I SUPPOSE it’s now obligatory in a review of a collection of letters to comment wistfully on how quaintly superseded this is, on how we will never again have relationships that exist outside of the conventions of electronic communication. Recently, friends of mine and I have been sharing our experiences of digging through boxes of old letters that we wrote each other back when we were in our teens and 20s, when we were the last cohort to seek out post offices rather than internet cafés on our Wanderjahrs and Eurail summers, the last generation to keep in touch with each other through the mail after we dispersed to our various colleges and grad programs. We were so passionate in those letters, so florid, so earnest and witty. Où sont les postes restantes d’antan?
And much as I love their writing, it’s hard to imagine an omnibus of the emails, texts, Facebook status updates, and tweets of George Saunders or Zadie Smith that could be as immersive and energizing and informative as the letters of the productive, long-lived literary eminence Malcolm Cowley. Assembled and edited by Hans Bak in a collection entitled The Long Voyage, Cowley’s letters carry the style he had in all of his writing, featuring a very American, cynical, go-getter voice and an uncanny facility with a sharp closing line. (He was also a poet.) But if the epistolary underscores how much the way we write has changed, Cowley is utterly recognizable as a type as prevalent today as in the 1920s: the ambitious, self-promoting operator.
By no means is this a dig at him, either. From his youngest days, Cowley had his eyes on greatness, on being somebody: and of course that is precisely what he became. He recalls the young tech entrepreneurs of whom Mark Zuckerberg is perhaps an unfair emblem. Cowley had talent, he had ambition, and he had the energy to work all day and network all night because, in the end, he loved the work itself.
Like most self-made hustlers — even Jay Gatsby, who has become an archetype partly because of Cowley — Cowley came from the provinces, in his case a Cambria County, Pennsylvania farm and, later, Pittsburgh, where he attended Peabody High School with Kenneth Burke. In his letters he rarely speaks of his boyhood, with the exception of an angry rejoinder to Alfred Kazin, who insinuated in a memoir that Cowley lacked the childhood struggles Kazin had experienced in tough Brownsville, Brooklyn, and thus had not overcome early humiliation. Cowley sharply informs him that “the Cowleys were regarded as too poor to clothe themselves properly” and that “I didn’t have an overcoat until I was fifteen in the Pittsburgh winter.”
Burke and Cowley’s friendship was deep and enduring, both boys set on achieving literary greatness from the time they were teenagers. Cowley went off to Harvard, while Burke, after a semester at Ohio State and a couple at Columbia, dropped out and sought to make it as an independent literary man. Much of the early part of this book consists of letters from Cowley to Burke, in which the two encourage each other’s ambitions and debate Art and Life with a naive earnestness. (The Long Voyage includes only letters by Cowley; a separate collection of their correspondence, including many of the letters reprinted here, was published in 1990.)
In fact, because the book is so dominated by letters to Burke, the early correspondence perhaps underrepresents Cowley as an operator and overrepresents him as a thinker. “My letters to you [are] a sort of record not of my life but of my intellectual life,” he told Burke in 1922. Burke and Cowley maintained their friendship throughout their long lives, but Cowley at least seems to have felt pressure not to abandon what had originally given their friendship such intensity and urgency: the intellectual exchange. To Burke, Cowley philosophizes; to his other correspondents, Cowley is more likely to opine on writers or to strategize about placing reviews or securing jobs. This may also have been because Burke’s was the superior intellect, and Cowley felt the pressure to match up. Burke moved in some of the same circles as Cowley once they both arrived in New York, but his work directed him elsewhere, toward philosophy, while Cowley started out as a book reviewer and then a literary historian. “You are trying to write an interpretation of certain cultural trends; I am trying to write on the process of interpretation,” Burke told Cowley in 1933.
Along with many of his Harvard classmates, Cowley enlisted in the French ambulance corps and stayed on to serve in the Army after the United States joined the war. After the Armistice he returned briefly to the States before being drawn into the great migration of writers and artists and intellectuals to Paris. Every generation gets its own romantic “Paris in the Twenties,” whether that be Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011). But even after 80 years, Cowley’s classic Exile’s Return, published the same year as Alice B. Toklas, remains the astringent for those sweetened portraits of the Lost Generation. Cowley and his wife went to France, where he intended to translate and write on French poets, but he ended up fascinated by the Dada movement and became their main advocate among American critics. Paris soured for him, though, and Exile’s Return is haunted by the nihilistic, self-destructive deaths of the playboy publisher Harry Crosby and (although he cannot bring himself to name him) Cowley’s close friend Hart Crane.
The letters in The Long Voyage neatly capture Cowley’s creation of the Viking Portable Faulkner, the first collection intended to portray Faulkner’s work as a unified body, in the 1940s. At the time, Faulkner wasn’t considered a great or important author; those who knew of him largely saw him as a writer of lurid Southern Gothics one step away from pornography. Worse, his works didn’t sell: “in publishing circles your name is mud,” Cowley told him in 1944. “They are all convinced your books won’t ever sell.”
Even more incredibly, nobody had shown how Faulkner’s works, when viewed in the aggregate, created a fully imagined Southern county with hundreds of years of remembered history that was always immanent in the present. Faulkner is “saying something, he has said it over and over, and still the critics refuse to understand what it is,” Cowley complained. Even Faulkner seemed unaware of how the whole picture fit together, and Cowley had to encourage him to make some minor edits so that names and events and places mentioned in several places matched up. If Cowley hadn’t done it, someone — most likely one of his Latin American admirers — eventually would have elaborated the unity of Faulkner’s accomplishment, but that Cowley did it while Faulkner was still alive and able to enjoy his recognition was a great service to the author, and to American literature.
Cowley did similar yeoman work for his late friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who by the 1940s had been largely forgotten. He edited a collection of stories — most of which were entirely unavailable outside of their original magazine publication — and undertook a new edition of Tender Is the Night that incorporated significant revisions Fitzgerald himself intended but never undertook. He also talked up The Great Gatsby and ensured it was republished, even if he didn’t regard it as the flawless masterpiece current consensus holds it to be. Leonardo DiCaprio would be slightly less flush if Cowley hadn’t done his part to rescue Gatsby from obscurity.
Inevitably, Cowley fell victim to the Red Scare. In the fevered 1930s, a joiner and radical like him could hardly have avoided being a member of Communist or Communist-front groups, and Cowley was a member of dozens (although not 72, as one investigation claimed). Like most of this crowd, though, he definitively broke with the Party upon hearing of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and he never hid or played down any of his past activities. How could he? Much of Cowley’s life took place in public, in the pages of magazines and books, and in public lectures, and this Red past slowed that down; it got him ousted from his job in Roosevelt’s Office of Facts and Figures (where he wrote the “Freedom from Want” section of the Four Freedoms pamphlet) and scared a few university presidents into rescinding offers of visiting lectureships in the 1950s.
Cowley was an almost uncanny judge of writing talent. From his post at the New Republic he spotted the best new novelists and poets to showcase in reviews, but perhaps more importantly he gave work to many of them. Mary McCarthy, Nathanael West, James Farrell, and John Cheever are among the writers to whom he tossed freelance jobs. At Viking, he championed Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, Jack Kerouac, Cheever, and others, and in just one of the semesters he taught at Stanford he had Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey in his class. It’s one thing to happen to have crossed paths with these writers before they were known; Cowley’s correspondence, though, clearly shows that he knew immediately what their talents — and shortcomings — were.
The Long Voyage is also a reminder of a time, not long ago, when literature had a more central place in the cultural conversation. Although he did produce some poetry, Cowley made his living writing about literature, working with literature, editing and lecturing and sitting on boards concerned with literature. What’s remarkable about that to a contemporary reader is that he did so almost entirely outside of academia. Today, with a few exceptions — this publication being one notable example — literature happens in the universities and colleges, in MFA programs, campus readings series, scholarly journals, and seminars. Major mainstream cultural publications such as The Atlantic or The New Yorker or Harper’s continue, dutifully, to cover books, but Cowley’s accounts of the battle scars he received as the books editor of the New Republic feel anachronistic.
What’s not anachronistic is the picture Cowley gives of just how important intermediary figures such as critics and editors became in the 20th century. Cowley did just about everything such a person could do in literature. He wrote literary history, wrote book reviews for and edited the books section of the New Republic, served as a prize judge, was an editorial consultant for the Viking Press (Knopf’s paperback reprint imprint), and later in his life taught writing and occupied august positions at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The writers do the writing, but people like Cowley helped those writers reach audiences, and then told the audiences how to read those writers’ work, a role that may be even more important in today’s corporate, blockbuster publishing environment.
Bak has done a masterful job with this collection. It’s a shame that it only includes letters by Cowley, but the book is a brick already, 700 pages even without the apparatus. The thought that this is only a small selection of his correspondence is awesome indeed. Bak divides the letters into chronological sections and uses introductions to focus our attention on how those letters represent the events of Cowley’s life and career, and within each section he groups related letters together, even if it violates strict chronological order. Bak’s extensive and helpful footnotes make it easy for the reader to piece together the arguments and stories to which Cowley is alluding, and to identify correspondents that only specialists in American literature might recognize: Newton Arvin, Van Wyck Brooks, Matthew Josephson.
Cowley has never quite been forgotten, but the work he did was often as hidden as it was influential. This collection will remind readers of 20th-century American literature of the key role Cowley played in its development, and might perhaps spur them to read some of Cowley’s own works.
Become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books!
Greg Barnhisel’s book Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy will be out later this year.