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Spring 2014

The Critic as Catalyst

book cover imageThe Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987.
Edited by Hans Bak.
Harvard University Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 848 pages, $40.

Carl Rollyson

Hans Bak rightly calls Malcolm Cowley (1898–1989) the “chronicler of the lost generation.” His pioneering literary history, Exile’s Return, first published in 1934, combined an astute assessment of the lasting literary work of the 1920s with an evocation of the cultural climate that had produced it. Cowley corresponded with the best critics, poets, and novelists—including Kenneth Burke, Conrad Aiken, Alfred Kazin, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a representative handful. Cowley established himself as an arbiter of contemporary literature during his tenure (1930–40) as literary editor of the New Republic, and after suffering through a period of character assassination in the early 1940s, revived his own reputation and, more importantly, that of a great American writer with The Portable Faulkner (1946).

Cowley is not as well known or as respected as his coeval, Edmund Wilson (1895–1972)—in part because Cowley remained, to borrow Mr. Bak’s word, a “fervent” and unrepentant fellow traveler for what could be considered an inexcusably protracted period. Cowley believed the accused in the 1935 Moscow trials were guilty and did not credit evidence that Stalin trumped up the indictments to eliminate his old Bolshevik rivals. Cowley scoffed at philosopher John Dewey’s commission, which exposed Stalin’s perfidies and deceits. And when he finally did acknowledge Stalin’s crimes, Cowley took refuge in the defense many ex-fellow travelers adopted: His heart was in the right place. It seemed to him that the anti-fascist Soviet Union had to be supported, no matter its faults.

Cowley’s letters do little to change the verdict of history; indeed, they make him seem all the more culpable, because Edmund Wilson and others, in letter after letter, kept trying to make him see that as literary editor of the New Republic, he had to take a stand against the Stalinists. Instead, Cowley simply sidled away from politics—especially in 1942, after Congressional attacks on his loyalty forced him out of his position as an information analyst in the Office of Facts and Figures. Cowley, who described himself as a country boy, went to ground, taking up a rural life of writing, hunting, and gardening in Sherman, Connecticut. From that retreat he conceived The Portable Faulkner and persuaded Faulkner that it was time for an omnibus volume that would reveal the towering achievement of the Yoknapatawpha saga. At the time, most of Faulkner’s novels were out of print. The legendary editor Maxwell Perkins told Cowley that Faulkner’s reputation, once so high, seemed incapable of rising again. The same might be said of Cowley, although Mr. Bak does not make that connection. It seems obvious, though, that settling on Faulkner, who stood aloof from the New Deal—to say nothing of fellow travelers—was a means of finding a back door into the utterly transformed literary and political landscape of Cold War America, in which Cowley’s work had become suspect.

This is not to suggest that Cowley’s connection to Faulkner was less than genuine. On the contrary, both men were agrarians, and Cowley’s lifelong friend Allen Tate was one of the staunchest members of the writers group that published the agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand (1930). The Portable Faulkner turned out to be not only a tribute to a great writer who, in short order, would win the Nobel Prize, but also an account of modern history viewed through the prism of a South that had suffered occupation and devastation. In 1955, when he visited Japan as a U.S. cultural ambassador, Faulkner was able to relate to that nation’s defeated people in ways no other American writer—and perhaps no other public figure, save General MacArthur—could. Without corresponding with Cowley, who knows when, if ever, Faulkner would have played his part on the world stage.

Unlike his political efforts to excuse tyranny because he thought he was serving a good cause, Cowley’s literary efforts were honest and forthright. When Faulkner went on to produce novels that did not measure up to his greatness, Cowley said so. Even more importantly, Cowley moved on, discovering new writers like Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. He regarded them as originals and helped get them published, even though he considered Kesey a diamond in the rough and Kerouac a second-rate Thomas Wolfe. Cowley’s letters create a remarkably immediate sense of the literary periods through which he passed. Along the way, he attempted to shape public taste not only through his own writing, but in his editor’s reports to his employer, Viking Press. His comments about the world of publishing suggest that the more things change the more they remain the same: In the mid-1950s, he complains about paperback publishers helping to destroy the market for hardcovers, and about book review pages shrinking in size. In 1956, he grumbles, “there are only editors who calculate how much a book might possibly earn.”

Like Wilson, Cowley stands as an enviable relic of a bygone age. Although he occasionally taught for short periods in universities, he denounced academics—especially the New Critics, who deprived literature of its context and sense of history. The idea that an author’s comments on his own work should be discarded, in what was dismissed as an “intentional fallacy,” struck Cowley as appalling. The author’s commentary was not the last word, to be sure, or Cowley himself would have been out of business. But to suppose that the critic could arm himself just by reading a work of literature seemed to defy common sense. Or, as he put it in a letter to critic Newton Arvin (who himself taught at Smith), “Intrinsic or ‘pure’ criticism is largely make-believe.” Words changed their meanings over time; when an author wrote a certain work was important, and how that author was responding to other authors was also significant. In short, critics could not do without historical, psychological, and biographical approaches to literature.

It is a tribute to this collection and to Cowley that Hans Bak emulates his subject’s literary method, setting down enough about the man, his times, his work, and his contemporaries to perfect a comprehensive and compelling portrait. 

Carl Rollyson, biographer of Amy Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, and others, is currently at work on a biography of William Faulkner.

Posted: June 8, 2014

Any healthy society requires an enduring contest between its permanence and its progression. We cannot live without continuity, and we cannot live without prudent change.

Russell Kirk

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