A Secondary Art: The Letters of Malcolm Cowley

July 30, 2014   •   By Evan Kindley

The Long Voyage

Malcolm Cowley

The following is a feature article from the newly released LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2014 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $11 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com or b&n.com.


“HE LIVED among the great,” the editor and critic Malcolm Cowley wrote in 1967 of his late sparring partner Robert McAlmon, “without ever knowing what made them great.” Cowley, too, lived among the great — as the names that adorn the back cover of The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987 (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, for starters) attest — and if he never attained greatness himself, he at least made sure he gave it sufficient study. Born in 1898 in a Pennsylvania farmhouse and raised in Pittsburgh, Cowley attended Harvard on a scholarship and immediately savored the rarefied atmosphere of social privilege around him: “I am a snob — hurrah, a true snob. What pleasure it gives me to think I can cut absolutely anybody I want to.” Cowley’s early ambition (never either entirely disowned or entirely fulfilled) was poetic; in Boston he was mentored by Amy Lowell and befriended other young Harvard writers like John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, and John Brooks Wheelwright. Meanwhile, he kept up a lively and rivalrous correspondence with his childhood friend Kenneth Burke, who would go on to become one of the most important literary theorists of the century. The two Pittsburgh boys formed a mutual admiration society, encouraging each other’s early delusions of grandeur. “We are failures at twenty-one, but more and more I am emphasizing forty,” Cowley tells Burke in 1919. “At forty we shall be Somebodies, n’est-ce pas? Mediocrity never struggled harder than with me; its victory is still far from assured.”

Cowley was just the right age to be duly impressed by the signature achievements of high modernism, but his own aesthetic leanings were hardly radical. In 1918 he wrote to Burke that he was “meditating the establishment of a new classicism […] [which] isn’t a matter of any particular rules, but just of Rules.” “I feel at home in the seventeenth century, as if I had just been introduced to a very pleasant company of very kindred minds,” he says in another letter, adopting some of T. S. Eliot’s fashionable Grand Siècle nostalgia. “How regally I should have licked King Louis’ ass, meanwhile composing the satire for publication after his death.” While such sentiments weren’t too far off from the emerging Eliotic party line of the time, Cowley’s attraction to classicism was less about following trends than it was about accepting his own innate inclinations and limitations:

My brain is a practical brain, a brain that likes to work on definite lines, a brain that thinks about means rather than ends and that can make at least A- on any subject set for it. No one ever does justice to this type of brain. It is the classical brain which builds a perfectly proportioned edifice, which writes prose that is simple and clear, and poetry studiously incorrect. It does not question enough; it respects ability and authority.

The combination of Cowley’s “practical brain” and his shrewdness about the contemporary literary scene made book reviewing a natural career for him to pursue. From 1921 to 1923 he traveled to France on a fellowship, where he wrote poetry and articles for publications like the New York Evening Post and The Bookman. He also fell in with the Dadaists André Breton, Tristan Tzara, and Louis Aragon — “the most amusing people in Paris” — and parlayed his intimacy with the Continental avant-garde into early journalistic success. As a young freelancer on the make, Cowley shows a canny sense of the house styles of the various media outlets available to him (“When one writes for The Nation, one is pompous; one is arty for The Dial and economic for The New Republic”) and a keen sense of who could help him succeed.

Book reviewing would always be Cowley’s métier, and throughout his life his feelings about this alternated between pride and embarrassment. In 1966 he would praise his early role model Paul Valéry as “the saint of all hack writers, the exemplar of the dream that they can do works of genius to order,” and he took considerable pride in his own casually limpid prose style: “My ambition,” he wrote to The New Yorker’s William Shawn in 1944, “is to write a piece so smooth that reading it is like being launched in a canoe and floating down a mill race.” Yet Cowley was habitually self-deprecating about plying what he called “the writer’s trade.” “The disgusting feature of New York is its professional writers, who are venial to the last degree,” he told Harold Loeb in 1924. Many of his letters complain bitterly about the world of literary journalism and characterize his facility for it as a sort of curse. “According to my own standards, everything I’m doing now is rotten,” he writes to Allen Tate in 1926.

The articles for Charm are rotten. The articles for Book Chat are rotten. […] I see nothing else to do but compromise. Some people are saved by a sort of divine dummness [sic] which makes them incapable — not morally, but intellectually — of successful hackwork. I’ve always lacked that defence.

Forty years on, Cowley’s feelings on the subject of his “hackwork” were still decidedly mixed. “Actually I like to think that I contributed something to the trade of book reviewing,” he writes to William Styron:

It had been a pretty slapdash trade in the 1920s, and I like to think that by working harder at it myself I forced other people to work harder. Book reviewing in the 1960s is more sophisticated. Some damned good reviews are published. But also […] the reviewers are taking too much pride in their creation and are forgetting that they practice a secondary art, one that couldn’t exist without novelists and poets worth writing about.

Cowley’s journalistic talent was such that he was hired as a junior editor at The New Republic in 1929. The next year, he replaced Edmund Wilson as the magazine’s full-time literary editor, a position that put him at the center of some of the thorniest aesthetic and political controversies of the decade. Theleft-liberal New Republic was then broadly sympathetic to the Soviet Union, and though Cowley himself was never an official member of the Communist Party, he was, in his own later words, “pretty crimson, or at least deep pink” throughout the 1930s. Infamously, he took the side of Stalin in his 1937 report on the 1936-1938 Moscow Trials, a position that earned him harsh reproofs from Wilson, John Dewey, and Sidney Hook and alienated him from the largely Trotskyite intellectual crowd around the fledgling Partisan Review. Though Cowley repudiated Communism shortly after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact and never looked back, he would spend much of the rest of his writing life apologizing for not getting there sooner. (A probing 1965 essay on the subject was entitled “The Sense of Guilt,” and he was still ruminating on it in “Echoes from Moscow: 1937-1938,” published in 1984, four years before his death.)

In 1941, Cowley left The New Republic to accept an invitation from Archibald MacLeish to serve as Chief Information Analyst for the US government’s Office of Facts and Figures. Cowley found it “comforting to be near the center of things” but detested the bureaucracy of Washington and found little time to write. In the event, he didn’t last long as a public servant, being quickly identified as a subversive influence by Congressman Martin Dies, who had him investigated by the FBI. “A writer for a weekly magazine doesn’t lead much of a private life; all the information about him is on record,” Cowley protested. “An investigation of Malcolm Cowley yields about as startling results as the investigation of a billboard.” Nonetheless, he reluctantly resigned in March of 1942, after serving for less than five months.

Unsurprisingly, Cowley’s loss of faith in Communism coupled with the fiasco of his government appointment bred in him a sense of disillusionment with politics. “I feel as if I’d been a victim of the Moscow trials without ever having seen Moscow,” he joked, with weary irony, in 1942, and by 1946 was proudly referring to himself as “an old-fashioned Unpolitical Man.” In fact, he would continue to intervene in political issues involving freedom of speech for writers and, late in his life, ecology, and would be embroiled in yet another controversy when he testified against Whittaker Chambers in the 1948 Alger Hiss trial. Still, while never subscribing to the arch-formalist agenda of New Critics like Cleanth Brooks, Cowley made a deliberate effort to stick to literature in the latter half of his life. “Maybe it’s very fortunate for literature that writers […] are kept out of official life and maintained as another oppressed minority,” he wrote to MacLeish in 1943. “Literature has to keep retiring into the catacombs to rediscover itself.”

What did Cowley get up to in those catacombs? Neither a brilliant theoretician nor a particularly insightful historian, as a booster he was nonpareil. Over the years, both as a critic and in his capacity as editor at the Viking Press, he advocated for younger writers like John Cheever, Tillie Olsen, Ernest J. Gaines, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Cormac McCarthy, but he specialized in the rehabilitation of deteriorating or underrated reputations. Most famously, he rescued William Faulkner from years of neglect by compiling The Portable Faulkner (1946), published at a time when most of the Faulkner oeuvre was out of print in the United States. Cowley’s letters to Faulkner (mostly already published in 1978’s The Faulkner-Cowley File) are chatty and respectful, while giving a clear sense that the balance of power lay with editor rather than author. At one point, he warns the middle-aged Faulkner that “in publishing circles your name is mud,” and elsewhere eagerly relays secondhand compliments from “a little man with bad teeth” named Jean-Paul Sartre in order to lift his correspondent’s spirits. Later this dynamic would change, as Cowley’s Faulkner reclamation project became, in his eyes, almost too successful. “I liked his work better when it wasn’t so holy, or willed, or fabricated, before he became a pillar,” Cowley confided to Conrad Aiken in 1954, five years after Faulkner had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Cowley would take on similar editorial projects for other approximate contemporaries, editing a revised posthumous edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night that placed the events of the narrative in chronological order, and working with Ernest Hemingway’s widow, Mary, to assemble A Moveable Feast. His extraordinary efforts on behalf of his contemporaries can seem selfless or self-serving, depending on the light; certainly Cowley benefited by attaching himself to the great writers of his era, but in most cases he seems to have been motivated by a genuine Boswellian passion rather than opportunism. “I’ve always had a feeling of loyalty to all the writers of our generation,” he wrote Hemingway in 1951:

We started from the same place, even if we have had very different experiences […]. I think that as a generation of writers we have done a good job, one of the best, and if each man has had his individual failings that’s something we can talk about among ourselves and let the twerps find out for themselves — but it seems to me that they always pick the wrong things as failings.

Indeed, if there is one single term we can associate with Cowley’s thinking, it is “generation.” He was more committed than any other critic of his time to considering (in his own words) why writers “appear in clusters or constellations, with empty spaces between the clusters.” In 1934, while at The New Republic, Cowley published Exile’s Return, his famous critical memoir of the so-called “Lost Generation.”The book appears to have had its inception in a 1931 proposal by Cowley’s friend Matthew Josephson to produce “a cooperative volume of literary memoirs in order to illuminate the intellectual and social background of the present generation of the writers.” While the final book was authored by Cowley alone, he retained the intention to represent his generation. Received with hostility upon publication (“Often books are more severely reviewed,” Cowley complained to John Wheelwright, “but never in my experience have they been severely reviewed at such great length”), Exile’s Return came to be considered a minor classic, and was revised and reissued by Viking in 1951, with its pious Communist rhetoric excised.

Exile’s Return established Cowley as a chronicler of the present and the very recent past, his tone pitched somewhere between gossip and historiography, the barroom and the lecture hall. His subsequent critical books — The Literary Situation, A Second Flowering, and The Dream of the Golden Mountains — all worked variations on the autobiographical themes of Exile’s Return, and Cowley always seemed more comfortable speaking from experience as a literary man than projecting himself into the psyches of unfamiliar writers. Despite a lifelong interest in 19th-century American authors like Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville, he never wrote more than scattered essays on any of them, and was much less influential as a critic of the canon than as an arbiter of his peers’ reputations. Even here, one could wish Cowley were a little more selective: an amusing 1944 rant against Robert Frost (“the Cal Coolidge of American literature […] he’s everything nice in the antique shop, but he isn’t the voice of America”) is one of the few judgments in The Long Voyage to contradict today’s received wisdom. Of course, one could argue that Cowley did as much as anyone to propagate that wisdom, but it’s undeniable that, compared to the acerbic opinions of approximate contemporaries like Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling, Cowley’s sensible catholic tastes can seem a little bland.

The Long Voyage is perhaps most valuable for its sense of a life lived shuttling between literary institutions of various kinds. “I have a great feeling for institutions which you lack,” Cowley tells Burke in 1919, and between his work at The New Republic, his stint in Washington, and his close involvement with entities like the Yaddo artists’ colony, the League of American Writers, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his subsequent career certainly bears this out. Though he kept up active correspondence with many professors and taught at Stanford and the University of Michigan, he was not wholly pleased by the rise of academic literary criticism or creative writing programs: “The real trouble with ivory towers is that people go cockoo [sic] in them,” he writes as early as 1932, and by 1957 is playfully denouncing “the so-called academic or bow-tie conspiracy” to his friend James Thurber. But though he was more at home with journalism, he was no more sanguine about its effects on his soul. “During the last few years I have learned a lot about the institutionalization of human relations,” he writes to Burke in 1940 of his job at The New Republic:

An editor of a liberal weekly, and particularly a book-review editor, is not a man but an institution, a name to be signed to petitions, a possible speaker at meetings, a leg-up in other writers’ careers, a sinister Stalinist or reactionary influence, a whole list of abstractions. He may end finding himself dehumanized by other people’s attitudes toward him.

This, in miniature, is Cowley’s life story: ambition, success, ambivalence. His relationship to America is another case in point. Early on, he was inspired by his Dadaist friends’ interest in US commercial culture, and in 1922 wrote that “the chief advantage of two years in France is to give you a taste for America.” Upon his return to the States, Cowley was part of a broad movement, which also included scholars like Van Wyck Brooks, Newton Arvin, and F. O. Matthiessen, to establish a canon of American literature. “I feel that if you scratch me anywhere, you’ll find an American,” he tells Brooks in 1939, and certainly his eagerness to work for the federal government during wartime bespeaks a genuine patriotism. But in the 1950s, Cowley, like many others, began to chafe against the spirit of nationalism, especially as it intersected with the conservative McCarthyite agenda. “I can’t take the imperative ‘Be an American!’ any more than I can take the indicative ‘I am an American,’” he writes in 1955.

What else are we, what else can we be? Like other generalities that seem to have no content, these imperatives and indicatives acquire a sneaking content — “I am an American” in practice has become a way of saying that Irish Jansenist Puritan Catholicism is the true Americanism and that Jeffersonian Americans are really Communistic traitors.

(A prejudice against Irish Catholics is a curious leitmotif throughout The Long Voyage.) Visiting Paris in 1957, Cowley laments that “the insidious influence of America is spreading everywhere, into every detail of life.” Ultimately he even became disillusioned with the field he had done so much to cultivate, as a late letter to Burke attests:

Sometimes I get bored with American literature. It’s studied because the US [is] a powerful nation and must logically have antecedents. We find the sprouting seed of IBM in James and Howells. But where will our literature be when the country becomes relatively less powerful? Then Mao Tse-tung the poet will doubtless take the place of Whitman.

This cynical, exhausted tone is typical of the later correspondence. Cowley lived to the advanced age of 90, and experienced an unexpected late popular success with a book-length essay entitled The View from 80. In his final years he is rueful and wry about his physical ailments (“Inside I’m only 26 until I try to walk downstairs”) and fading renown (“The students at Warwick don’t know me from Malcolm Bradbury or Malcolm X”), and skeptical but never entirely dismissive of literary developments like beat poetry and postmodernism. (He recommended Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Viking, but drew the line at John Barth: “I bogged down night after night in Giles Goat-Boy till I said to myself, ‘This is spinach and to hell with it.’”)

The aptly named Long Voyage, at 702 pages (excluding notes), is probably too much Cowley: a more discerning selection of letters would still serve to establish his importance to 20th-century American literature without overstating it, as the bulk of the current volume implicitly does. The book is edited by Hans Bak, a professor of American Literature in the Netherlands who has previously published a biography of Cowley, and includes a likable, if largely redundant, foreword from the critic’s son, Robert. But while there is plenty of information and historical context, there is little sense of narrative momentum or structure. In this way, it replicates a problem Cowley faced in his own later years, as he struggled to complete a handful of long-planned projects and to shore up his legacy as “a mediator between serious writers and the public.” “I think one of the noblest projects for anyone in age is to find a shape in his life,” Cowley wrote in 1978, at the age of 80:

It was a drama in how many acts. How can he make the last act worthy of the earlier ones? He is the author, the protagonist, the audience and the critic. He has to work under handicaps while the stage hands fidget and the audience is eager to go home. But perhaps he can succeed in acting out “I was” or even “I was this.”


Evan Kindley is an editor at large at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a contributing editor to The Pitchfork Review.