Neith Boyce's American Odyssey

Review by Michael L. Hall
Senior Program Officer, Digital Humanities
National Endowment for the Humanities

Sewanee Review vol. p. cvii-cvix

The Modern World of Neith Boyce: Autobiography and Diaries, edited by Carol DeBoer-Langworthy. University of New Mexico Press, 2003. XVI + 360 pages. Illustrated. $34.95.

On Wednesday, July 29, 1914, when Neith Boyce and Mabel Dodge were inspecting their flea- and bedbug-infested cabins on the Stampalia, a “dingy” craft “crowded with Italians,” Neith said to Mabel, “Let’s get off the boat.” Her impulse would prove prophetic. Their trip to Florence could not have been more ill timed. Once the women arrive in Italy and begin to settle in with their children at the Villa Curonia, they attempt to put the difficulties of their crossing behind them. Neith writes in her diary: “There is something in the papers about Austria and Servia (sic), but we pay no attention.” Soon, however, events have caught up to them, and the two women find themselves stranded in a foreign land, surrounded by suddenly suspicious Italians, and pressed by dwindling financial resources: “Even Am[erican] Ex[press] Co[mpany] checks difficult to cash.” Boyce was in Florence with her young son and daughter accompanying Mabel Dodge and her son. Dodge was arranging a divorce and hoping to meet up with the journalist John Reed, her latest lover. Meanwhile Carl Van Vechten arrives from Paris to assume the role of protector for the two women and their children, trying to help them all find passage back to America. Boyce’s diary tells the story of the day-to-day anxiety they and other expatriate Americans endured in a time when there was little means of discovering what was actually happening in the next town or country, not to mention around the world.

The World War I diary is the last of the autobiographical pieces in this collection, masterfully edited by Carol DeBoer-Langworthy and beautifully illustrated and published by the University of New Mexico Press. Neith Boyce (Mrs. Hutchins Hapgood) was a person and author of some renown early in the last century, but after the publication of her final novel (1923) her reputation began to fade. By the time of her death in 1951 she was hardly known outside her family and a small circle of friends. She appeared destined to be another of many once well-known but now forgotten figures from that time, but for the work of a determined literary scholar and documentary editor, Carol DeBoer-Langworthy. The Modern World of Neith Boyce resurrects a woman and a writer who left behind a remarkable legacy of creative and autobiographical work.

Boyce would deserve mention, even had she not been so talented in her own writing. She was influential among a group of writers and artists who ushered in the age of Modernism. Like many of her friends and artistic contemporaries, Boyce was interested in all things new in art, literature, and life. Among her closest friends and acquaintances were many of the key figures of her era, Leo and Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge (Luhan), Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neil, Bernard Berenson, and others. From her youth Boyce had been encouraged by her parents to follow her interest in writing, and she was one of many young women who found a place for themselves in the bustling world of journalism, both newspaper and magazine publishing, early in the 20th century. In a thorough and well-researched introduction, DeBoer-Langworthy does an impressive job of setting the stage for Boyce’s autobiographical writing, creating the historical context and explaining the complicated professional and family life that Boyce created and then endured.

Like many of the Moderns, Boyce and her husband, Hutchins Hapgood, also a well-known writer and journalist of that time, were both fascinated by the new and eager to break with the constraints of the Victorian past. Although thoroughly smitten with Boyce, Hapgood was at first convinced that she would never marry -- him or anyone else. But theirs was to be an open marriage, confronting with honesty any attractions or liaisons outside the relationship. Of course, this proved much more complicated than Boyce would have preferred, as their marriage was strained by Hapgood’s infidelities. Much of Boyce’s fiction confronts the strains of personal relationships, and DeBoers-Langworthy explains matters sufficiently to allow us to read between the lines of Boyce’s own version of events. But her autobiographical writing does not dwell on those aspects of her life. Nevertheless, she describes with frank and descriptive detail her impressions of American family life and ways that she and her family were both like and not like those they knew and associated with.

Boyce appears to have begun work on her “Autobiography” sometime in 1939-40. The first section deals with her childhood and early career as a journalist, ending with her marriage to Hapgood. The two later sections, “Diary – Italy, 1903” and “War Diary” were reworked from journals she kept at the time of her visits to Florence. In the longer first part, divided into fourteen chapters, we watch Neith grow from a solitary and introspective child to a very independent and perceptive young woman. She was obviously under the spell of her strong and handsome father, a man with a forceful military bearing and uneven success in his various businesses. As the family fortunes wax and wane, young Neith describes her relationship with her parents and extended family with a mixture of detachment and self-absorbed candor. Her descriptions of domestic arrangements on a California fruit farm and in early Los Angeles provide glimpses of late 19th-century American life, as well as tensions among Anglo-Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese. Boyce also discusses visits to family in the midwest, to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and later moves to Boston and then New York. Boyce’s “Autobiography” preserves a young woman’s odyssey across an American landscape now nearly lost to memory.

Her impulse would prove prophetic. Their trip to Florence could not have been more ill timed. Once the women arrive in Italy and begin to settle in with their children at the Villa Curonia, they attempt to put the difficulties of their crossing behind them. Neith writes in her diary: “There is something in the papers about Austria and Servia (sic), but we pay no attention.” Soon, however, events have caught up to them, and the two women find themselves stranded in a foreign land, surrounded by suddenly suspicious Italians, and pressed by dwindling financial resources: “Even Am[erican] Ex[press] Co[mpany] checks difficult to cash.” Boyce was in Florence with her young son and daughter accompanying Mabel Dodge and her son. Dodge was arranging a divorce and hoping to meet up with the journalist John Reed, her latest lover. Meanwhile Carl Van Vechten arrives from Paris to assume the role of protector for the two women and their children, trying to help them all find passage back to America. Boyce’s diary tells the story of the day-to-day anxiety they and other expatriate Americans endured in a time when there was little means of discovering what was actually happening in the next town or country, not to mention around the world.

The World War I diary is the last of the autobiographical pieces in this collection, masterfully edited by Carol DeBoer-Langworthy and beautifully illustrated and published by the University of New Mexico Press. Neith Boyce (Mrs. Hutchins Hapgood) was a person and author of some renown early in the last century, but after the publication of her final novel (1923) her reputation began to fade. By the time of her death in 1951 she was hardly known outside her family and a small circle of friends. She appeared destined to be another of many once well-known but now forgotten figures from that time, but for the work of a determined literary scholar and documentary editor, Carol DeBoer-Langworthy. The Modern World of Neith Boyce resurrects a woman and a writer who left behind a remarkable legacy of creative and autobiographical work.

Boyce would deserve mention, even had she not been so talented in her own writing. She was influential among a group of writers and artists who ushered in the age of Modernism. Like many of her friends and artistic contemporaries, Boyce was interested in all things new in art, literature, and life. Among her closest friends and acquaintances were many of the key figures of her era, Leo and Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge (Luhan), Susan Glaspell, Eugene O’Neil, Bernard Berenson, and others. From her youth Boyce had been encouraged by her parents to follow her interest in writing, and she was one of many young women who found a place for themselves in the bustling world of journalism, both newspaper and magazine publishing, early in the 20th century. In a thorough and well-researched introduction, DeBoer-Langworthy does an impressive job of setting the stage for Boyce’s autobiographical writing, creating the historical context and explaining the complicated professional and family life that Boyce created and then endured.

Like many of the Moderns, Boyce and her husband, Hutchins Hapgood, also a well-known writer and journalist of that time, were both fascinated by the new and eager to break with the constraints of the Victorian past. Although thoroughly smitten with Boyce, Hapgood was at first convinced that she would never marry -- him or anyone else. But theirs was to be an open marriage, confronting with honesty any attractions or liaisons outside the relationship. Of course, this proved much more complicated than Boyce would have preferred, as their marriage was strained by Hapgood’s infidelities. Much of Boyce’s fiction confronts the strains of personal relationships, and DeBoer-Langworthy explains matters sufficiently to allow us to read between the lines of Boyce’s own version of events. But her autobiographical writing does not dwell on those aspects of her life. Nevertheless, she describes with frank and descriptive detail her impressions of American family life and ways that she and her family were both like and not like those they knew and associated with.

Boyce appears to have begun work on her “Autobiography” sometime in 1939-40. The first section deals with her childhood and early career as a journalist, ending with her marriage to Hapgood. The two later sections, “Diary – Italy, 1903” and “War Diary” were reworked from journals she kept at the time of her visits to Florence. In the longer first part, divided into fourteen chapters, we watch Neith grow from a solitary and introspective child to a very independent and perceptive young woman. She was obviously under the spell of her strong and handsome father, a man with a forceful military bearing and uneven success in his various businesses. As the family fortunes wax and wane, young Neith describes her relationship with her parents and extended family with a mixture of detachment and self-absorbed candor. Her descriptions of domestic arrangements on a California fruit farm and in early Los Angeles provide glimpses of late 19th-century American life, as well as tensions among Anglo-Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese. Boyce also discusses visits to family in the midwest, to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and later moves to Boston and then New York. Boyce’s “Autobiography” preserves a young woman’s odyssey across an American landscape now nearly lost to memory.

Reviews of Boyce's works

Book Review
Lifewriting Annual: Biographical & Autobiographical StudiesVol. 2 (2008): 257-266
from Documentary Editing