Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Harrisburg, Dauphin County
Novelist James Boyd wrote Drums (1925) and Long Hunt (1930).
Awards: Alfred Raymond Memorial Prize
James Boyd, born July 2, 1888, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is regarded as an important historical novelist. He attended the Hill School, Princeton, and Trinity College. Boyd served in the U.S. Army Ambulance Service during WWI. Boyd had five novels published: Drums (1925), Marching On (1927), Long Hunt (1930), Roll River (1935), and Bitter Creek (1939). He also published a number of short stories, poems, and plays. Before his death he revitalized a North Carolina weekly newspaper, the Southern Pines Pilot. Shortly after, James Boyd died on February 25, 1944, in Princeton, New Jersey from a heart attack.
On July 2, 1888, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, James Boyd was born son of Eleanor Herr and John Boyd. His father's occupation was an industrialist and lay Presbyterian. James Boyd was brought up in a wealthy family owning three townhouses and a country estate. As a boy, Boyd was tutored at home due to sinus conditions and other health issues. At the age of twelve, Boyd was sent to Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to continue his studies, where he started to note his talent for writing. In 1904, only three years into his time at the Hill School, Boyd's first short story was published. From this accomplishment he received the Alfred Raymond Memorial Prize in 1906. Boyd was also editor-in-chief of the literary magazine at his school. Even with these accomplishments, Boyd's father had planned on him taking over his family's estate. For Boyd, this meant no future in literature.
Foregoing his talents in literature, Boyd went to Princeton in June 1906 to study science and business, acceding to a request made by his father. At the end of his schooling at Princeton, Boyd decided he wanted to go to Trinity College at Cambridge University for a master's degree in English Literature. His parents, uncertain of this idea, took three months to give their permission for him to go. During these three months of waiting, Boyd decided to take on a summer job working for the Harrisburg Post. At the Post, he was a cartoonist, military reporter, human-interest writer, and sports reporter. Once the summer was over, his reluctant parents, not agreeing with the career path their son was taking, sent Boyd off to receive a master's degree at Trinity College.
Boyd's first year at Trinity College did not quite meet his expectations. Boyd had trouble finding a social group to fit into. In effort to change this, Boyd decided to join the rowing and debate teams, and even made friends in the Officer's Training Corps. David Whisnant quotes Boyd writing after his training unit's maneuver: "There is no farming there; only the great brown plain broken by low ridges and here and there a dark green cluster of trees. It was splendid to see the horse artillery coming into action... the gunners black with oil and powder, [working] like demons slamming shell after shell into the smoking breeches." Boyd thoroughly enjoyed the Officer's Training Corps and wanted to enlist. His health, however, would not allow this at the time, so he continued with his schooling. In the fall of his second year, Boyd discovered his favorite diversion from school, fox-hunting. After Boyd's first hunt, fox-hunting soon became a hobby that he continued throughout the rest of his life.
After two years at Cambridge, Boyd boarded a ship and headed to the States to accept a teaching position at the Harrisburg Academy. It was a small school with only twelve teachers and approximately one hundred students. Boyd taught English and French as well as coached the athletic teams. His health issues, which always had lingered, soon became a problem by the end of the school term. Boyd was forced to resign and did not return to the Academy. Making matters worse, his father, John Boyd, died in the spring of 1914. The estate his father had built was now Boyd's responsibility. Knowing that this was not what Boyd wanted to do with the rest of his life, he gave his father's business to his younger brother Jackson. Feeling depressed and exhausted, Boyd moved to his grandfather's estate in Moore County, North Carolina, to recover from a mild case of infantile paralysis. Rejuvenated from rest, Boyd started to hunt and write again. Unfortunately, Boyd was still unhappy with where his life was going. This gave him motivation to accept an editorial position with the Doubleday Page Company in New York in 1916.
With WWI going on in Europe, Boyd became personally involved in knowing what was happening. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Boyd started volunteering with the Red Cross, providing financial support. After an operation on his sinuses, Boyd applied and received a commission in the recently organized United States Army Ambulance Service. Around the same time, James Boyd became engaged to Katharine Lamont. Lamont had been secretary and aid to Grover Cleveland during his first and second terms as president. They married in Millbrook, New York, in December and then retreated to Southern Pines, North Carolina. Boyd got his military orders in late February. Taking command of the Ambulance Section 520 in Camp Crane, near Allentown, Pennsylvania, his orders were to go to Genoa, Italy. Lieutenant Boyd and his unit were attached to the 332nd Infantry Regiment of Allied Expeditionary Force once in Italy. After his experience with the Italian Army, his opinions of them deteriorated substantially, as found in an excerpt in Alison Wilson's article: "in all respects, the most perfectly prepared army for every purpose—except fighting—the world has ever seen." After six weeks, Boyd's unit was transferred to France to take part of the Saint-Mihiel operation, his unit's first major engagement. Once the onslaught of the Saint-Mihiel operation was over, his unit was assigned to duty at the massive Meuse Argonne Offensive, in which this battle was also called the Battle of the Argonne Forest. Whisnant quotes Boyd's description of this battle: "drivers worked in twenty four hour shifts and ambulances ran as much as two hundred and eighty-eight hours without stopping. After many months working in hospitals and on the road with his unit, Boyd's sinus condition and health worsened. Boyd then became a patient and spent months in the hospital trying to overcome his sickness. On July 2, 1919, Boyd was medically discharged from his duties and sent home.
During the war, Boyd was able to spend some spare time writing poems and letters. When he settled with his wife in Southern Pines, North Carolina, Boyd decided to dedicate himself completely to writing. During the summer, Boyd sent two of his stories to Robert Bridges of Scribner's Magazine. In Midsummer 1920, one of those stories, "The Sound of Voice," was bought for one hundred dollars by Scribner'sMagazine. However, Boyd's first story to appear in print was "Old Pines" in 1921 in the Century Magazine. Boyd continued to send his stories to magazines and, by 1925, had gotten eleven published. After making an effort to succeed with his stories, Boyd was encouraged by friends such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson to focus on novels. Drums, which appeared in 1925, provided him with his first popularly acclaimed novel. Set during the American Revolution in North Carolina, the protagonist Johnny Fraser, goes to fight in the war. To collect the information he needed to write the book, Boyd went to the archives and the land of North Carolina. Whisnant quotes the New York Evening Post saying Drums was "the finest novel of the American Revolution which has yet been written." This novel sold more than 50,000 copies and was praised by both critics and novelists. Andrew Crosland quotes famous writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway both wrote Boyd, "Old authors... seldom surprise us. But the young writers may do anything—at least several of them may, and you are certainly one of those several."
Hoping to continue with his success, Boyd began writing a second novel. Similar to Drums, Marching On was about a poor North Carolinian farmer in the Civil War. The story gives a sense of realism as well as providing readers with a love story. When Marching On was published in 1927, critics gave it unenthusiastic reviews. Nonetheless, this novel sold about 80,000 in sales. Disappointed with the reviews, Boyd instantly started writing his third novel, Long Hunt. This novel was also set in North Carolina but against a purely imaginary backdrop of the frontier of 1800. The Long Hunt is the tale of unlikely love between a backwoods trapper and a white settler's daughter on the frontier; the hunt itself is the trapper's quest to find her again after realizing he was ready to come out of the backwoods. It was published in 1930 and even though the sales weren't great, the critics were keen on the volume, commenting that he had written "each book better than the last."
Boyd continued to write, though his bad health continued to be a problem. His next five years were filled with sinus operations and writing. He completed his novel Roll River in 1935, a story about four generations of a wealthy family living in a small Pennsylvania town. This novel was considered by critics to be Boyd's best work for its artistic display, despite sales being slow. Bitter Creek was Boyd's last novel, which was published in 1939. In this book the protagonist leaves a hard childhood life in Illinois to go to Wyoming. While in Wyoming, the character comes to accept life's complexities. This novel was marked as one of Boyd's weakest novels at the end of his career as a novelist.
With the Second World War approaching, Boyd decided to organize the Free Company of Players. This group produced a radio drama explaining and affirming American values. Some subject matter the group focused on was the freedom of speech, the right of assembly, racial equality, and right to vote. Many literary figures such as Maxwell Anderson, Stephen Vincent Benet, Marc Connelly, George Kaufman, and many more were affiliated with the program. The group created eleven plays during 1941 that broadcast to many listeners. Boyd edited a collection of the plays including One More Free Man.
With his attention almost fully on the Free Company of Players, Boyd didn't have much time to write. Nonetheless, Boyd did continue to write some poetry throughout the war. Boyd's poems started to appear in journals such as Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly. Boyd described to Paul Green his poems as being "unprofitable, but... uniquely satisfying." The Free Company of Players ended in 1941 directing Boyd's attention to a deeply in debt county newspaper, the Southern Pines Pilot. Interested in helping, Boyd put time and money into the rural newspaper.
While participating in a speaking event in Princeton, New Jersey, to help train British officers, Boyd died on February 25, 1944. At this point his deteriorating health took him. James Boyd produced honorable works of literature that captured some of American's past. Shortly after his death, an edition of Boyd's poetry was published in 1944 titled Eighteen Poems. As his good friend Paul Green stated in the forward, "Into this little book are gathered the verses, with one or two exceptions, he wrote within the last year or so. They speak for themselves and tell with their own voice how great a loss we have sustained in his death. They augured greater things to come." A volume of short work was also published in 1952 entitled Old Pines and Other Stories. When Boyd passed away, his wife, Katherine Boyd took over as the Pilot's publisher and editor. Katherine Boyd sold the newspaper in 1968.
Even though Boyd's personal output of works was relatively small, Boyd had proven himself to be a respected, wellknown figure of American literature. Accepting honors with reticent grace, Boyd was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1937, received an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina in 1938, and in 1939 was elected to the new Society of American Historians. His best friend Paul Green commented on his death in the introduction to Eighteen Poems, saying, "He made his monuments, his tracks, cut his path, planted his trees by time's river—all to testify that he had passed this way."
Drums. New York City: Scribners, 1925.
Marching On. New York City: Scribners, 1927.
Long Hunt. New York City: Scribners, 1930.
Roll River. New York City: Scribners, 1935.
Bitter Creek. New York City: Scribners, 1939.
One More Free Man, published in The Free Company Presents: A Collection of Plays about the Meaning of America, edited, with an introduction, by Boyd, Dodd Mead (New York City), 1941.
Eighteen Poems. New York: Scribners, 1944.
Old Pines and Other Stories. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1952.