Wednesday, March 18, 2015

William Goyen’s Six Women

It's been said that behind every great man is a great woman. For William Goyen, a Texas writer of startling originality whose work attracted the praise of Joyce Carol Oates, there were six women who deeply impacted his life of writing. In honor of Women's History Month, we asked author Clark Davis (It Starts With Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing, May
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2015) to reflect on the strong women who influenced Goyen's life and work.

William Goyen’s Six Women

By Clark Davis, author of the forthcoming It Starts With Trouble: William Goyen and the Life of Writing

In the mid-1970s, at what was arguably the lowest point of his life, William Goyen began writing a letter to his old friend and fellow Texan, Margo Jones. Goyen and Jones had met in 1937 when he was a graduate student at Rice and Jones was assembling the group that would become the Houston Community Players. Their friendship continued through the 1940s and early 1950s when Jones made her reputation as an innovative Broadway director, most notably of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Summer and Smoke. By all accounts, they were very close—two East Texans (she from Livingston, he from Trinity), each with a high artistic drive and fervid personality.

There was nothing unusual, in other words, about Goyen writing to an old friend, particularly when he was in distress . . . except for the fact that Jones had died in 1955. Alcohol played a role in her early death, though the direct cause was carbon tetrachloride poisoning: she had fallen asleep on a newly cleaned carpet in her hotel in Dallas. (Goyen had been with her a few nights before and felt helpless and guilty in the face of her depression and drinking.) In the twenty years since, he himself had become an alcoholic and not long before writing Margo had attempted suicide in a hotel in Newport Beach, California. Now, as he remembered her “Texas-girl sweetness and . . . full-faced smile” he saw their lives as parallel: she was his “sister—demonic, rapturous insane in booze and in reverie and golden dream,” and writing to her was his chance “to speak amends of love.”

This letter to Margo Jones became part of Goyen’s never-completed autobiography, an interwoven collection of imagined correspondence addressed to several older women who had been vital presences in his life. “They were women of style and fashion, art, theatre, Letters,” he explained to one potential publisher; “all seemed . . . 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.” The list included Frieda Lawrence, whom Goyen had come to know in Taos, New Mexico in 1946. A legendary and sometimes scandalous figure, she had left her husband and three children in 1912 for D. H. Lawrence, the author of The White Peacock, eventually moving to the US and settling with him at Kiowa Ranch, high on Lobo Mountain in Taos County. Some years after Lawrence's death in 1930 she began to spend most of her time at her house in El Prado, just a few miles from Taos Plaza.

Dorothy Brett, Frieda Lawrence, and Goyen in Taos.
Source: Harry Ransom Center, 
the University of Texas at Austin.
It was during this period that she met the thirty-one-year-old Navy veteran who was waiting tables at the Sagebrush Inn. In the winter of 1946 Goyen and Walter Berns, his fellow officer from the carrier USS Casablanca, planned to drive from Texas to California where they would live and write in the San Francisco area. They were captivated, however, by snow-covered Taos and decided to stay, attracted more by the landscape, as Goyen later admitted, than the literary community. When the manager of the restaurant introduced him as an aspiring writer to the table that included Frieda, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the printer Spud Johnson, and Tennessee Williams, Goyen was both embarrassed and captivated. A short time later Frieda invited him and Berns to dinner, letting them look through some of Lawrence’s manuscripts, and giving them advice that Goyen seems never to have forgotten. He described the scene in a letter to an old friend in Houston, explaining that Frieda was “a grand old woman, like a peasant Queen, a marvelous smiling face and deep husky Germanic voice, and she answers every question with a lusty and throaty, ‘Ya!’” She “was really inspired several times; and once, as a kind of valedictory, she leaned her head back, looked up toward the ceiling and said, ‘And now . . . I am old and you are young. I say to you that you must fight and refuse to compromise, refuse absolutely to compromise. I lived with a fighter and I know what it is to fight. . . .’”

Frieda became an inspiring, maternal voice for Goyen, a worldly substitute for his more conservative Texas family. She gave him and Berns a piece of land across the highway from her place in El Prado so that they could build a small adobe house. The little L-shaped structure they constructed that spring became an important symbol for Goyen of his independence and freedom to write, a retreat from the repressions of Houston and, eventually, the pressures of New York. In 1955 he wrote about it in his gently comic “romance,” In a Farther Country: “This house is not in the town you speak of, it is far beyond, it is not within the town limits, it is a house unto itself, at the far end of the road and against the mountain; it has nothing to do with other houses in a place called the town that lies so far beyond. There is no strife here, except the strife of the human heart that is forever trying to pacify itself and in many ways. Those many ways of pacification of self-strife make the climate of this house. It is a speaking place and a joining place. . .” Frieda’s presence was essential to this idea, which is why Taos lost its magic for Goyen when she died in 1956. Just as he had told her many of his secrets over the years, he later wrote to her in Six Women about her own funeral: “The weather was quiet and cool and a faint wind soughed in the great thick trees. As we walked away, down the hill, the huge Western sun was setting, blazing orange, away across the lonely landscape of purple ridges and red humps and golden desert lake-like stretches all vast and eternal-looking, your prospect, now, along with Lawrence’s, as you lay in your velvet shoes, ready in your velvet hat, beautiful with rings and bracelets and fans and combs and necklaces.”

Three other Taos women appear in the drafts of Six Women: the heiress Millicent Rogers, the bossy and blustering Mabel Dodge Luhan, and the British painter Dorothy Brett. Goyen recognized the importance of Mabel Dodge, even if he found himself at odds with her most of time. (He was not alone. He once described her as “a woman practically nobody liked.” And yet it was she who was responsible for bringing Lawrence to New Mexico in the first place and for buying a hospital bed for Frieda when she became too weak to move.) But he was closest to Brett, the viscount’s daughter who had known, among others in English literary society, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, and Katherine Mansfield. Brett had followed Lawrence west when he came to London to recruit artists for his utopian experiment in New Mexico. She lived in a small cabin at Kiowa Ranch before eventually moving to her own house across the highway from Frieda’s in El Prado. A somewhat ungainly figure, hard of hearing, she wore what Goyen called “slapstick clothes” and was followed around by a large dog named Polimar. She painted highly colored, lyrical, almost primitive portraits and dance scenes from the Taos Pueblo. She caught trout in the local streams and played Chinese checkers after dinner. The two corresponded regularly over the years, and she remained for Goyen the ur-mother “of this enchanted and often terrifying world of northern New Mexico.” In the mid-1970s, around the same time he was writing to Margo Jones, Goyen visited Brett in Taos. He thought seeing and talking to her might revive him (he vaguely hoped to buy back his old adobe house, now expanded and too expensive), but Brett was then ninety-two, “horned and whiskered,” unhappy in her “decrepitude.” She died two years later, his last link to the little mountain town he had happened upon after the war.
Goyen and Katherine Anne Porter, 1951; Arthur Long, photographer Katherine Anne Porter Collection; 
Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
In 1947, on a trip through California, Goyen met Katherine Anne Porter, perhaps the most famous Texas writer of the time and the subject of his sixth portrait. A few years later, after Porter had reviewed his first novel in the New York Times, they became lovers. It was not a happy or long-lived affair. He was thirty-five; she was sixty. He was bisexual; she loathed homosexuality. But he admired her work and revered her critical eye, and they were both emotionally fragile and in need of admiration and attention. Perhaps because of this complicated mixture of feelings, her section of Six Women is the only one not in some form of direct address. Instead, Goyen wrote a sharp-eyed, critical sketch of a party at “Lady A’s,” a 1950s New York literary gathering dominated by the “nervous and beautiful little trailblazer and wilderness-breaker of a woman whose conversation—or monologue—was a physical exercise which gave her a good workout, taking such control of her at times that it would throw her into fits of coughing and collision with objects in the room.” At the party she and the narrator argue about sexuality: she claims gay writers have “never done anything lasting,” and he responds by arguing that “there are many ways of love and that it might seem true that any way of love, however outside the pattern of the majority, might be less destructive than the perversities of lovelessness.” Porter’s strength and aggression dominate this testy sketch more clearly than the tenderness and vulnerability Goyen registered in private notes from the same period. Long after their bitter breakup, she remained a powerful figure for him, an exemplar of artistic commitment and a warning of the dangers of loneliness.

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It remains unclear why Goyen thought his own life story would be told most effectively through imagined messages to these memorable and extraordinary women. It’s possible that he wished to avoid discussing the men in his life—from his point of view, a much more dangerous and difficult subject—and the form may have allowed him to reproduce the kind of intimate conversation and secret-sharing he had come to associate with Frieda Lawrence during his Taos years. Goyen’s entire body of work speaks forcefully of the need for personal revelation and the vital importance of what he called the “teller-listener situation.” Perhaps Six Women was a chance to see himself indirectly, to filter and balance self-consciousness by speaking to a listener not unlike his own mother, though free of family and provincial judgment. Perhaps the project was simply a way to gather what remained of his losses and find a form for their holding. Happily, it isn’t necessary to know what he was thinking to enjoy these snapshots. What matters is that the writing is striking, the portraits tangible, startling, alive. Read them for yourself in Reginald Gibbons’s Goyen: Autobiographical Essays, Notebooks, Evocations, Interviews. You won’t regret it.

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.

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