Reviews — From the August 2014 issue

The Passenger

Creating the Lost Generation

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Discussed in this essay:

The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987, edited by Hans Bak. Harvard University Press. 848 pages. $39.95.

Malcolm Cowley made his name as an ancillary member of the Lost Generation in Montparnasse and Greenwich Village, but for much of a long career — he was actively publishing, in one way or another, from the First World War till the Eighties — he liked to give the impression of being more comfortable tending his garden in Sherman, Connecticut, than in the company of big-city intellectuals. On top of helping shape the story of the interwar avant-garde with his memoirs, starting with Exile’s Return (1934), he functioned as a critic, editor, teacher, minor poet, committee chair, and all-around literary middleman without ceasing to speak of himself as an interloper in “academic or bow-tie” settings. He’s remembered mostly as a rescuer of sinking reputations — his Portable Faulkner (1946) still gets credited with turning the novelist’s fortunes around — and in the postwar years he was inclined to leave the hurtful side of reviewing to younger practitioners. Slow of speech, hard of hearing, and — it was said — given to turning off his hearing aid at the first sign of unpleasantness, he had little trouble projecting an air of being above the fray.

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

Cowley’s father and grandfather were homeopathic physicians, and to his detractors, of whom there were quite a few, his literary dealings were similarly colored by well-meaning fraudulence, or worse. There were routine swipes from some of the people he wrote about: Ernest Hemingway, the beneficiary, in 1944, of his own Cowley portable, later observed in a letter to the young critic Charles Fenton that its editor knew “practically fuck-all” about his life. (Cowley, in turn, was fond of saying that Hemingway, though a fine writer, “could be mean as cat piss.”) Worse, younger critics had a way of implying that, far from being a high-minded old coot, Cowley was — and always had been — a slyly dedicated follower of literary fashion. Dwight Macdonald poked fun at the equivocations Cowley threw out when “confronted with a conflict between his taste and his sense of the Zeitgeist,” and Alfred Kazin, in Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), offered an acidulous portrait of Cowley in his pomp as literary editor of The New Republic during the Great Depression:

He was unable to lift his pipe to his mouth, or to make a crack, without making one feel that he recognised the literary situation involved. . . . I had an image of Malcolm Cowley as a passenger in the great polished coach that was forever taking young Harvard poets to war, to the Left Bank, to the Village, to Connecticut. Wherever Cowley moved or ate, wherever he lived, he heard the bell of literary history sounding the moment and his own voice calling possibly another change in the literary weather.

Kazin, a product of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the City College of New York, made no secret of being rubbed the wrong way by Cowley’s Harvard-trained “ease and sophistication.” (In 1997, he wrote angrily of the peremptory manner with which Cowley had once addressed Bernard Malamud as “Bernie,” thereby making Malamud feel treated “as just another commonplace Jew.”) He also had a more directly political quarrel. Like Macdonald, Kazin had been affiliated with the anti-Stalinist left in the later Thirties. Cowley, by contrast, had let his Popular Front enthusiasms bounce him into the fellow-traveling camp, where he’d stayed put while much of the New York intelligentsia was heading noisily for the exit. This had made him, in Kazin’s summary, push The New Republic’s back half “in the direction of a sophisticated literary Stalinism,” with a widely noted editorial coolness toward Trotskyists, social democrats, and other alleged friends of fascism. During the Moscow show trials, Kazin recalled,

when his lead review of the official testimony condemned the helpless defendants accused of collaboration with Hitler and sabotage against the Soviet state, I felt that Cowley had made up his mind to attack these now helpless figures from the Soviet past, had suppressed his natural doubts, because he could not separate himself from the Stalinists with whom he identified the future. To Cowley everything came down to the trend, to the forces that seemed to be in the know and in control of the time-spirit.

According to this reading, the length of Cowley’s Stalinist period was a rare failure of his opportunist instinct. Though the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 made nonsense of his doctrine of antifascist solidarity, he didn’t publicize his doubts until the following summer, after Hitler had taken Paris. His change of heart came too late for The New Republic’s British owners, who relieved him of his position in 1940.

Still, just as he’d added some proletarian grit to his rather dandyish persona in the early Thirties, so in the early Forties he swapped Marx and cocktail parties for Emerson and trout fishing. Many matters had stronger claims on the world’s attention than did the shifting state of Cowley’s political consciousness, and his literary colleagues were, by and large, unfazed. Yet his activities in the Thirties proved to be a black mark against him in Washington, where in 1942 he was hounded out of a job at Roosevelt’s Office of Facts and Figures by the red-baiting congressman Martin Dies. (An article in Time portrayed a dutifully Audenesque poem he’d written about the Spanish Civil War as evidence of traitorous intent.) Cowley’s appointment to a temporary lectureship in Seattle attracted right-wing protests in 1949, and a similar campaign prevented him from teaching at the University of Minnesota two years later. On occasion, he was reduced to declaring himself “an old-fashioned Unpolitical Man” who believed “that Christ’s teachings are more profound than Lenin’s.”

By the time of the Minnesota episode, however, his rehabilitation was well under way. Cushioned by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, he’d reinvented himself as an Americanist with interventions in the cases of Nathaniel Hawthorne and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as Hemingway and Faulkner. A revised edition of Exile’s Return, stripped of starry-eyed Marxist rhetoric, reasserted his credentials as a veteran of the now much-mythologized Twenties. By the end of the Sixties he more or less embodied the East Coast literary establishment — on the board of Yaddo, an editorial scout for Viking Press, a two-time president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and so on — and in old age he piled up a sizable corpus of essays and reminiscences. All the same, there were jeers from aging Partisan Reviewers and, in the Eighties, neoconservatives. Myth-busting scholars also began to speak of his “incurably superficial” presentation of Faulkner and “amazing credulousness” toward Hemingway. After his death, in 1989, it was clear that the niche reserved in American memory for freelance men of letters of his vintage had been pretty much filled by his elder contemporary Edmund Wilson.

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is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “A Great Consolation,” appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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