Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

“Paris Wasn’t Like That”: Kay Boyle and the
Last of the Lost Generation

Sandra Spanier

The legends of American literary life in Paris between the wars
have been as remarkable for their durability as for their marketabil-
ity. No sooner has one memoirist brought the news for the dozenth
time of what Hem said to Scott than another retails what Scott said
to Hem, same dialogue, same stale stuff eagerly bought and rel-
ished, a defiance of laws governing the conservation of energy,
matter and curiosity. So that it is natural for such eminent survi-
vors of the period as are today about the business of today—Kay
Boyle, Maria Jolas, Archibald MacLeish, to name three—to have
wearied unto death of the numberless rag and junk dealers eager
to rummage through the attics of their memories for bits of the
gossip and pieces of the glamour of that place at that time. And it
is natural too, finding themselves reluctant prisoners of a legend,
that they would if they could drive a silver stake plumb through
the heart of Montparnasse, through the terrace of the Dôme, and
through the ghosts of Lady Brett and Jimmy the Barman.

—Geoffrey Wolff, Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby

BY THE MIDDLE OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, PARIS IN THE TWENTIES already had become legend, and Kay Boyle was, indeed, weary of it. She lived to be one of the last survivors of the era. In her later years, until her death in 1992 at the age of ninety, she liked to joke that she could have made a fortune inventing love affairs for her memoirs because no one was left to contradict her.

After the Second World War, many writers of the expatriate modernist avant-garde had entered the American literary mainstream, their well-wrought works primary fuel for the New Criticism that came to dominate literary studies. The fifties and sixties saw a proliferation of memoirs by middle-aged members of the so-called Lost Generation telling how it was in Paris—Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return (1951) and Hemingway’s posthumous A Moveable Feast (1964) among the

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