STEPHEN SMITH: Boyd's Work Deserves More Notice
In the spring, the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities will be celebrating 30 years of service to the residents of the Sandhills and North Carolina.
I can think of no more auspicious moment to begin a reassessment of James Boyd's place in the American literary canon.
I'd wager a sizable sum that the majority of people who call Southern Pines home haven't read a word James Boyd wrote. Despite the North Carolina historical marker on May Street recognizing Boyd's significant literary contribution, his books are rarely checked out of area libraries, and with the exception of David E. Whisnant's brief volume on Boyd's life and writings, there's been little scholarly interest in his literary career.
To some extent this is due to the waning popularity of "literary" historical romances of the ilk Boyd wrote. And in Southern Pines there's the never-a-prophet-in-your-land syndrome: If Boyd was an important writer, how come he lived here?
But it's time to acknowledge Boyd's achievement and to celebrate the literary folk with whom he hobnobbed -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green, Sherwood Anderson, John Galsworthy, and Maxwell Perkins, all regular visitors at the Boyd home in Weymouth Heights during the '20s, '30s, and early '40s. He surely kept good company.
How familiar are postmodern audiences with Boyd's novels?
A few years ago, I read much of Boyd's surviving correspondence in the Firestone Collection at Princeton University where an entire wing of the library is dedicated to Boyd. Brass plaques inscribed with short passages written by Boyd decorate the walls of the reading room, but when I asked the librarian how often the Boyd papers were perused by scholars, she answered, "Almost never."
And it would seem that Boyd is much misunderstood in his hometown. Did you know, for example, that his debut novel, "Drums," published in March 1925, went through four printings in one month and sold more than 50,000 copies during its first year, far outselling F. Scott Fitzgerald's popular "This Side of Paradise"? It's accurate to call "Drums" a bestseller. And Boyd's second novel, "Marching On," released in the spring of 1927, sold even more copies, making it one of the most popular works of fiction published that year.
Another misconception is that Boyd, who served in the American Ambulance Service during World War I, was gassed by the Germans and suffered from respiratory problems for the remainder of his life. But Boyd endured sinus infections prior to the war, and in fact, he'd been hospitalized before joining the Ambulance Service. Although he saw action in France, Boyd escaped unscathed, except for the disillusionment that afflicted many veterans.
In his hometown, much of the information concerning Boyd's life and writing career amounts to vague notions and anecdotal half-truths. It's time to set the record straight.
During the next few months, I'll be reviewing Boyd's novels and short stories and examining the relationships Boyd enjoyed with his literary friends. In May, the Weymouth Center will present a readers' theater production based on the Boyd correspondence. The script was written by some of the great writers of the 20th century -- Fitzgerald, Anderson, Green, Hemingway, Wolfe, and, of course, James Boyd.
If you'd like to begin to appreciate Boyd's achievement, read his book of short stories, "Old Pines and Other Stories" (University of North Carolina Press, 165 pages, 1952). It's logical to start with the early story "Old Pines," in which Boyd's literary apprenticeship is most obvious. The remaining nine stories collected in the volume trace Boyd's development as a writer and demonstrate his affection for -- and his occasional disaffection with -- the Sandhills and the South.
Contact Stephen Smith at email@example.com.
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