and work. It’s stuffed not with psychobabble, the way so many such studies are, but with careful examples of how this underappreciated master transformed his central concerns into complex, compelling, and beautiful novels, stories, and essays. ‘It starts with trouble,’ Goyen said of the origins of his work. Davis is to be applauded for this fine elucidation of how trouble, Texas, landscape, love, and the longing for the divine led to the creation of some of the richest prose ever written in America. This book is a gem.
~Rebecca Brown, author of American Romances and The Gifts of the Body
Clark Davis’s biography of William Goyen is a sensitive, insightful, and revealing study of one of the great novelists of the late twentieth century, a writer who very much deserves this passionate, thoughtful rediscovery.
~Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls Rising and Devil’s Dream
List of Abbreviations
Prologue: The Drowning
Part I: The House in the Bitterweeds
1. Trinity: 1915–1922
2. Merrill Street: 1923–1931
3. Rice Institute: 1932–1941
Part II: Song of Leaving
4. Ulysses: 1942–1945
5. El Prado: 1945–1948
6. Christopher Icarus: 1948–1950
7. The House of Breath: 1950
8. Marvello: 1950–1953
9. A Farther Country: 1954–1956
10. Blood Kindred: 1957–1962
Part III: The Rider at the Door
11. “A New Life”: 1962–1964
12. A Living Jesus: 1966–1973
13. The Restorer: 1974
14. Precious Door: 1975–1981
15. The Nurseryman: 1976–1982
16. Arcadio: 1983
17. The Wound and the Bow: 1982–1983
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