Boyle's moral essays chart the century's contours

Words that Must Somehow be Said: Selected Essays of Kay Boyle, 1927-1983, by Kay Boyle. Edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth S. Bell. San Francisco: North Point Press. 288 pp. $16.50. Kay Boyle is best known for her short stories (``50 Stories,'' Penguin). ``Words that Must Somehow be Said,'' which collects her occasional nonfiction prose of more than five decades, combines the discipline of the short story and the passion of the writer's involvement in the political and social crises of her own time.

The pieces range from book reviews to long, meditative essays of great artistic interest. The earliest piece is a book review of William Carlos Williams's ``In the American Grain,'' and Boyle recognized it for what it has since proved to be, a classic work of nonfiction prose.

To discover the contours of the American grain, Williams worked with letters, journals, and other accounts of early visitors to America and native Americans -- Thomas Morton of Merrymount, George Washington, Red Eric, Hernando De Soto, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others. One of his most impressive pieces, ``The Destruction of Tenochtitlan,'' opens ominously: ``Upon the orchidean beauty of the new world the old rushed inevitably to revenge itself after [Columbus's] return.'' Williams's capacity for fact only strengthens the moral purposefulness of his work.

The same can be said for Kay Boyle.

In his prefatory note to ``In the American Grain,'' Williams claims to have ``recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted.'' The stiffness, the oracular obscurity of that announcement, recalls the manifestoes of his and Boyle's compatriots in Paris during the '20s: the old, conventional language was to give way to ``new names.''

As we know from her contributions to the memoir ``Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930'' (North Point Press, 1984), Kay Boyle felt very much at one with the modern movement in Paris: She, too, conspired in ``the revolution of the word.'' The pieces collected here reveal a maturing and broadening of that spirit.

After a long spell in Europe, Boyle returned to the United States, where she took up the causes that together constitute a crisis in American consciousness: the grass-roots opposition to the Vietnam war, the enormously emotional sense of solidarity of white liberals with black and native Americans, and the ongoing opposition to the scenarios of mutual destruction and hopeless civil defense in the face of the atomic bomb. She published in The Nation, The New Republic, The Progressive.

Only rarely does her voice become shrill, the spirit hard. Kay Boyle is first and last an artist. She is capable of passionate tenderness, as in her descriptions of the women she shared prison cells with when she was jailed for joining a demonstration on the steps of the Oakland Induction Center during the Vietnam war. Here as elsewhere she transformed the minutiae of her experience -- which, in this case, had a dangerous potential for sentimental or ideological posturing -- into the universals of art.

Because she has lived fully in her own time, Kay Boyle's nonfiction prose constitutes a valuable reserve of modern memory. And as an American testimony, ``Words that Must Somehow be Said'' has benefited from the authority of her having lived abroad for so long. She knows Vichy France and postwar Germany: The evidence is all here.

In her essay on the trial of SS Oberscharf"uhrer Henrich Baab, Boyle patiently, skillfully, and without mercy exposes the numbing deviousness of evil and its effects on otherwise unremarkable people. And she notes how ``the outrageous bombast of official German communications'' can be used to ``circumvent action, invalidate knowledge, and trouble the essence of truth.''

For her part, Kay Boyle has borne eloquent testimony to the unity of action, knowledge, and truth. For integrity, artistic and moral, ``Words that Must Somehow be Said'' compares well with ``In the American Grain.'' They belong together on the short shelf of great American prose works. They are equally, and perhaps uniquely, possessed of ``the balm of command.''

Tom D'Evelyn edits the Monitor's book pages.

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