Malcolm Cowley

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 6,417 words

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About this Person
Born: August 24, 1898 in Belsano, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: March 27, 1989 in New Milford, Connecticut, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Cowley, David Malcolm

Education: A.B., Harvard University, 1920; Diploma of French Studies, University de Montpellier, France, 1922.



Selected Books

  • Poetry
  • Racine (Paris: Union, 1923).
  • Blue Juniata (New York: Cape & Smith, 1929; London: Cape, 1929); revised and expanded as Blue Juniata: Collected Poems(New York: Viking, 1968).
  • Exile's Return (New York: Norton, 1934; London: Cape, 1935; revised edition, New York: Viking, 1951; London: Bodley Head, 1961).
  • The Dry Season (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1941).
  • The Literary Situation (New York: Viking, 1954; London: Deutsch, 1955).
  • Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865, by Cowley and Daniel P. Mannix (New York: Viking, 1962; London: Longman, 1963).
  • Van Wyck Brooks, by Cowley and R.D. Oakes (N.p., 1963).
  • The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memoirs 1944-1962(New York: Viking, 1966; London: Chatto & Windus, 1966).
  • Think Back on Us ... A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930's, ed. Henry Dan Piper (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967).
  • A Many-Windowed House Collected Essays on American Writers and American Writing, ed. Henry Dan Piper (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970).
  • A Second Flowering Works and Days of the Lost Generation (New York: Viking, 1973; London: Deutsch, 1973).
  • --And I Worked At the Writer's Trade (New York: Viking, 1978).
  • The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s(New York: Viking, 1978).
  • The View from 80(New York: Viking, 1980).
  • Unshaken Friend: A Profile of Maxwell Perkins(Boulder: Robert Rinehart, 1985).
  • The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941, edited by Donald W. Faulkner (New York: Penguin, 1986).
  • The Urn(Portland, Oreg.: Charles Seluzicki, 1986).
  • The Portable Malcolm Cowley, edited by Faulkner (New York Penguin, 1990).
  • New England Writers and Writing, edited by Faulkner (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996).


  • S. Foster Damon and Robert Hillyer, eds., Eight More Harvard Poets, includes poems by Cowley (New York: Brentano's, 1923).
  • Pierre MacOrlan, On Board the Morning Star, translated by Cowley (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1924).
  • Joseph Delteil, Joan of Arc, translated by Cowley (New York: Minton, Balch, 1926; London: Allen & Unwin, 1927).
  • Paul Valery, Variety, translated with an introduction by Cowley (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1927).
  • Adventures of an African Slaver, Being a True Account of the Life of Captain Theodore Canot, Trader in Gold, Ivory & Slaves on the Coast of Guinea: His Own Story as Told in the Year 1854 to Brantz Mayer, edited, with an introduction, by Cowley (New York: A. & C. Boni, 1928; London: Routledge, 1928).
  • Marthe Lucie Bibesco, Catherine-Paris, translated, with an introduction, by Cowley (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928).
  • Raymond Radiguet, The Count's Ball, translated by Cowley (New York: Norton, 1929).
  • Bibesco, The Green Parrot, translated by Cowley (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929; London: Selwyn & Blount, 1929).
  • Maurice Barres, The Sacred Hill, translated with an introduction by Cowley (New York: Macaulay, 1929).
  • After the Genteel Tradition, edited with contributions by Cowley (New York: Norton, 1937; revised edition, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964).
  • Books That Changed Our Minds, edited by Cowley and Bernard Smith (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1939).
  • Andre Gide, Imaginary Interviews, translated with an introduction by Cowley (New York: Knopf, 1944).
  • The Viking Portable Library Hemingway, edited with an introduction by Cowley (New York: Viking, 1944).
  • Aragon Poet of the French Resistance, edited by Cowley and Hannah Josephson, with translations by Cowley and others (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1945); republished as Aragon Poet of Resurgent France (London: Pilot, 1946).
  • The Portable Faulkner, edited with an introduction by Cowley (New York: Viking, 1946; London: Macmillan, 1961; revised and enlarged edition, New York: Viking, 1967); republished as The Essential Faulkner (London: Chatto & Windus, 1967).
  • The Portable Hawthorne, edited, with an introduction and notes, by Cowley (New York: Viking, 1948; revised and enlarged, 1969); republished as Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Selected Works(London: Chatto & Windus, 1971).
  • The Complete Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 volumes, introduction by Cowley (New York: Pellegrini, 1948); republished as The Works of Walt Whitman, 2 volumes, with a new introduction in volume 1 and a new prefatory note in volume 2 by Cowley (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968).
  • "To a Girl I Dislike," "An Old Fellow to His Friends," and "To a Dilettante Killed at Vimy," in The Harvard Advocate Anthology, edited by Donald Hall (New York: Twayne, 1950), pp. 151-153.
  • The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited with an introduction by Cowley (New York: Scribners, 1951).
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night A Romance ... With the Author's Final Revisions, edited with a preface by Cowley (New York: Scribners, 1951).
  • Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby Tender Is the Night (With the Author's Final Revisions) The Last Tycoon, edited with introductions by Cowley and Edmund Wilson (New York: Scribners, 1953).
  • Writers at Work The Paris Review Interviews, first series, edited with an introduction, by Cowley (New York: Viking, 1958; London: Secker & Warburg, 1958).
  • Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, The First (1855) Edition, with an introduction, by Cowley (New York: Viking, 1959; London: Secker & Warburg, 1960).
  • The Bodley Head F. Scott Fitzgerald...Short Stories, volumes 5 and 5, selected, with an introduction , by Cowley (London: Bodley Head, 1963).
  • "A Theme with Variations," "To a Dilettante Killed at Vimy," and "Nantasket," in Harvard Advocate Centennial Anthology, edited by Jonathan D. Culler (Cambridge: Schenkman, 1966), pp. 109, 111, 113.
  • Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, compiled by Cowley and Robert Cowley (New York: Scribners, 1966).
  • The Lessons of the Masters: An Anthology of the Novel from Cervantes to Hemingway, edited by Cowley and Howard Hugo (New York: Scribners, 1971).
  • Paul Valery, Leonardo Poe Mallarme, translated by Cowley and James R. Lawler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972; London: Routledge, Paul, 1972).
  • The Portable Emerson, edited by Cowley and Carl Bode (New York: Viking, 1981).

Periodical Publications

  • "This Youngest Generation," New York Evening Post, Literary Review, 15 October 1921, pp. 81-82.
  • "Chateau de Soupir: 1917," Broom, 1 (January 1922): 226.
  • "Mountain Farm," Broom, 2 (May 1922): 134.
  • "Day Coach," Secession, 1 (Spring 1922): 1-3.
  • "Play it for Me Again ...," Secession, 2 (July 1922): 5.
  • "One morning during carnival," Secession, 2 (July 1922): 6.
  • "Mediterranean Beach," Gargoyle, 3 (August 1922): 12.
  • "Meanwhile, I observed him ...," Secession, 3 (August 1922): 13.
  • "Young Man With Spectacles," Broom, 3 (October 1922): 199-203.
  • "Valuta," Broom, 3 (November 1922): 250-251.
  • "Young Mr. Elkins," Broom, 4 (December 1922): 52-56.
  • "Pascin's America," Broom, 4 (January 1923): 136-137.
  • "Mortuary," Broom, 4 (February 1923): 170.
  • "Portrait by Leyendecker," Broom, 4 (March 1923): 240-247.
  • "Love and Death, I," Secession, 5 (July 1923): 18.
  • "They Carry Him Off in a One-Horse Hack ...," Secession, 5 (July 1923): 19; republished as "Memphis Johnny," Broom, 5 (September 1923): 97-98.
  • "Snapshot of a Young Lady," Broom, 5 (August 1923): 3-10.
  • Pierre MacOrlan, "On Board the Morning Star," translated by Cowley, Broom, 5 (August 1923): 17-28.
  • "Into That Rarer Ether ...," Secession, 6 (September 1923): 5-6.
  • Louis Aragon, "The Extra," translated by Cowley, Broom, 5 (November 1923): 211-216.
  • "Towards a More Passionate Apprehension of Life," Broom, 5 (November 1923): 217.
  • Roger Vitrac, "Poison," translated by Cowley, Broom, 5 (November 1923): 226-228.
  • Philippe Soupault, "My Dear Jean," translated by Cowley, Broom, 6 (January 1924): 6-9.
  • "Comment: Open Letter To the Dial," by Cowley and Slater Brown, Broom, 6 (January 1924): 30-31.
  • "The Hill above the Mine," transition, no. 10 (January 1928): 90-91.
  • "Seven O'Clock," transition, no. 13 (Summer 1928): 54.
  • "Tar Babies," transition, no. 13 (Summer 1928): 96-97.
  • "In Memory of Florence Mills," transition, no. 15 (February 1929): 121.
  • "Inquiry about the Malady of Language," by Cowley and others, transition, no. 23 (July 1935): 148.
  • "Inquiry into the Spirit and Language of Night," by Cowley and others, transition, no. 27 (April-May 1938): 233-245.


  • The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981, edited by Paul Jay (New York: Viking, 1988).


Malcolm Cowley, poet, critic, editor, cultural commentator, translator--in the exact professional sense, literary historian--is best known for painting in Exile's Return (1934, revised 1951) the accepted picture of the "lost generation" of writers that matured during and after World War I. Exile's Return chronicles his French experiences in the early twenties and delineates the importance of Paris to American writers of the period who, "feeling like aliens in the commercial world, sailed for Europe as soon as they had money to pay for their steamer tickets." As a young writer in France from June 1921 to August 1923, Cowley met or was influenced by the important writers of his generation. That experience and his formal study, while there, of French history and literature provided a sound base for his developing critical aesthetic and, later, for his eclectic, cosmopolitan literary interests.

Born on 24 August 1898 in a farmhouse near Belsano, Pennsylvania, Cowley attended Peabody High in Pittsburgh, where with his friend Kenneth Burke he began writing for school publications. At Harvard he edited the Advocate and, while an undergraduate, began to publish reviews in the Dial and the New Republic. He left the university during his sophomore year in 1917, intending to serve with other young writers in an American ambulance unit in France, but soon found himself driving munitions trucks for the French military transport. Cowley said later in Exile's Return that being a volunteer was in many ways "ideal"--"good food, a congenial occupation, furloughs to Paris"--and it provided a means of observing "the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of the Western Front," seeing firsthand, gaining valuable experience. Cowley compares the activity to a college-extension course:

A few miles north of us the guns were booming. Here was death among the flowers, danger in spring, the sweet wine of sentiment neither spiced with paradox nor yet insipid, the death being real, the danger near at hand.

Besides nurturing "a spectatorial attitude," the war enormously benefitted future writers, for it "revivified the subjects that had seemed forbidden because they were soiled by many hands and robbed of meaning; danger made it possible to write once more about love, adventure, death." But foreign soil and the war experience exacted an expense of spirit from the expatriate: after the armistice he discovered that "the country of his boyhood was gone and he was attached to no other." On the other hand, Cowley had developed the beginnings of his intense interest in French literature and civilization.

Returning from Europe in the fall of 1917, Cowley served briefly in the U.S. Army and then completed his A.B. degree at Harvard during 1919-1920 after marrying his first wife, Marguerite Frances Baird. They lived among "the proletariat of the arts" in Greenwich Village while Cowley supported them by writing reviews. Cowley describes the Village life of 1920-1921 in Exile's Return. In that intellectual current one idea seemed to float more securely and confidently than any other: the idea of "salvation by exile." A young, talented, postwar generation found the American experience to be closed to imaginative or artistic endeavor--philistine. In Europe, as Harold Stearns had just pointed out in Civilization in the United States (1921), people seemed to know how to live. Exile to Montparnasse was deemed more and more desirable, even necessary.

In 1921, encouraged by an American Field Service Fellowship of 12,000 francs (then about $1,000) for study at a French university, Cowley returned to France with his wife to attend the Universite de Montpellier, where he received a Diploma of French Studies. When the fellowship was renewed for a second year, he lived in Giverny and continued his study of French history and literature. In a 17 January 1979 letter Cowley describes his arrival in Paris:

I never lived in Paris, though I often stayed at the Grand Hotel de Bretagne, 10, rue Cassette, in the Quarter.... But I had advantages: six months with the French Army in 1917; a wife, nee Peggy Baird, who knew everyone from Greenwich Village; and introductions to the Dada group. When we reached Paris in 1921, we went straight to the Dome (after registering at the hotel) and found friends on the terrace.
Among the Greenwich Village people were Arthur Moss and his wife Florence Gilliam , who had arrived in France shortly before the Cowleys. In August 1921 Moss and Gilliam launched Gargoyle, the first English-language little magazine to appear in Continental Europe during the period between the two World Wars. Cowley was among the Americans who contributed to this short-lived magazine (August 1921-October 1922?), which he describes in Exile's Return as "Greenwich Village in Montparnasse."

He also contributed to Secession , edited by Gorham B. Munson and Matthew Josephson . In fact during their travels through Europe in the summer of 1922, the Cowleys carried the material for the magazine's third issue, which Munson and Josephson had assembled in Paris, to Vienna, where the magazine was printed. After Vienna the Cowleys went to the Austrian Tyrol, where they heard that Josephson had accepted a position as associate editor of Broom, which was moving its main headquarters from Rome to Berlin. Broom had been founded in November 1921 by Harold Loeb , whom Cowley had known in New York, and two poems by Cowley had already been published in that magazine. Now with his friend Josephson serving as associate editor, Cowley became involved in decisions about Broom's editorial policy, corresponding with both Josephson and Loeb.

After their summer tour, the Cowleys returned to France, where "Jim Butler, son of Monet's stepson-in-law, the painter Theodore Butler, found us a place in Giverny, over the former blacksmith shop." Remembering his American friends in France, Cowley writes in his 1979 letter:

You might say that I met "everybody" during those two years. My closest American friends, besides Jim Butler, were Robert M. Coates and his first wife Elsa (they took our apartment when we sailed home), Laurence Vail and his lovely sister Clothilde (with whom I was almost in love), Kathleen Cannell the fashion writer (at first she was living with Harold Loeb ), and who else? Anyhow I saw them all.
Cowley also made several visits to Ezra Pound in Paris, and in the summer of 1923 Pound introduced him to Ernest Hemingway .

Also in 1923, Cowley had a brief interview with James Joyce . But during his second year in France, Cowley saw more of the Dadaists to whom Josephson had introduced him in Paris in June 1922:

I spent more time with French-speaking friends, Louis Aragon , Tristan Tzara (who was Rumanian)--those two especially, but also Breton, Roger Vitrac, Robert Desnos, and Jacques Rigaut, who came to New York in 1923 and later committed suicide there. I became widely known as a result of that silly gesture at the Rotonde in 1923, which was written up in a lot of American papers and was the subject of an editorial in the NY Times.
His "silly gesture at the Rotonde," which he discusses in Exile's Return , occurred in the summer of 1923 when Cowley struck its notoriously disagreeable proprietor in a moment of Dadaist abandonment.

The relationship of France, and Europe in general, to Cowley's literary career is detailed in Exile's Return , published in 1934 and revised in 1951. In 1921 the American exiles, like their Russian counterparts in the middle of the nineteenth century, came to France to escape provincialism and to be at the center of artistic sophistication and tradition. For some the trek to Paris was a religious pilgrimage. As Cowley explains,

France was the birthplace of our creed. It was in France that poets had labored for days over a single stanza ...; in France that novelists like Gourmont had lived as anchorites ...; in France that Flaubert had described "the quaint mania of passing one's life wearing oneself out over words," and had transformed the mania into a religion. Everything admirable in literature began in France, was developed in France; and though we knew that the great French writers quarreled among themselves, ... we were eager to admire them all.

In America Cowley had close friends with whom to exchange literary repartee; Paris, however, offered what amounted to a network of talented writers--American and European. There he read the work of his great expatriate and French contemporaries, Eliot, Proust, Valery, Hemingway, Pound, and Joyce, and met many of them, including the French writer Pierre MacOrlan, whose work he later translated.

Importantly, Paris was congenial to experimentation, and the French even seemed to understand what was important in the American literary past. Their admiration for Poe and Whitman, for example, pointed American expatriate writers toward a viable literary tradition. "Our poets," stated Cowley in a review for the New York Evening Post in 1922, "reclaimed Poe and Whitman from the French only a dozen years ago. This reclamation is the basis of our contemporary poetry." In an essay entitled "This Youngest Generation," begun six weeks after arriving in France, Cowley summed up why the exiles were there:

Form, simplification, strangeness, respect for literature as an art with traditions, abstractions ... these are the catchwords repeated most often among the younger writers. They represent ideas that have characterized French literature hitherto, rather than English or American. They are the nearest approach to articulate doctrine of a generation without a school and without a manifesto.

The academic experience at the Universite de Montpellier and social and literary contacts in Paris were crucial to the early development of Cowley's critical thought: he was drawn to the idea of becoming a man of letters in the great French tradition. He greatly admired French classicism, with its insistence on form, clarity, and intelligence, but he was nevertheless wooed by the tenets of Dada, which appealed to his skepticism and youthful rebelliousness. Ironically, concentration on Racine at Montpellier (his pamphlet Racine was printed in Paris in 1923) provided him with a stance from which to consider Dada, whereas his personal relationship with Dadaists Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon provided an understanding of the strengths and limits of classicism.

In Paris and Giverny Cowley socialized with the leading proponents of Dada, which had been transported to the banks of the Seine when Tzara came to Paris in 1920. Feeling that the movement was at that point the "very essence of Paris ..., young and adventurous, and human," he was even moved to sign one of its manifestoes, though he never considered himself one with--or of--the group. The description in Exile's Return, in fact, over-emphasizes the influence Dada had on Cowley. For example, George Wickes, commenting on American expatriates of this period, notes in Americans in Paris : "Chiefly they felt the all-pervasive classical spirit of France, even in an iconoclastic age. Under this influence, they became more conscious of form, style, language or medium than any previous generation of Americans." The epigraph from Gide that Cowley chose for his study of Racine suggests clearly the tenor of his sympathy: "L'art est toujours le resultat d'une contrainte." While Dada cavorted and mocked and challenged, classicism offered to make life and literature manageable.

Nevertheless, the figure that influenced Cowley most during his years in France was a Dadaist, Louis Aragon . His admiration for the French writer made of him a veritable disciple. He wrote frankly of the experience, confessing that "for the first and last time in my life I admitted to having a master." Aragon, he explained, "has read everything and mastered it, ... lives literature," and "judges a writer largely by his moral qualities, such as courage, vigor of feeling, the refusal to compromise."

According to Exile's Return, the beginning of the end of the expatriates' adventure in France came when they "rediscovered" America: when the country they had left in disillusionment came, from a distance, to seem more complex and exciting. Harold Loeb , defending American literary exiles in France, felt that postwar experience there had influenced such pilgrims in two main ways: first, it resulted in a meticulous attention to form; second, and more important, it ended in a reevaluation of America.

In the third stanza of "Three Hills," written during this period, Cowley rebels against exposure to too much "meticulous attention to form," summing up quite directly a mood based on a desire to return to "my own country":

   my stomach turns against
geometry and rows of plum trees,
wanting a country where briars rout
under the non-Euclidean gum trees.
An unprecise, untutored country
with gardens growing inside out.
France had provided Cowley with what Stein called a writer's second country, one "romantic" and "separate" which helps him to understand his first country, the one where he belongs.

Cowley discovered, as others did, a new perspective. He realized that America, surprisingly enough, held out the possibility of new material for artists; there was potential in the country's very monstrousness, in its machinery, its dynamic energy. In a letter to Kenneth Burke in 1923 Cowley wrote:

America shares an inferiority complex with Germany.... The only excuse for living two years in France is to remove this feeling of inferiority and to find, for example, that Tristan Tzara, who resembles you in features like two drops of water, talks a shade less intelligently. To discover that the Dada crowd has more fun than the Secession crowd because the former, strangely, had more American pep.... The only salvation for American literature is to BORROW A LITTLE PUNCH AND CONFIDENCE FROM AMERICAN BUSINESS.

Clearly, two years in France afforded Cowley the opportunity to broaden his intellectual scope dramatically, enabling him to contemplate his literary future with assurance and insight. In a letter to Burke dated 5 July 1923, his last from Normandy, Cowley wrote that his French sojourn had helped him to arrive at a personal philosophy or "a collection of beliefs": (1) that a man of letters is "one who adopts the whole of literature as his province," (2) that such a man must "concern himself with every department of human activity," (3) that since "more writers were ruined by early success than by the lack of it," he could accept being considered foolish "in order to avoid being successful," (4) that it was fallacious for a writer to speak of conserving his energy, for "the mind of a poet resembles Fortunatus's purse: the more spent, the more it supplies," and (5) that "the work of expanding the human mind to its extremest limits of thought and feeling ... is the aim of literature." This sense of the writer's social responsibility appears in his work as early as his prose piece "Young Mr. Elkins," published in the December 1922 issue of Broom.

Armed with such beliefs, amounting to a personal manifesto, Cowley felt prepared for what lay ahead, even to the extent of assuming leadership in a "crusade." Thus did he return to New York City just before his twenty-fifth birthday with new ideas, definite values, and much enthusiasm. Paris had been the ideal place to begin to come to terms with his role and his goals in the literary world; he had been able to encourage and explore in complex ways his developing aesthetic sense. His later literary values would evolve, essentially, from those he had experienced and pondered in France, though not in a simplistically derivative fashion. As he wrote to Waldo Frank in 1924, he considered himself one of those "Americans who go to Paris, meet many people of many schools, take the best of each, and retain the conviction to write about their own surroundings in their own manner."

The remainder of Exile's Return chronicles the problems Cowley and others faced in New York City at the end of their exile, not only in reference to earning a living but in trying to fulfill their French experience by remaking the New York cultural scene. Eventually they adjusted or escaped the city to farms in Connecticut or New Jersey, finally realizing that their "real exile was from society itself." Isolated on "private islands," their true "homecoming" would not occur until the social and political activities of the next decade claimed all their energy and attention. Adjustment would, however, prove to be impossible for some American expatriates, notably Harry Crosby and Hart Crane . In Exile's Return Cowley examines the lives and eventual suicides of these two poets in the context of the successful careers of others, among them Cummings, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Pound.

After returning to New York City in August 1923, Cowley worked for Sweet's Architectural Catalogue , preparing copy, while in his spare time pursuing his writing career and serving as an associate editor of Broom, then being edited in New York City with Matthew Josephson as managing editor. The last issue was published in January 1924.

In 1926 the Cowleys moved to the Connecticut countryside, where Cowley worked as a free-lance writer contributing to various periodicals and doing translations from the French. He had begun to publish essays on contemporary French literature as early as 1922; over several years, a series appeared in the Bookman, including an assessment of recent French poetry and evaluations of Barbusse, Vildrac, Proust, and others. In the last half of the decade he translated many full-length French works, among them Pierre MacOrlan's On Board the Morning Star (1924), Paul Valery's Variety (1927), Raymond Rodiguet's The Count's Ball (1928), and Maurice Barres 's The Sacred Hill (1929). Part of his translation of On Board the Morning Star had appeared first in the August 1923 issue of Broom. Poetry awarded him the Guarantors Prize of $100 in 1927, part of which became the down payment on a farmhouse.

Indicative of Cowley's growing belief in the writer's social responsibilities is a project he undertook in January 1928 with Josephson, Kenneth Burke , Slater Brown, and Robert Coates. The editor of the Paris-based magazine transition, Eugene Jolas , had asked Josephson, a contributing editor, to prepare a statement about literary trends in America for an American number of transition. Josephson brought his friends together in a suite at the Broadway Central Hotel in New York City, and they spent the day writing a collection of poetry and prose, which Jolas published under the section title "New York: 1928." The section begins with parodies of American advertisements and press releases, but more significant is the second part in which Josephson, in particular, criticizes the American expatriates who remain abroad rather than coming home and concerning themselves with social justice. Cowley's poem with satiric endnotes, "Tar Babies," is critical of the "art for art's sake" attitude of many of transition's contributors, pointing out the emptiness of experiment for its own sake. As he says in one of the notes to the poem:

Evidently to write a poem about the stockyards is to write a modern poem. Or to write a poem the grammar of which is arbitrarily bad. Or to make drawings without perspective. To distort is modern. To be obscure is modern. To omit punctuation and connectives is the white shirt-front of modernism.
The aesthetic attitude with which Cowley first approached France in 1921 has been transformed to that which he would express in Exile's Return.

Blue Juniata (1929), his first volume of poems, captures Cowley's French experience differently from Exile's Return. The sections of the book are arranged in an autobiographical sequence and the poems chronicle, in a measured, meditative way, the same years Cowley describes five years later in prose. Although he had established himself by the end of the twenties as a writer of critical prose, the reviewers' consensus at that point was that he had most distinguished himself as a poet. "It is in poetry," wrote Allen Tate in the New Republic , "at least for the present, that Mr. Cowley may be seen at his best." He praised the poems in Blue Juniata for their "exact feelings and images; and overall, a subtle vision of the startling qualities of common things." John Chamberlain aptly characterized them, in the New York Times, as being "of an intellectual order, wholly disciplined," but with an "indigenous flavor." The volume, despite being well received by critics, sold fewer than a thousand copies.

Morton Dauwen Zabel, in an enthusiastic review for the Nation, characterized Blue Juniata as a "self-confessed logbook of literary youth in America during the ten years which followed the war." Books I and II explore the heritage of Cowley's boyhood and adolescence in western Pennsylvania and the first years in New York City. Book III, containing poems he wrote in France from 1921-1923, is called "Valuta," a reference to "a new race of tourists, the Valutaschweine, the profiteers of the exchange, who wandered ... in search of the lowest prices and the most picturesque upheavals of society." The note that prefaces the section vividly sets the scene of exile:

I saw a chaotic Europe that was feverishly seeking the future of art and economics. I saw the picturesque rather than the enduring. And I wrote poems from day to day, sometimes in a great chilly hotel-room in Tyrol, sometimes in a French pension, sometimes in Berlin crouching beside a porcelain stove and listening to the roars outside that came, perhaps, from a mob.
Such a statement evokes the mood of the poems Cowley wrote abroad: a sense of remorse felt by a wanderer, who searches for "that rarer ether which is breathed by mortal lips, by mortal lungs, ah never." Kenneth Burke remarked that the characteristic overall note of the volume is regret; in Book III such a mood is manifested in poignant moments haunted by the nuances and rhythms of Eliot and the irony of Laforgue, but dominated by Cowley's control and wit. Books IV and V chart his life after returning from France.

Also in 1929, encouraged by Edmund Wilson , he joined the staff of the New Republic as an associate editor. For the next eleven years he oversaw the magazine's literary section, becoming a powerful literary voice by the mid-thirties. In Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), Alfred Kazin remembers:

The lead review in the New Republic, a single page usually written by Cowley himself, brought the week to focus for people to whom this page, breathing intellectual fight in its sharp black title and solid double columned lines of argument, represented the most dramatically satisfying confrontation of a new book by a gifted, uncompromising critical intelligence.

In the thirties and early forties most of Cowley's critical writing appeared in the New Republic in the form of essays and book reviews. Some of these pieces were later collected in Think Back on Us ... A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930's (1967). Divorced in 1931, Cowley married Muriel Maurer the following year. During this personally and politically tumultuous period, he placed his social conscience in the foreground alongside his aesthetic concerns and became involved with Communist and Popular Front groups in the protest movement. Though he did not discard his earlier ambition of becoming an American man of letters, he did subordinate it to his editorial responsibilities and political activities. His "Red Romance," as he called it, continued until 1940, when he resigned from the League of American Writers, a left-wing organization he had helped found five years earlier after the publication of Exile's Return in 1934.

In the first edition of Exile's Return Cowley did not tightly restrict his attention to his ostensible subject, an evaluation and depiction of the aesthetic milieu of the twenties. The rhetoric of his left-wing political perspective and the subjective outrage directed toward conservative groups blurred the book's focus, and it was in many cases judged on political, rather than literary, grounds. Lewis Garnett, in the New York Herald Tribune, found it "very charming, very readable, sometimes penetrating, often witty, and ... basically empty." In the New York Post Hershell Brickell felt the writing to be "a good deal better than the thinking." Edmund Wilson agreed, telling Cowley that he was "much better when ... conveying impressions and depicting scenes than when you were handling ideas--when you get into trouble is with generalizations." Cowley later agreed that he should have concentrated on one or the other.

However, with its revision in 1951, Exile's Return was revealed as central to the study of modern American literature: the definitive account of the maturing of Cowley's generation written as an evocative autobiographical historical narrative guided by a lyric persona. The revision was much less subjectively political in tone and subject matter. Three chapters were excluded: a study of the exploitation of the proletariat, a discussion of the politics of his contemporaries from 1924 to 1930, and the epilogue, which outlined political measures that should replace the aesthetic values of the twenties. Additions included chapters on Hart Crane and Sacco and Vanzetti. The original subtitle, A Narrative of Ideas, was changed to A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s.

The critical reception in 1951 was overwhelmingly favorable. It was hailed as "unique" by Van Wyck Brooks , who called it "the irreplaceable account of the most dramatic episode in American literary history." Lloyd Morris stated in the New York Herald Tribune that "Mr. Cowley has painted the classic picture [of that era] and it is not likely to be surpassed in authenticity, eloquence or beauty." To Arthur Mizener Exile's Return was "far and away the best book about the generation of the 1920's by a participant, ... a generation that was crucial not only for American literature, but for the whole of American culture."

In 1937 Cowley and Marxist critic Bernard Smith edited After the Genteel Tradition, an anthology of essays that evaluated authors after 1910 who shattered the gentility of the previous age. This effort began a long series of collections edited by Cowley, including Books That Changed Our Minds (1939) and popular editions of selected works by Hemingway, Faulkner, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Fitzgerald. His attention to such writers was in most cases instrumental in augmenting or establishing their reputations as major figures. Robert Penn Warren , for example, noted that Cowley's edition of the Portable Faulkner "marked the great turning point in Faulkner's reputation in the United States."

Cowley wrote little poetry during the thirties, as is suggested by the title and the slimness of The Dry Season (1941), his second volume of poems. In 1944 he resigned from the New Republic. Since the midforties Cowley has pursued his writing career in a singularly eclectic fashion. However, the publication in 1968 of an expanded edition of Blue Juniata, which added only nineteen uncollected poems to selections from his two earlier volumes, stressed that over his long career he has developed primarily as a writer of prose. In that capacity he has firmly established himself as one of America's leading literary critics and literary historians. The titles of his major works of this period reveal the extent of his range: The Literary Situation (1954); Writers at Work The Paris Review Interviews (1958), which he edited; The Faulkner-Cowley File Letters and Memories, 1944-1962 (1966); A Many-Windowed House Collected Essays on American Writers and American Writing (1970); A Second Flowering Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973); and--And I Worked At the Writer's Trade (1978). In the midst of such a distinguished career he has served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters from 1956 to 1959 and 1962 to 1965 and as Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for ten years from 1966 to 1976. From time to time he has been a visiting professor of English at leading universities and has lectured extensively.

Certain themes dominate Cowley's prolific writings. A key concept has been the nature of literary generations--the idea that memorable writers appear, not individually or at random, but in clusters or constellations at regular, almost predictable intervals. He has also tended to support the neglected and has tried to direct the public's attention to gifted but forgotten literary figures. His defense of the underdog is related to his more general interest in the structure of society, to his concern for the individual, and to his insistence on a humanistic approach to life and art. His social concerns have usually been expressed in terms of a liberal sympathy for the disadvantaged and the oppressed.

Cowley has made use of the past and of traditions in order to comment more effectively on the present, especially as he continues to amplify and update his contemporary history of American letters, which, as he remarks in--And I Worked At the Writer's Trade, is his "proper field of interest." For Cowley, literature involves both human thought and human actions, aesthetic principle and social consideration, dimensions that cannot be separated without a serious erosion of value and accuracy. What really matters, Cowley tells his readers, is literature as part of history, and he also stresses that without ethical stances works of literature will reflect their author's strictly intellectual or impersonal view of the world. Such an abdication of moral will and responsibility is never acceptable in the world Malcolm Cowley has perceived, written about, and helped create.


Malcolm Cowley's papers are at the Newberry Library, Chicago.




  • Thomas Daniel Young, ed., Conversations with Malcolm Cowley (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986).


  • Diane U. Eisenberg, Malcolm Cowley A Checklist of His Writings, 1916-1973 (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975).


  • Hans Bak, Malcolm Cowley: The Formative Years(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993).


  • Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left Episodes in Literary Communism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961).
  • R. P. Blackmur, "The Dangers of Authorship," in his The Double Agent Essays in Craft and Elucidation (New York: Arrow Editions, 1935), pp. 172-183.
  • Eleanor Bulkin, Malcolm Cowley: A Study of His Literary, Social, and Political Thought to 1940, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1973.
  • Marc Dolan, Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-Reading of the "Lost Generation"(West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1996).
  • Matthew Josephson, Life Among the Surrealists (New York: Rinehart, 1962).
  • James Michael Kempf, The Early Career of Malcolm Cowley: A Humanist among the Moderns(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).
  • Harold Loeb, The Way It Was (New York: Criterion, 1959).
  • Gorham B. Munson, "The Fledgling Years, 1916-1924," Sewanee Review, 40 (January-March 1932): 24-54.
  • Munson, "A Comedy of Exiles," Literary Review, 12 (Autumn 1968): 41-75.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200000971