Charles William Goyen, writer (who published under the name William Goyen), son of Charles Provine and Mary Inez (Trow) Goyen, was born at Trinity, Texas, on April 24, 1915. He moved with his parents, brother, and sister to Houston when he was eight, and there he grew up and attended public schools and Rice Institute (now Rice University). After teaching at the University of Houston in 1939–40, he enlisted in the United States Navy. He was discharged 4½ years later and never returned to live in Texas. Between 1945 and 1952 he lived for periods in New Mexico, California, Oregon, Europe, and New York. After a stay in Taos, New Mexico, from 1952 to 1954, he lived principally in New York.
Goyen's first novel, The House of Breath (1950), and first book of short stories, Ghost and Flesh (1952), received much acclaim and won him two Guggenheim fellowships. His work was translated into German and French by Ernst Robert Curtius and Maurice Coindreau and was soon established in Europe, where it remains in print in several languages. In the early 1950s, in addition to publishing another novel (In a Farther Country, 1955) and more short stories, Goyen began to write dramatic works and adaptations of his fiction for the stage. The success of his theatrical work won him a Ford Foundation Grant for Theater Writing. Six of his plays were eventually produced. The theater also brought him into contact with actress Doris Roberts, whom he married in 1963.
Over later years Goyen taught as a visiting professor at Brown, Columbia, Princeton, the University of Southern California, and other universities. He began work as an editor at McGraw-Hill in 1966 but resigned in 1971 to return to his writing. He published a nonfiction book, A Book of Jesus, perhaps his most popular work, in 1973. He subsequently published a novel, Come, The Restorer (1974), and his Collected Stories (1975). In 1977 he received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Rice University. He moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and lived there most of the rest of his life. The work of his last years included an unfinished autobiography, short stories (collected posthumously), and a novel, Arcadio, published a few weeks after his death.
As a writer, Goyen strove to combine spiritual inquiry about the nature of man with the elements of humble daily life. His early childhood left his writing marked by the rhythms of rural speech, the Bible, and a sense of story. His father was a lumber salesman, and nearly all of Goyen's fiction is permeated with the atmosphere of the East Texas woods and small towns. His absorption with European writers did nothing to lessen his occupation with the details of the East Texas of his youth and the nuances of its speech. This attentiveness gives a strong regional flavor to those works in which Goyen attempts to recapture the atmosphere of life in East Texas during the twenties and thirties. His work has been an example to other writers who have sought to make use of the Texas past and has encouraged those whose artistry is not always appreciated in their native places. Though he left Texas early, Goyen owes more artistically to Texas than to New York and Europe, a debt that he frequently acknowledged. He died in Los Angeles on August 30, 1983.