Thursday, December 23, 2010

CHASM—Two Letters From William Goyen

William Goyen, who died at the age of 68 in 1983, was born in Trinity, Texas, in 1915. He is the author of the acclaimed House of Breath (1950), The Collected Stories (1975, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1977), and the novel Arcadio (1982), as well as numerous plays and short works. Mr. Goyen lived and worked primarily in New York and Los Angeles with his wife, the actress Doris Roberts.

Along with so many other visionary authors, I have the diarist Anaïs Nin to thank for exposing me to Goyen's poetic prose. While I was attending college in Emporia, Kansas, the fifth volume of Anaïs's already-infamous diaries had just been published and—though I lived on a student's meager income—I bought a hardbound first edition first printing. I took note of the following passage written in the winter of 1949-1950: "Possibly the only expression of American energy will be scientific, industrial, and the only vital art which can match up to it will be jazz. Possibly the American novel [will] never be written, certainly not by the new novelists who instead of maturity portray hysteria, brutality in place of feeling, clichés in place of revelation, obscenity in place of sensual vitality. But William Goyen writes House of Breath, a beautiful, sensitive novel, subtle and like a waking dream (1974:54)."

That was cue enough for me to hunt out House of Breath, which—to paraphrase Goyen's fully-sympathetic gay character Folner—was my sensual revelation. No writer, not even Anaïs, has had such a profound influence upon my own writing. I even used one of Goyen's short stories "Ghost and Flesh, Water and Dirt" to satisfy a directing assignment in one of my theater classes.

Continuing in her sixth diary, Anaïs wrote in the Fall of 1956 that Goyen was "a master of atmosphere and suggestion" but characterized him as a wounded writer who—though critically acclaimed, especially in Europe—had been deeply hurt by his commercial failure at home (1976:63). All these years later, Goyen has nearly been forgotten; but, in my heart, he remains a writer's writer whose work will bear the critical scrutiny of time, no matter if the buying public has abandoned him.

What struck me immediately about Goyen's writing was his access to spiritual insight through sensual experience. For me, this rang authentic, true and relevant. I discovered him before moving to San Francisco and so—as yet—had few positive gay role models. Thus, I derived much solace from House of Breath, particularly Goyen's character Folner who resonated with me to the marrow, all the more for knowing who he was. "Right away," Folner declared, "I learned what I was and went on like that, what I was and used myself for that, made no bones about—and can't say the same for most of the rest of Charity who don't know who they are. What matters if it got me death?" (Years later during the AIDS pandemic Folner's bold assertion reverberated with an eerie and disconcerting precision, but back then, when I first discovered him, he was inspirational for being a character way ahead of his time and for encouraging free self-expression.)

Goyen practiced a compassion for gender variance in 1950 that was practically unheard of at the time and his writing was equally as prescient regarding ecological concerns, which have sadly come to bear in recent years. When I headed out hitchhiking to San Francisco in 1975, it was very much in the spirit of Folner's rebellion against rural ennui. "I was wild for the world of a flashing eye and life castanetting round and stomping an insinuating foot. Sometimes in Charity I couldn't stand it any longer and would go out in the henhouse and make up dreams and play like I was something grand and royal and march up and down with a poker for a cane, with only the chickens to watch me. And then love myself and feel real again, a kind of tremor from the world ran through me." In Goyen's tale, Folner runs away from Charity, Texas with a trapeze acrobat from a traveling circus and leads a decadent but full life in the city. How could I not relate?

Once I relocated to San Francisco, I continued to familiarize myself with Goyen's writing wherever I could find it. In the Fall of 1977 I read his short story "The Shape of Light" and was so moved that I boldly phoned information in New York to get his number, and left a series of enthusiastic messages on his answering machine. I followed up by writing a letter to him through his publisher Doubleday and received a response written on Christmas Day, 1977: "Dear Michael Guillén: I'm here in Boston over Christmas and I want to tell you how much it meant to me to hear, out of the blue, your message on my answering tape. I thank you, and I thank you for following your impulse to communicate your feelings then, as you were feeling them. Of course it was an affirmation. I wonder if you could know what it made me feel? ...Thanks again for your lovely gift."

* * *

It seemed that whenever I read one of Goyen's short stories I felt compelled to write him a letter and I began to dream of staging The House of Breath as a theatrical production in San Francisco. I didn't hear from Goyen again, however, until September 1978 when he wrote me from Los Angeles: "Dear Michael: After a long time of physical troubles, I'm here resting and doing some writing until the end of October. My wife is working here in films and television and so I commute (now that I've finished my Princeton University tenure) between L.A. and N.Y. I'm just recovering from surgery and am lying close and low as I heal and regain my strength. I shall return to N.Y. at end of October and be there for the month of November at the N.Y. address you've used.

"Meantime, I haven't forgotten your beautiful letters to me and your hopes to do some work in the theater with The House of Breath. Of course you are welcome. Could you write to me here or call me if you're still interested? It's been many months of problems and please forgive my silence.

"Meantime, you might even write to my agent, Audrey Wood ... just to let her know what your feelings and wishes are. Only to inform her, nothing more.

"I do hope all is well with you and that your life is full and fruitful. I am a year into a long piece of work which I love. But mainly trying to recover right now.

"If I'm strong enough it may be possible for me to come to San Francisco late October before I go to New York, to visit my nephew, Don Gerrard, who co-published The House of Breath. ...Yours sincerely, William Goyen."

* * *

It was only later that I realized Goyen was suffering from leukemia and, thus, not well enough to visit the Bay Area. But within a week or two of receiving his letter, a hardbound copy of the 25th anniversary reprint of The House of Breath arrived in my mailbox with the inscription: "For Michael Guillén, wishing him his own joy and fulfillment." Then in January 1979 I received a copy of "Precious Door" as a New Year's greeting. Again, it wasn't until just these past few years that I finally understood that "Precious Door" was the first story Goyen had published in 10 years! In retrospect, I can understand why "Precious Door" and his novel Arcadio—written as he was dying and published after his death in 1983—meant so much to him. If House of Breath was way ahead of its time in its sympathetic depiction of a gay male, Arcadio went even further in supporting the rights of the intersexed. In 1988 his final collection of short stories Had I A Hundred Mouths was published and then, amazingly, in 1994 his novel Half A Look Of Cain was finally published after being ignored by publishers for 40 years.

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