The first biography of a tormented writer.
Joyce Carol Oates called William Goyen (1915-1983) “the most mysterious of writers…a seer; a troubled visionary; a spiritual presence in a national literature largely deprived of the spiritual.” Admired but hardly popular, Goyen never achieved the readership he coveted, as his difficult, emotionally effuse fiction read like “anguished confessions or emblem-rich sermons.” In this sympathetic study, Davis (English/Univ. of Denver; Hawthorne's Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement, 2005, etc.) draws extensively on that fiction, in addition to letters, interviews, and a memoir by Goyen’s wife, actress Doris Roberts. Goyen grew up in East Texas and Houston, alienated and lonely. An emotionally fragile child, he was intimidated by his strict father, who quashed his desire to study music and dance. All of Goyen’s work, Davis writes, “can be understood as experimental spiritual autobiography,” centered on characters “set in opposition to the world”: “exiles, loners, kept apart less by a conscious rebelliousness than by an innate but often inexpressible difference.” Goyen felt different, in part, because he was bisexual. Intense affairs with men and the homophobic writer Katherine Anne Porter preceded his marriage to Roberts, at the age of 48. An artist, Goyen said, “is a disturbed, distressed, obsessed human being.” Fellow writer Anaïs Nin described him as “a man in pain…a wounded man.” His efforts to assuage his pain led to alcoholism; his search for spiritual comfort led to a religious conversion that resulted in his writing A Book of Jesus and taking on the role of “an eccentric evangelist,” treating dinner companions to readings from the New Testament.
Goyen’s “intensely poetic style” may dissuade contemporary readers, but for those who return to his work, this biography offers a thorough and illuminating grounding.