A Review by Cheryl Black
The Eugene O'Neill Review vol 28, 2006
During her professional heyday (circa 1900-1920), Neith Boyce was a popular and prolific author of novels, short stories, plays, poems, and essays. Along with her husband, writer Hutchins Hapgood, Boyce was a founding member of the Provincetown Players and a central figure in a charmed circle of literary and artistic innovators that included Susan Glaspell, Eugene O'Neill, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Djuna Barnes, and Bernard Berensen. Personal tragedies, including marital conflict, a nervous breakdown, and the death of her oldest son in the influenza epidemic of 1918 curtailed her literary career. Boyce published nothing between 1923 and her death in 1951, and only one of her novels has been reprinted. Consequently, this modernist pioneer, whose early work critics had compared favorably to that of Edith Wharton, is virtually unknown today. A handful of critical essays and one full-length study (Ellen Kay Trimberger's Intimate Warriors, an exploration of the Boyce-Hapgood marriage) comprise the body of Boyce scholarship to date. Carol DeBoer-Langworthy's edited volume of Boyce's autobiographical writing is therefore a welcome and significant contribution.
DeBoer-Langworthy, who completed a master's thesis on Boyce in 1980, has spent more than two decades exhaustively researching Boyce's life and career. For the selections included in this volume, she mined the vast Hapgood archive of unpublished materials at Beinecke library, publishing for the first time Boyce's autobiography and two travel diaries. In addition to scrupulous editing of multiple holograph and typed drafts, DeBoer-Langworthy has liberally annotated these three works, identifying unnamed and pseudonymous individuals, verifying dates, places, and incidents, sorting out intricate relationships among the Boyce-Hapgood circle, and providing a wealth of interesting information to illuminate or augment Boyce's accounts. DeBoer-Langworthy also provides a useful introduction in which she summarizes Boyce's life and surveys recurring plots and themes in her works, identifying her most prevalent concern as "the general difficulty of most women's lives" (6). In publishing these autobiographical works, DeBoer-Langworthy hopes to strengthen Boyce's burgeoning reputation as a literary modernist and to highlight Boyce's significance as a pioneer of what we now call "creative nonfiction" (3).
Boyce called her life story a "sort of autobiography" (25), perhaps because she disguised the identity of almost everyone mentioned, including herself. She not only created a fictional persona named "Iras," she has Iras create an alter ego called "You." Although the Boyce family fortunes fluctuated, leading to a nomadic existence (from Indiana to Los Angeles to Boston to New York), they lived in relative comfort. The family always seemed to have servants (whose ethnicity varied geographically) and access to literature and culture. If materially sufficient, however, Boyce's childhood was emotionally lacking. A diphtheria epidemic claimed four of her siblings, and Boyce grew up isolated and emotionally withdrawn from her parents. With typical understatement, Boyce recalled, "caresses were not familiar" (46). By the time Boyce began her "bachelor-girl" existence, living alone in downtown Manhattan and working as a reporter for Lincoln Steffens's Commercial Advertiser, she was "firmly set in her own way of life [. . .] she didn't feel obliged to make herself agreeable and didn't really know how to do it. [. . .] she met few people that she ever wanted to see again" (163). Boyce's plans for an emotionally detached existence, however, were disturbed by the determined pursuit of her Commercial Advertiser colleague, Hutchins Hapgood. Boyce's temperamental opposite, Hapgood was "enthusiastic about life, he was lyric about it, he found something interesting and likeable in almost every person, his sympathies were unbounded, he was open to experience and shut himself off from nothing" (175). Ultimately Boyce's reserve gave way to Hapgood's élan vital, and she agreed to marry him with the stipulation that "retreat must be easy" (186). The narrative ends with their wedding night in 1899.
Boyce's Diary of 1903 records a relatively joyous five-month sojourn in Italy. Four years into her marriage, having borne her first child and completed her first novel, Boyce seems to have picked up a little of Hapgood's optimism. The exclamation point, a punctuation mark rarely seen in the autobiography, makes frequent appearances throughout this diary, as Boyce enthusiastically describes the natural and manmade beauties of the Italian countryside. This diary also offers a revealing look at the expatriate American and British community in Italy during the time, a fascinating assembly including art critic Bernard Berensen and his wife Mary; Gertrude and Leo Stein, May Morris, Janet Ross, and Violet Paget. In this autobiographical writing, with one brief exception, Boyce writes in the first person: "I have been very happy here, partly because of the perpetual beauty that surrounds me" (221). When Boyce learns of her father's death in America, however, she reverts to third person: "Iras began to pack. She was too stunned to weep or to feel much then" (288).
Boyce's War Diary recounts her brief but dramatic trip to Italy in August 1914. Now fifteen years married and the mother of four, Boyce made this trip without her husband, traveling instead with her friends Mabel Dodge Luhan and Carl Van Vechten, and two of the Hapgood children. Preoccupied with Luhan's divorce proceedings against Edwin Dodge and new affair with journalist John Reed, the group paid scant attention to "something in the papers about Austria and Serbia" (298). Within days, however, Boyce and her companions found themselves trapped in Italy as the war erupted: "trains stopped; mails stopped; money stopped" (302). The remainder of the diary recounts their struggle to get back home, providing striking portraits of the main characters along the way: Van Vechten hysterical, but too loyal to leave Boyce; Luhan loathe to leave Reed even at the cost of her life; and Boyce cool enough to shop (and haggle over prices) for souvenirs while they wait. They eventually managed passage on a crowded boat, arriving safely in New York on September 3. Boyce summed up this adventure with trademark irony: "not a great success this trip" (306).
Although DeBoer-Langworthy admits that she finds these documents "ultimately sad," partial evidence of Boyce's "disillusionment with marital happiness and, perhaps, her disappointment in her own literary career" (8), she insists that Boyce must not be seen as a "tragic, forgotten, or second-rate writer [. . .] one needs to celebrate what she was able to accomplish" (35). These documents offer strong evidence of the nature and significance of those accomplishments. They provide a tantalizing glimpse into Neith Boyce's world and whet the appetite for further reading of her works.
University of Missouri-Columbia