Edited by Hans Bak

Harvard University Press. 800 pages. £29.95. ISBN 978-0-674-05106-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989), poet, editor, essayist, reviewer, made one great mistake in his lifetime, and that was in the 1930s when he continued to support Stalin and asserted his belief that the Moscow Trials provided evidence of the guilt of those charged with conspiracy and other alleged crimes. At a time when many writers and intellectuals were backing away from support for the Communist Party, Cowley, though never a member, was a faithful fellow-traveller. He later came to the conclusion that he had been wrong, but by then the damage had been done and his reputation in certain quarters was to suffer for many years. And Cowley himself continued to agonise over his actions (or lack of them) and attempted to explain why he had consistently refused to face up to the fact that the Soviet Union had declined into a dictatorship and that innocent people were being sent to their deaths.

There was, however, far more to Cowley than this failure to face reality which can, perhaps, be explained by looking at the social, economic and political circumstances of the time, and the fact that Cowley, as a literary intellectual, may have had a naïve faith in the intentions of politicians. He had a long and distinguished career as a writer and editor and, despite that early error, deserves to be remembered for it.

Educated at Harvard, Cowley went to France in 1917 and, as a member of the American Field Service (a voluntary organisation), he drove a truck transporting supplies to the front line. Later, he returned to France and was there between 1921 and 1923, so mixed with Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, Mina Loy, Harold Stearns, and others of the expatriate community in Paris. But Cowley didn’t just limit his activities to what was, after all, a fairly narrow, though productive, community of largely American writers. He spoke French and got to know Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, and the Dadaists, who he admired for their energy and enthusiasm, if not always for their almost-wilful determination to be obscure and contemptuous of any audience they might attract.

This was a period when little magazines flourished, and Cowley was connected, in one way or another, with Broom and Secession. Broom was edited by Harold Loeb (the basis for the character of Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s novel of the Paris expatriates, The Sun Also Rises) and Secession by Gorham Munson, and though Cowley was involved with both magazines he seemingly preferred Loeb’s approach to editing to that of Munson. Reading the letters in which he writes about Loeb and Munson, it’s easy to see how Cowley was acting like many young writers in any period with his mixture of self-interest in wanting to be published and noticed and genuine concern for advancing the cause of new writing generally. Hans Bak says that Cowley’s  letters (not necessarily all included in the book) show that he was “embroiled in unsavoury and unproductive literary politics,” which is true enough, but often fairly typical of what happens among writers. Cowley’s Exile’s Return is a classic account of his years in France, but it can be useful to read Gorham Munson’s The Awakening Twenties for an alternative view of events surrounding Broom and Secession.

When Cowley returned to New York he worked briefly for a catalogue service, but then began to freelance full-time as a writer. His poems appeared in magazines like Poetry and The Dial and his articles and reviews in The Saturday Review of Literature and The New Republic, among others. His letters refer to not having been so poor since he left college and life being a succession of “financial scrapes.” In one letter he tells William Carlos Williams that he has “just borrowed money to pay the rent, after worrying about the subject for two weeks.” And he adds that he envies Williams because he has a regular income from his job as a doctor. The letters, and others like them where Cowley is attempting to drum up writing assignments, and sometimes lamenting that he’s having to take on hack work that he thinks will stop him writing poems or “essays of any value,” will seem familiar to anyone who has wanted to be a freelance writer. It wasn’t likely that Cowley would ever make enough money from poetry to survive on that, nor was he cut out to be a successful novelist. The academic world wasn’t then as widespread as it later became, so a career there, assuming Cowley wanted one, wasn’t on the cards. What he needed was some sort of position which would involve writing, and also enable him to still freelance when he wanted to, and in 1929 he accepted a job as a junior editor at The New Republic, This ended his financial worries, and as Hans Bak puts it, would eventually provide him with “an influential platform from which to speak out on the intellectual, literary, and political crosscurrents of the turbulent 1930s.” Speaking out wasn’t necessarily a total blessing, as noted earlier, but in 1929 it probably seemed a golden opportunity to make a mark in the intellectual world of New York. Cowley’s book of poems, Blue Juniata, was published in 1929 and was positively reviewed, so he appeared to be at least part way up the ladder of success.

The financial crash of 1929 radicalised many writers, Cowley among them, and by 1932 he was sufficiently close to the Communist Party to support its candidates in the presidential elections, march in the May Day Parade, and visit Kentucky to support striking miners. Cowley had by this time more or less assumed the role of literary editor at The New Republic, and was able to recruit contributors who shared his literary and political interests, though he was not dogmatic to the point of excluding writers who had what Bak calls “independent minds.” One of these was Nathan Asch, son of the famous Jewish writer, Sholem Asch. Nathan Asch was himself a novelist (Pay Day, published in 1930, is a typical novel of the period) and Cowley had known him in Paris. Asch’s career didn’t prosper and it’s to Cowley’s credit that he kept in touch with him over the years and encouraged him to write his memoirs. It was Cowley who persuaded the editors of The Paris Review to publish Asch’s “The Nineteen-Twenties: An Interior,” an evocative account of expatriate Paris, in their summer, 1954 issue.

Cowley’s Exile’s Return, his book about the literary generation of the 1920s, was published in 1934 and immediately attracted hostile attention from critics who thought that the activities of writers who had abandoned America to pursue their dreams and write their books abroad were irrelevant. They had none of the special characteristics Cowley claimed for them. In his later memoir, The Dream of the Golden Mountain: Remembering the 1930s, he recalled that the reception given his book by the majority of reviewers was a “shattering experience while it lasted.” When it was re-issued in 1951 it received much better reviews.

In 1935 Cowley delivered a paper at the First American Writers’ Congress, an event largely dominated by the Communist Party. He also involved himself with the League of American Writers, an organisation which included communists and fellow-travellers. He sometimes had his doubts about the extent of communist influence, but thought that all the different parties on the Left ought to act together in opposition to Fascism. The Popular Front line was then in its ascendancy. His activities didn’t endear him to everyone, and in 1936 Felix Morrow wrote an article in New Militant, a Trotskyite publication, under the heading, “Malcolm Cowley: Portrait of a Stalinist Intellectual.” And John Dewey accused Cowley of an obvious anti-Trotskyite policy in the way he ran the literary section of The New Republic.

Cowley’s political involvements did not stop him publishing new writers in the magazine. John Berryman, Tillie Olson, Josephine Miles, Richard Wright were among them, along with more-established poets like Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. He also continued to support, in various ways, writers he admired, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose reputation in the 1930s had slumped, partly because his books no longer appeared regularly, but also because the politics of the time did not consider his subject-matter as relating to problems such as unemployment and the rise of Fascism. Socially-conscious literature was in demand. In a letter written in 1934 he says that he intends to review Tender is the Night himself, even though Fitzgerald had asked that it be given to a younger reviewer. Cowley’s response was that a younger critic would probably want to know why Fitzgerald wasn’t a proletarian novelist, and he preferred to avoid that situation. I think in some ways this shows that, despite Cowley’s own political leanings, he was capable of judging books for their own achievements and not because they did (or didn’t) meet some radical requirements. It’s easy to see how he differed from someone like Mike Gold, the Communist Party’s chief literary critic, who tended to value books for the level of their commitment to the Party line.

Doubts about his own support for Stalin and Russia continued to grow in Cowley’s mind, though he defended his position in long letter to friends and associates. The Spanish Civil War, and the fact that Russia was the only country prepared to support the beleaguered Republic, persuaded him to overcome suspicions about what was happening in the Soviet Union. Long letters to Edmund Wilson and Hamilton Basso attempted to explain why he had not broken with the communists, and what had inclined him to sign a letter which accepted the legitimacy of the trials in Moscow. But the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Russian invasion of Finland, the start of the Second World War, and the fall of France, were the final straws as far as Cowley was concerned. He resigned from the League of American Writers and withdrew from other commitments which might link him to the Communist Party. The result was that, although he continued to be attacked by the right and the non-communist left, he soon began to also fall foul of the communists.

Cowley had lost his editorial position at The New Republic, though he continued to contribute articles and reviews to it, and in November, 1941, he was asked to go to Washington to work for the Office of Facts and Figures. It was something that wasn’t to last long as his radical involvements in the 1930s caught up with him. The FBI had been keeping a file on him, and his government job came to the attention of Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee who called Cowley “one of the chief Communist intellectuals.” He was forced to resign and revert to his situation as a freelance writer and editor. But in 1944 he was granted a  five-year stipend by the Bollingdon Foundation which meant that he could concentrate on several long-term projects, such as a one-volume history of American literature that he been commissioned to write. And he took on other tasks. He was responsible for assembling The Portable Hemingway, and later, The Portable Faulkner, and The Portable Hawthorn.

The post-1945 years found Cowley busy as writer and editor, though he continued to worry about his earlier defence of Stalin. And he viewed with dismay the rise of anti-communism and the way in which the innocent were condemned along with the guilty. To give Cowley his due he never became one of those one-time radicals who turned informer or wrote books outlining his activities and asking for forgiveness. He accepted that he’d been mistaken in the 1930s, and sometimes attempted to explain why, but in a letter to Dwight Macdonald in 1947, he stated that rank-and-file American communists, none of them spies or saboteurs, were now “a dissident and persecuted minority,” and the country would be lessened if there wasn’t a place for political minorities. His own past came to haunt him when he was summoned as a witness in the Alger Hiss/Whittaker Chambers confrontations, got involved in a notorious affair at Yaddo, and was attacked by right-wingers when he was invited to be a guest-lecturer at the University of Washington. The Yaddo incident was chiefly caused by a manic Robert Lowell who somehow managed to persuade other residents at the retreat that the director, Elizabeth Ames, had been involved in subversive activities. The FBI were contacted (Ames’s secretary had been passing information to them about guests at Yaddo who made what she considered questionable political comments), and Cowley, a member of the Yaddo board of directors, was also drawn in. It was a shabby episode and, as Cowley said in a letter to Granville Hicks, it seemed as if the “whole world is in a paranoiac phase and sensitive individuals become victims and representatives of a general condition.”

Cowley continued to function as a reviewer and essayist, and in 1950 he wrote to Kenneth Burke (a friend for many years) about Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees. He hadn’t liked the book and told Burke that the problem was that Hemingway “has been living for ten years in an alcoholic haze and can’t write any longer except an occasional paragraph.” He compared him to Scott Fitzgerald who, after his breakdown, “could at least do the early chapters of The Last Tycoon.” Cowley was in touch with Fitzgerald’s daughter in 1950 regarding a new edition of Tender is the Night which would incorporate changes that Fitzgerald had planned but never made. Cowley did have some misgivings about tampering with the novel’s basic structure, but eventually decided to follow the instructions found among the writer’s papers.

Among the newer writers that Cowley spoke up for in the 1950s was Jack Kerouac, and he was responsible for placing excerpts from On the Road in The Paris Review and New World Writing and for shepherding the book towards publication in 1957. Cowley worked closely with Kerouac on editing it, and there’s a letter in which he tells him of an encounter with Allen Ginsberg who Cowley thought was wrong to encourage Kerouac to “do nothing but automatic writing.” As Cowley pointed out: “Automatic writing is fine for a start, but it has to be revised and put into shape or people will quite properly refuse to read it – and what you need now is to be read, not to be exhibited as a sort of natural phenomenon like Old Faithful geyser that sends up a jet of steam and mud every hour on the hour. You’ve got the speed, but you also need the control.” Wise words. 

There is much more in the letters from the 1950s on about writers that Cowley encouraged or tried to revive interest in. He helped Ken Kesey obtain a contract for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and encouraged Tillie Olson. And the letters are scattered with references to Dawn Powell, Otis Ferguson, Nelson Algren, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and many others. He remembered the old bohemian, Joe Gould, and the expatriate writer and publisher, Robert McAlmon. And, of course, he commented on what he was doing in terms of writing, editing, and lecturing. It’s useful to read the letters with copies of some of Cowley’s books handy. Think Back On Us, The Flower and the Leaf, And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade, are just some of them, along with others I’ve already mentioned, and there is The Portable Malcolm Cowley, which would make a useful introduction to his work for anyone not familiar with it.

I always considered Malcolm Cowley one of the most readable of critics. Perhaps he was that way because he wrote to be read by non-specialist readers and not to make an academic reputation or career. His letters show that he cared about books and writers, and that he stayed loyal to people he liked. His one big mistake, made in the 1930s, continued to dog him for many years and caused him much heartache. He was still being attacked for his support of Stalin when his memoirs of the 1930s were published in 1980. He had been wrong, and he knew it, but thought that his enemies like Sidney Hook and Joseph Epstein misrepresented him.

Hans Bak has done a wonderful job of editing the letters and there are ample notes to guide readers through the literary and political worlds that Malcolm Cowley lived in.