Malcolm spent a year in Calhoun College at Yale as a guest fellow, responding to an invitation of R.W.B. Lewis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and then Master of Calhoun. A highlight of this experience was Malcolm’s friendship with author Norman Mailer. His good friend William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Yale’s chaplain, asked him to be the first guest preacher of the year in Battell Chapel.
A PROFILE OF MALCOLM BOYD
By R.W.B. Lewis, who wrote this in 1969. A longtime professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, Lewis was author of a biography of Edith Wharton which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. He died in 2002.
Malcolm Boyd showed up on the Yale campus in the summer of 1968. He had no particular plan or program in mind; he had simply heard from his friend William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of Yale, that there were a good many concerned and interesting students there, and he wanted to meet some of them. It happened that one of the resident Fellows (associated faculty) in Calhoun College had just then decided to go on leave, so as Master of Calhoun I invited Malcolm to take over the absent professor’s suite. This was quite irregular, as it turned out. Malcolm had been given the courtesy title of “visiting chaplain,” but he had in fact no formal connection with the university whatever, and was not eligible to occupy rooms. But the Yale authorities thoughtfully averted their eyes, and Malcolm moved in.
When the students came back in September, they instantly flocked around the new guest Fellow, and from that moment Malcolm could always be seen in the courtyard or the dining hall, in his rooms or at tea in the Master’s House—engaged in conversation on every variety of subject. In November, when Yale instituted its “coed week” (a preview of the way things would be when women students actually enrolled in September, 1969), the ceremonies began with Malcolm engaging about four hundred young men and women—his stocky figure perched on a kitchen stool to ease his painful back—on the basic and engrossing topic of men, women, and Yale. The general effect of his presence has been both stimulating and unsettling. Malcolm, in talk, goes to the human core of the matter, and touches people where they ought to be living, but aren’t.
His position vis-à-vis Yale was typical, and not entirely unlike his position in the Episcopal Church, into which he was ordained priest in 1955. He is the irregular man, the informal man, but (anything but an alienated man) he always prefers to do his work and have his say within the peripheries of whatever establishment he is inhabiting.
My father was an Episcopalian clergyman of high Anglican persuasion; in politics, a registered Socialist. (My maternal grandfather was a clergyman, too, but according to family lore he was something of a rogue). I can imagine nothing my father would have approved more than Malcolm Boyd’s unstinting effort to make fresh connections, and remake forgotten ones, between the contemporary church and American society—that is, the actual lives and personalities, the ambitions, daily needs and life-styles of the individuals who are that society. My father would have greatly enjoyed holding long converse with Malcolm over cigars, of an evening, teasing him gently by pointing out that if Malcolm were better grounded in Church history he would be aware of countless precedents for his own particular mission.
What Malcolm also seems to know mainly by instinct is that his mission is altogether in the American grain. It harks back to the days of Emerson and Theodore Parker and Orestes Brownson, to those restive ministers who found that their church had gone dry, that it was rationalistic and comfortable and far removed from human urgencies; and who, in their attempt to restore vitality to the religious life, expanded their ministerial activities into the whole range of human experience.
Emerson, more of a radical than Malcolm Boyd, eventually “signed off” from his church. But his definition of the role of the minister is close to Malcolm’s. It is a question of bringing the church much more closely to bear upon immediate life, of mediating between the religious vision with which one has been entrusted and the common aspirations of common people. And this involves new forms and idioms of prayer, new rituals of worship, new assumptions of priestly responsibility, new areas—sometimes, literally, new places—in which to exercise the religious energy. A new form of the sacramental life. Malcolm, to be sure, can on occasion be a good deal more antic than Emerson allowed himself to be; and though Emerson faced audiences all across the country, it is not easy to think of him performing, as Malcolm has done, in a California nightclub. But I dare say Emerson would have understood the impulse. He understood Whitman and Leaves of Grass at once:
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me…
Through me many long dumb voices…
Voices of the diseas’d and despairing, and of thieves and
Dwarfs…by me clarified and transfigured.
How Malcolm arrived at his so-to-say regularized irregularity is an utterly absorbing account. His first mature experience was in the most secular field that even this secular culture has to offer: Hollywood and the television industry. Then, after divinity school and postordination study, came the peace marches, the parochial work among the poor and the victimized (“the diseas’d and despairing”); the startling success of his books of prayers, and the evolution of a new style of religious expression; the campus attachments. Somehow the order of things in this educational process was exactly right. Out of it came one kind—certainly not the only kind, but one important and invaluable kind—of contemporary churchman. The best churchman, I remember my father saying (perhaps quoting) is the man who is most at home in the universe. I don’t know about the universe; but it is hard to think of any churchman more at home than Malcolm Boyd in the depths and heights, on the fringes and at the center of the world of America today.
The Yale Daily News invited Malcolm to write a weekly column. Also appearing in the Yale Daily News was a new comic strip named Doonesbury by its creator Garry Trudeau. Two journalists starting a new press syndicate had asked Malcolm to write a column. So, because of their interest in that proposed project, they subscribed to the News. In the process they discovered Doonesbury and have published it ever since. Nothing came of a column for Malcolm at that time. But he did write a regular column for the AARP Magazine (with 34 million readers) from 1990 to 2000. Presently he is a columnist for Los Angeles’ Episcopal News.
Look magazine (July 27, 1971) ran a cover story on “Ten prominent Americans give you their personal key to Peace of Mind.” Malcolm shared the cover with Duke Ellington, Walter Cronkite, Joan Baez, Bill Moyers, Margaret Mead and others.
In 1977 Malcolm came out publicly as a gay man. A newsmagazine described how many had viewed him: “blunt, restless, eloquent and above all, open.” Yet it noted the brooding presence of a mask in his public life: “He kept one aspect of his life deeply private: his homosexuality.”