Celebrating a “writer’s writer” whose friends and rivals included Katherine Anne Porter, Stephen Spender, and Truman Capote, this definitive biography of William Goyen offers the first complete account of the life and writings of the acclaimed author of The House of Breath and Arcadio.
"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
"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."—The Wall Street Journal
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.
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
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.”
—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
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” (GAE 96). 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” (GAE 66).
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” (HHM vii). 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.
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. (HHM 256–257)
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.”1 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 consumr (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 selfproclaimed 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” (GAE 58). 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,
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.”
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 (CS x)—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.
It Starts with Trouble emerged out of a basic desire to gather and present the facts of Goyen’s life as they relate to the production of his art. Goyen has been fortunate in attracting very good criticism, but the efforts of the relatively few commentators devoted to his work have necessarily been partial and introductory. Robert Phillips, a close friend and important promoter of Goyen’s work, produced the first booklength guide, including a short biography, in 1979. This was followed by Reginald Gibbons’s William Goyen: A Study of the Short Fiction in 1991 and Patrice Repusseau’s William Goyen: de la maison vers le foyer, published in Paris the same year. Repusseau’s account, based on his earlier master’s thesis, covers Goyen’s formative years through his time at Rice. Though unfortunately never translated into English, it remains one of the most thorough accounts of Goyen’s childhood and youth and is particularly valuable for its investigation of Goyen’s student writings. The publication in 1995 of a selection of Goyen’s letters, edited by Phillips and chosen to highlight Goyen’s writing career rather than his personal life, provided the first close look at this writer’s deeply thoughtful and passionate attempts to find and maintain his idiosyncratic vision.
Relatively few independent critical articles were published during the later years of Goyen’s life and the period since his death in 1983, but there have been notable attempts by literary journals to solicit and publish a range of important materials, including critical readings. In France, Repusseau oversaw a special edition of Delta in 1979 that included French and American criticism, some of Goyen’s letters, and one of his most revealing late interviews. The Mid-American Review assembled its own Goyen issue in 1992, collecting several new and important critical essays and publishing excerpts from manuscripts and remembrances by an array of friends and colleagues. This tribute issue provided material toward the publication of A Goyen Companion: Appreciations of a Writer’s Writer in 1997, a volume produced by the editors of the Texas Review, another journal, along with TriQuarterly, that has been consistent in its devotion to Goyen studies.
Despite this steady if periodic level of interest, no complete study of Goyen’s life and work has been produced, and it is arguable that further critical exploration of his writing has been handicapped by a general lack of information.6 It Starts with Trouble is meant to fill this gap and to be a starting place for scholars, critics, and general readers who want to know more about this unusual and deeply affecting writer. In this sense, the book serves the traditional purpose of a literary biography but does so, I hope, with a more than usual sensitivity to the limits of the genre. Journalistic life writing as it is currently conceived and frequently practiced, despite disclaimers to the contrary, leans heavily on the conceit of exhaustiveness. While all biography intends to give shape and wholeness to the welter of facts that constitute personal history, there is something to be said for reminding ourselves of the brokenness of individual experience, particularly for a writer who saw the fragment as a fundamental feature of reality. Goyen understood the essentially tragic nature of existence as a function of our inability to gather what we have lost. He saw the wonder and hope of life in our determination to save what remained nevertheless, to bring order to the salvaged remnants of time and remembrance. Such arrangements, like the quilts sewn by his mother and women like her, were acts of salvation in the face of loss, ways of making that did not and could not reclaim everything but made something new out of the broken. All lives, literary or otherwise, are similarly piecemeal. All archives are metaphors for how memory speaks to us through both presence and absence, through the remnant and the space between what remains. And so the biography, no matter how assiduously it wrestles to find a communicable form, should always do so within the shadow cast by what is missing or lost.
In Goyen’s case, many aspects of his early life do remain in the shadows. We have only a limited sense, for instance, of the background of his extended family, the Goyens and the Trows, who inspired many of the characters in The House of Breath. Likewise, only hints and indirect suggestions remain that can tell us what this wider family thought of his writing, his style of living, and his refusal to settle in Texas. Goyen’s early relationships, particularly romantic attachments, are especially veiled, and his romantic life in general, outside of his major relationships, is often more the stuff of rumor than reliable fact. As a consequence, much of the information about Goyen’s early years is limited to what the writer himself chose to share, an absence of perspective that appears to reflect, at least partially, an embarrassed reluctance among surviving family members to speak of his life and work. Goyen’s nephew Don Gerrard indirectly suggested Goyen’s reputation within his family when he explained that his mother, Goyen’s sister Kathryn, had once told him that he could do anything he wanted with his life, “Just don’t be like your uncle Bill.” 7 The attitude may have been justified; Goyen was often both an emotional and financial burden to his family and could be so consumed with his own trials that he failed to tend to others’. But it also indicates that his sense of exile was not a figment of his imagination: there was resentment and disapproval beneath the politeness of family interaction, and some of that chill may survive to this day, if only as a socially conservative culture’s distrust of its own complexity.
Was this strategy of avoidance a family attitude that led to Goyen’s own penchant for secrecy? Possibly. The habit of not speaking can be difficult to break, particularly when the bonds of affection are intensified by absence. Whatever the case, Goyen was often sharply protective of his personal information. Despite the very large collection of materials housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, his archive is by no means exhaustive, and in some instances he clearly preferred to avoid a document trail. When it comes to information regarding sales of his books, for instance, he could be defiant against requests for statistics, particularly later in his life when editors tied approval of new publications to evidence of past revenues. In gestures that were both aggressive and defensive, Goyen worked very hard throughout his life to maintain control of his image. A letter to the bibliographer Clyde Grimm provides a brief glimpse of this sometimes intense vigilance. After answering Grimm’s long questionnaire in detail, Goyen concluded with this caveat:
It’s very important that it be clear that this is only information that I’m giving you. Please do not quote me in my own words. I can’t give you my approval to do so. In other words, I am not writing these things for the pamphlet or for you to quote. Thanks for understanding this; and I ask you to write to me telling me that you will give me approval of the manuscript when it is finished and before it is published. I’d also like the right of approval of proof before the pamphlet is finally printed.
Such an eye to his public persona might be considered merely prudent and less than fearful if it weren’t for the regular secrecies and omissions of Goyen’s correspondence over the years. Many of these elisions issued directly from attempts to conceal his sexuality, though more generally they seem motivated by a desire to avoid bad or upsetting news when writing to his parents. The impulse to hide—to avoid trouble and create private spaces for protection and dreaming—was fundamental to his personality. And he knew it. Working through his past to understand his alcoholism in the 1970s, he identified his “creative being” as one associated with “hiding”: “1. Blanket over chairs— hidden world, exquisite aloneness. Self-pity, abasement, secretiveness. 2. What is ‘reality’? I said. ‘And whose reality? Who wants that reality. Let those others have that. I’ll make my own reality’ ” (HRC 29.6). To make a secret space and construct there your own imperium may suggest a childish retreat, but it was also Goyen’s way of nurturing a self that could hold out against the hostility and misunderstanding of his upbringing. One of the triumphs of his art was the recognition that the hidden always remains; writing was not confession but a way to gather emotions made stronger by confinement and repression.
Describing his second book, Ghost and Flesh, to his editor Robert Linscott, Goyen insisted that the artist is not only isolated, cut off, an outcast “longing for the whole” but
a kind of magnet that attracts and carries about, seeks for, heavily loaded with it, the enormous burden of humanity’s ghosts—and that in this sense he exists in a kind of twilit graveyard world surrounded by the ghostly part of everything that ever had flesh or blood or light in its face and upon its limbs—he is laboring to make the epitaphs for all things dead and so keep them alive, to return life to them. It is, then, a divine project that he is about, and a very human one, too; for with one hand he is handling and caressing life and with the other he is warming death.
The project slowly formulated by the boy hiding under the blanket— initially perhaps little more than an emotional response to loneliness— became the idea of rescue, salvation: to save, not as a minister might in a church but as an exile can when burdened with the task of remembrance. To be devoted to this province of spirit is to be separate, but it is also to understand more keenly how physical desire drives the need to recover. The “handling and caressing” of life is always shadowed by the ghost’s burden, the sense that what is held and loved is momentary, spectral, already lost.
William Goyen chose—or was chosen—to give his life to this task. As a consequence, each story he wrote was a kind of trial, less an occasion for a display of sharpness or wit than a test of devotion. How can one possibly “make the epitaphs for all things dead” and come out whole or happy? How can art that asks so much not take from its creator some of the shine of his living?
The bridge from Trinity, Texas, to the nearby town of Riverside is like any other on a modern rural highway—a twin span of concrete sliding low and flat over dark water. In the early
1920s, however, this important link between the two small towns was made of a combination of wood and steel, and it creaked and groaned to such an extent that Emma Goyen, the young mother of William Goyen, was afraid to cross it in the family car. To her husband’s exasperation, she made him pull off the road before they reached the river. Then she got out, let the car pull away, and walked. Many years later, her son would write of the strange sight of his mother moving fearfully across the beautiful but unstable bridge: “My sister and I peered back at the small figure of our mother laboring darkly and utterly alone on the infernal contraption which was her torment. I remember my father getting out of the car, on the other side, waiting at the side of the road, looking toward the bridge, watching my mother’s creeping progress. When she arrived, pale, she declared, as she did each time, ‘I vow to the Lord if my sister Sarah didn’t live in Riverside I’d never to my soul come near this place’ ” (CS 284).
The Goyen story that contains this brief but significant anecdote is called “Bridge of Music, River of Sand.” It concerns a man’s return to the town of his birth and the site of a family legend. The narrator, a slightly off-center, not entirely stable personality, is searching for signs of his past, scraps of memory. He drives to the river a mile or so outside of town, out onto the decayed bridge now slated for demolition, and just as he himself begins to feel his mother’s terror (“the whole construction swayed and made such a sound of crackling and clanking”), he sees something extraordinary: a naked man, “diving from the old railroad trestle” into the moist sand of the dry riverbed. Horrified, he makes his way off the bridge and out of his car, hurrying to where he can still see the body, “a figure on its knees with its head buried in the sand, as if it had decided not to look at the world any more. And then the figure began to sink as if someone underground were pulling it under. Slowly the stomach, lean and hairy, vanished; then the loins, thighs. The river, which had swallowed half his body, now seemed to be eating the rest of it. For a while the feet lay, soles up, on the sand. And then they went down, arched like a dancer’s” (CS 281–282).
The narrator has no idea what to do about the fallen man. He climbs onto the railroad bridge, as though to see what the man has seen. He finds no evidence, no clothes or footprints; he isn’t even sure he saw it happen now that the body is gone. He wonders if he’s suffering a “kind of bridge madness” or from hallucinations brought on by “going back to places haunted by deep feeling.” Then he remembers his mother’s fear and through that memory a related story, barely mentioned, repressed actually, but essential to the vision. It is his sister’s voice that prompts it, making clear a family ritual:
“Mama,” said my sister, trying to pacify the situation. “Tell us about the time you almost drowned in the river and Daddy had to jump in and pull you out.”
“Well, it was just right over yonder. We’d been fishing all morning, and . . .” (CS 284)
We don’t hear the rest of the mother’s story; the narrator moves on, casually dodging the hidden center of his own telling. But Goyen did tell the rest, and more than once. In an interview conducted not long before the publication of “Bridge of Music,” he explained the significance of this spot near the bridge:
I was in my mother’s body when she almost drowned in that very river. . . and she was with . . . the terrible thing was that she was with another girl friend . . . they were just seventeen . . . young things, and the girl drowned, and it was she whom they pulled out and rolled over a log— the way they did Otey [in his first novel, The House of Breath], so you see my mother witnessed that and my father pulled them both out, and it was hideous, for poor country people. . . .
Some childhood stories have, or attain, a defining force. This prenatal scene of death, drowning, and near-drowning—as though the one girl might be the other’s double—seems already mythic. Its frequent repetition (“They told me this so early—they kept telling me this story, and for years . . .”) often in the context of his mother’s understandable fear of water, set firm its significance. Orphanage. This was the word Goyen eventually chose for the sense of isolation and loneliness he had felt since he was a child: “it’s not physical, it’s not material, it’s truly spiritual. I have always had it from a tiny boy, lying on a pallet. I had a sister and a brother. But that permeated most everything. I was the oldest. . . . My mother was an invalid most of the time, and so I took care of my sister, and took care of her, she was always in the bed.” And it isn’t difficult to picture a young boy able to imagine his own mother’s death by drowning, able to feel in some sense connected to it, possibly responsible, somehow the product of both rescue and loss.
The idea of the unborn child saved from drowning surreptitiously feeds and haunts the story’s naked figure drowned in sand; his slow absorption is a birth in reverse, a more intense sterility unmaking the past. But true to Goyen’s deeply probing, oneiric method, the story never unpacks these burdened signs. They remain integral, fully charged, thick with unspeakable feeling. The narrator has returned to his sacred place, the site of birth, death, and fear—the site of crossings, transitions, a gateway both dangerous and destabilizing—to see in his blurred condition a vision of himself, of his own disturbed seeking, a telling suicide of the bared self pitching forward into dryness.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
ReviewQuotes::Author, 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