William Goyen, ’39: “my God isn’t it wonderful the war is over.”

In the papers of long-time Rice English professor George Williams appears a letter from a young man once his student, then his friend, William Goyen. It’s a remarkable letter on its own, urgent, written aboard the USS Casablanca at the end of World War II as suddenly Goyen (rather than the Navy) was responsible for his own future. I hardly know what to say about it.

Goyens letter 1 Williams papers045

Goyens letter 2 Williams papers046

Goyen badly wanted to be a writer, and he succeeded in that ambition. His papers are in the Woodson and the brief biography at the beginning of the finding aid gives a broad sense of his career:

Charles William Goyen, author, editor, and teacher, was born in Trinity, Texas, on April 24, 1915 and moved with his family to Houston at the age of eight. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees from Rice University (then Institute) in 1937 and 1939, respectively. After teaching for one year at the University of Houston, he left to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Returning after five years, he left Houston to pursue his work as a writer, residing at various times in New Mexico, Europe, New York, and California. His East Texas origins, however, were to have an enduring influence on the speech patterns and cultural characteristics reflected in his writings.

His first novel, House of Breath, was published to critical acclaim in 1950. Subsequent publications included the novels In a Farther Country (1955), The Fair Sister (1963), and Come the Restorer (1974); Selected Writings (1974); short story collections Ghost and Flesh (1952), The Faces of Blood Kindred (1960) and The Collected Stories (1975); the non-fiction A Book of Jesus (1973); and plays The House of Breath (1956), The Diamond Rattler (1960), Christy (1964), House of Breath Black/White (1971), and Aimee (1973). He also created lyrics for the film Left-Handed Gun (1958) and served as translator for The Lazy Ones by Egyptian author Albert Cossery.

In addition to being a writer, he was instructor of English at the New School for Social Research in New York City, 1955-60; Associate in English at Columbia University, 1964-66; senior editor in the trade department at McGraw Hill, 1966-71; and visiting Professor of English at Brown University, 1973. He married the actress Doris Roberts in 1963.

Among awards he received were music awards for words and music from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (A.S.C.A.P.) in 1964, 1965, 1968, 1970, and 1971; an award from the Texas Institute of Arts and Letters, 1950; and the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Rice University in 1977. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 1950 and 1952 and a Ford Foundation grantee in 1963-64. He died in Los Angeles of leukemia in August 1983, two months before his novel “Arcadio “was published. Since then a number of his other late works have been edited and published.

This biography, however precise, doesn’t even attempt to capture the strangeness of Goyen’s life and work, which is profound. For that, a Texas Monthly article from last fall, Voice of the Pines by Karen Olsson, is helpful. As I often say (and always mean), it is well worth your time.

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2 Responses to William Goyen, ’39: “my God isn’t it wonderful the war is over.”

  1. Bill Peebles, Hanszen '70 says:

    Yet another example of the Greatest Generation.

  2. joecwhite says:

    Be sure to check out the bio of Goyen by Clark Davis ’86, It Starts with Trouble:


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