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Malcolm Cowley and Literary New York

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

Today New York City is universally recognized, if not always universally embraced, as the literary capital of the United States. It was not always so. Almost until the First World War, there was no single dominant metropolitan cultural center. Ezra Pound emphasized this fact in 1913 when he observed from London that “America, my country, is almost a continent and hardly yet a nation, for no nation can be considered historically as such until it has achieved within itself a city to which all roads lead, and from which there goes out an authority.” He did not foresee that New York was then on the verge of assuming the role of intellectual and cultural beacon for the nation. The same year that Pound declared America devoid of a cultural center, the path-breaking Armory Show opened in Manhattan, and within a decade the city had become the “seat and shire” of American artistic life. By the 1920’s all cultural roads did indeed point to New York, and, to hear the editors of New York magazines tell it, all the lastest ideas emanated from it as well. The New Republic’s Edmund Wilson boasted in 1926 after returning from New Orleans that “though we so much lack charm, and though we live so much less agreeably than others, we have the satisfaction of believing that we are the bearers of the latest news.”

Perhaps as much as any other literary intellectual during the interwar years, Malcolm Cowley was in the midst of New York’s self-conscious emergence as the nation’s cultural and intellectual hub. First as an editor of the short-lived transatlantic review Broom during the early 1920’s, and later as literary editor of the New Republic throughout the 1930’s,

Cowley helped shape, as well as record, the cultural landscape as seen from New York. All the while, however, he harbored within himself a divided mind about living and writing in Manhattan. Although raised mostly in the country, he initially embraced urban life, only to be haunted thereafter by a yearning to restore somehow his contact with the landscape of his boyhood. The tension between country simplicity and urban complexity is an old theme in American culture, but one most vividly expressed in the lives of Cowley and his literary contemporaries, among them Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, E. B. White, and others.

Born during a thunderstorm in 1898 at his family’s summer home in the rolling countryside near Belsano, Pennsylvania, Cowley attended Peabody High School in Pittsburgh with his close friend Kenneth Burke. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he lived for the summer months in the country, where he relished fishing, hunting, or simply wandering through the woods. Although Pittsburgh was his family’s permanent residence, Belsano quickly emerged as his spiritual home, and he acquired a thoroughly rural outlook. His boyhood attachment to the country permeated Cowley’s vision, then and later, and was most poignantly revealed in his poetry:

The land absorbs him into itself,
as he absorbs the land, the ravaged woods, the pale sky,
not to be seen, but as a way of seeing;
not to be judged, but as a way of judgment;
not even to remember, but stamped in the bone.
“Mine,” screams the hawk, “Mine,” hums the dragonfly,
and “Mine,” the boy whispers to the empty land
that folds him in, half-animal, half-grown,
still as the sunlight, still as a hawk in the sky,
still and relaxed and watchful as a trout under the stone.

But young Cowley was not a Pennsylvania Huck Finn content to while away his time outdoors. As a teen-ager, he developed an almost obsessive ambition to be a writer, and he performed well enough to earn a scholarship to Harvard, the college, he had heard, where all would-be writers matriculated.


It was at this point that Cowley’s rural tastes and his literary predilections began to conflict. He was both attracted and repelled by the prospect of replacing the serene pastoralism of Belsano with the urbane cosmopolitanism of Cambridge and Boston. Certainly such an academic apprenticeship was a necessary foundation for his literary career, but could he tolerate urban and academic life for long? Two months before he left for Cambridge Cowley revealed his divided mind in a letter to Burke. Piqued at not having heard from Harvard about his scholarship, he threatened to forsake the life of the artist in favor of running a farm. “Up here in the country,” he wrote, “Pittsburgh and Cambridge are far off towns and I would be quite content to stay here, managing my own farm and bossing a hired man, until literary ambition seemed as far off as New York City.” Soon thereafter he received word of his scholarship and joyfully boarded the train for Cambridge, all the while carrying with him a preference for country living. For the moment, his loss of a sense of rootedness and community was hidden by the excitement of the occasion and by his dreams of a literary future. Yet, throughout his turbulent career, he would be sustained by knowing that “in hollow/ landscapes without memory, we carry/ each of us an urn of native soil.” His rural childhood became a memory that functioned with the power of a myth, even as he rushed to deny it.

Cowley’s enrollment at Harvard began the process of deracination that he described in Exile’s Return. He portrayed himself and his friends as literary idealists determined to make their own way as modern artists in an age dominated by bourgeois convention and philistinism. They rebelled against the middle-class standards of their parents, abandoned their hometowns, and attended universities that trained them to belittle their native culture and to admire European art and literature. At Harvard they were taught to regard culture as a veneer, a badge of class distinction that bore little relation to the daily world of labor and strife. “When I graduate from Harvard,” Cowley wrote Burke during his freshman year, “I mightn’t know anything worthwhile, but I’ll at least be educated.” Then the Great War intervened. If Cowley and his friends participated in the conflict, many of them did so as observers, as ambulance drivers for a foreign army and not as combatants. Observing the conflict only made their severance from American culture seem more complete. They were uprooted from their homes and cultural traditions, but having turned their backs on the old they could “adhere to nothing new.” Literature was everything to them, and experimentation was their guiding credo. Still, underneath their youthful rebelliousness, they carried with them the lingering question of whether home had any meaning outside their memory or whether they could ever again experience its common life.

After the Armistice, Cowley gravitated to Greenwich Village, where he got married and starved for eight months along with other uprooted bohemians. The life of the artist, he discovered, was not easy, but at least they could suffer together.

When everything but love was spent
we climbed five flights above the street
It had no bathroom and no heat
except a coal fire in the grate
that we kept burning night and day
until the fire went out in May.

In fall of 1919 he went back to Harvard for a final semester and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Of course he returned to the Village, since, as he explained, “New York was the only city where a young writer could be published.” Yet after a year and a half in the city, he seemed to himself weary and disillusioned; he found it difficult to write in frantic Manhattan and even more difficult to get his experimental verse published. “There are nice things about New York,” he told Kenneth Burke in August 1921, “only it isn’t fit to live in.” A few months later, after arriving in France with an American Field Service fellowship to study at the University of Montpellier, he described his 18-month stay in New York as having been as “effective as eighteen enemas. They cleaned me out; I left there like a sheet of paper with nothing on it except a few erasures and the marks of having been used in a toilet. The abortive gestures which I made during those months do not even exist now as memories.”



Like so many American expatriates during the early twenties, Cowley arrived in France convinced that America was a cultural backwater and that to be a serious writer one must drink from the fount of European culture. He had come to feel that New York, despite its cosmopolitan pretensions, was “too American, too close to home.” During the first several months of his stay at Montpellier Cowley was determined to develop a neoclassical style partly modeled after T. S. Eliot, and he devoted himself to the study of the French literary classics. But before long he began to pine for his boyhood home and its familiar surroundings. In May 1922 he wrote Burke: “Latterly I have been frightfully homesick for a country where No Trespass signs can be safely disregarded, and where there are trout streams. . . . My talent is not cosmopolitan.” At other times, however, he desperately wanted his talent to be cosmopolitan. Thus, when he grew tired of life in the provinces he went to Paris, where he was dazzled by the cultural activity and felt “continuously as if I were drunk, although I drink nothing at all.” Such oscillating moods typified the experience of many of Cowley’s literary generation. They loved change for its own sake, and they acquired and discarded enthusiasms with great zeal.

Cowley discovered that the most powerful intoxicant in France was Dadaism. By the summer of 1922 he had fallen under the spell of Louis Aragon and his zany friends, and his outlook toward New York and American culture was dramatically transformed. Cowley learned to his surprise that many of the French Dadaists, including Aragon, Philippe Soupault, Paul Eluard, and others, were fascinated by modern American society and culture, especially life in New York, and several of them imitated in their prose and poetry its fastpaced tempo and mechanical quality. Under their influence Cowley began to revise his own artistic and personal attitudes. “America in the distance,” he reported to Burke in January 1923, “begins to loom up as a land of promise, something barbaric and decorative and rich.” Soon Cowley joined Matthew Josephson and Harold Loeb as a contributing editor of Broom, a transatlantic review published in Berlin that championed an American art and literature glorifying the country’s urban-industrial ethos. In a letter to Burke he reported that his association with the Dadaists had revealed to him that America was “just as Goddamned good as Europe.” New York, he maintained from France, “is refinement itself beside Berlin. . . . London is a huge Gopher Prairie.” Soon he was publishing in Broom rhapsodic poems about urban industrial America.

In one of his poems entitled “The Chestnut Woods,” Cowley revealed the tension between his rural tastes and his sudden appreciation of the spectacle of urban industrial life, as well as his attempt to construct a 20th-century pastoral form. The poem represents a dialogue between the city and the country, each competing for his affections:

While nobody’s million eyes are blinking, come!

 It is too late now.

Come far, and find a place where orchard grass,
blue grass and fescue, white and yellow clover
tangle an orchard slope, and juneberries
ripen and fall at the edge of the deep woods.

 Highways and areaways,
 eyes, numbers, unremembered days;
 it is too late now.

Since unremembered days the ferns have grown
knee deep, and moss under the chestnut trees
hiding the footprints of small deer. You ran
and I ran after, till we reached the spring
that flows from underneath the chestnut roots
in a bright stream, we traced it through the laurel,
crossing burned ground where briars clawed us back,
then headlong crashing down a hill to find—

 and lose again and now it is too late.
 We have lived a long time under sheet-iron skies
 in neon-haggard dreams where no moons rise;
 the juneberries will be withered on the branches;
the chestnut woods are dead.

By juxtaposing such incongruous elements Cowley vividly conveyed through ironic nuance the internal conflict that he was experiencing. For the moment, it seemed, he had given up thoughts of country living and was ready to make his way in modern life.

In 1923 Cowley returned from Europe to New York, intent upon bringing the spirit of Dada to the United States and eager to unveil his new “skyscraper primitivism.” He was ready to try living in New York again, now that he had learned from France to appreciate its dynamic atmosphere. As he told Burke shortly before leaving for New York, “it has been a mistake of yours and mine to avoid experience. We have lost by it.” But Cowley unknowingly arrived in America with values and attitudes that bore little relation to the reality of living and writing in Manhattan. While abroad, he had come to view his native land from a detached artistic perspective, oblivious to the fact that in most cases symbol, metaphor, and myth distort as much as represent reality. In France he had praised the symbols and tempo of urban-industrial life, but it was with the objects behind the symbols that he would have to live in New York. The change in perspective produced a change in attitude. “Crowds, whistles, skidding taxicabs, all the discomforts of the city,” he observed, “were a personal affront.” Cowley, Josephson, Burke, Hart Crane, Slater Brown, and the other young writers and artists now associated with Broom in New York tried vainly to foster an indigenous American aesthetic that would celebrate the picturesque qualities of modern urban industrial life. They viewed their magazine as an organ for modern Manhattan, but they discovered that New Yorkers were not interested in reading poems that copied advertising slogans or glorified machines. By 1924 the magazine and its program had folded.

Cowley’s disappointment at the collapse of Broom was compounded by the difficulties he experienced in trying to make a living as a writer in booming New York. Unlike his situation in postwar Europe, where a few dollars would buy hundreds of francs or millions of marks, in New York he had to earn a salary and write only in his spare time. The best job available was as a copy editor for Sweet’s Architectural Catalogue, and he had little time for his own writing or for the group activities he had come to relish among the Dadaists in Paris. Such an abrupt change in his life style again soured his outlook toward New York. “The atmosphere of this city,” he warned Harold Loeb, “is exhausting . . . . Nowhere else in the world have I been brought so blankly against the mechanics of living.” New York was certainly stimulating, but its stimulation was so unrelenting that the fine cutting edge it initially gave to one’s faculties quickly wore down. In a stanza from his poem “Ten Good Farms” he resurrected the apocalyptic agrarianism of William Jennings Bryan, happily dreaming that the city had been destroyed:

With storm-washed gullies marking where the streets
ran riverward, with mounds of splintered glass
and barricades of marble spilt across them
and crazy girders bridging them, to rust
in the northeast gales;

with towers crumbling in the sunshine, lakes
of peace in every cellar, brambles guarding
the public squares, and underfoot a rat
crossing the stone jungle (all horizons
vast and empty of smoke);

no, in our lifetime we could never make
out of Manhattan Island ten good farms,
or five, or two—and yet the open graveyards,
the rich plots where slaughterhouses flourished
and one day fell—our gardens will be there.

In Europe among the Dadaists Cowley had crusaded against separating literature from modern life, but he was unable to adapt to the modern life he encountered in New York.

Many of Cowley’s friends experienced the same nervous revulsion against New York. Edmund Wilson observed late in 1923 that when “I go to New York nowadays I feel harassed and almost ask myself if it is possible for anybody to . . .live there and make a living and produce anything serious at the same time.” Matthew Josephson had a similar reaction. Soon after his return from France he admitted to a reporter that he had “to get away from the noise of New York in order to enjoy it.” Hart Crane described their daily life as getting “harder and harder all the time. Most of my friends are worn out with the struggle here in New York.” They had all flocked to New York initially because it was the literary capital of the country, providing the material of all fictions and, above all, an immediate market. Yet they quickly decided that they preferred living and writing somewhere else. Cowley’s attempt to integrate the flora and fauna of urban industrial life into prose and poetry had proven superficial, going no deeper than the earlier romantics’ thrill at exploiting new material. Suddenly skyscrapers and factories had lost their aesthetic appeal. “A Pennsylvania farmhouse,” he confessed to Burke, “now seems more beautiful than the Wurlitzer Building.”

Cowley increasingly yearned for the rural serenity of his boyhood, and on weekends he would escape to Kenneth Burke’s New Jersey farm or Slater Brown’s shack in Woodstock. As Max Eastman had said, “you leave the city if you have any poetry in you.” During one such rural interlude Cowley explained that the “function of poetry is to make life tolerable. New York was becoming more than I could bear. In a few moments when I was alone I found myself miserable.” As the 1920’s progressed, he continued to lead a schizophrenic life, working in an office during the week, writing book reviews, translations, or nostalgic pastoral poems in his spare time, and removing to the country at almost every opportunity. “Although we didn’t read Emerson,” Cowley later recalled, “we had the Emersonian dream of establishing ourselves in some untouched Concord not too far from the city, but closer to the wilderness, where we could write in the morning, roam the hills in the afternoon, and sometimes gather in the evening around the fire.”

While visiting Slater Brown he examined his divided loyalties. I notice since coming to Woodstock that the office and New York have ceased to exist. Part of me is still a farmer and the part is complete. Part of me is a New Yorker. The parts have little connection. The rural part is woodsman, proprietor and miser. The New Yorker is an unhappy spender, tainted with alcoholism which disappears in the country. Cowley was much more at home in the country than in the city, but he could not remain there permanently. For all its frantic urbanism, New York was a cultural magnet that continued to exert a powerful attraction.

In March 1926 Cowley analyzed his predicament in a lengthy letter to Allen Tate, who was then undergoing a similar tension between his rural tastes and his professional literary ambitions. The year before, Cowley had written “Those of Lucifer,” a poem dedicated to Tate, which conveyed both the beauty and the lyric agony of Manhattan life:

Out of an empty sky the dust of hours;
A word was spoken and a folk obeyed;
an island uttered incandescent towers
like frozen simultaneous hymns to Trade.

Here, in a lonely multitude of powers,
thrones, dominations—celestial cavalcade—
they rise
    —proclaiming, sea and sky are ours,
and yours, O man, the shadow of our shade.

Or did a poet crazed with dignity
rear them upon an island to prolong
his furious contempt for sky and sea?

To what emaciated hands belong
these index fingers of infinity?
O towers of intolerable song!

Cowley had grown alienated from the city for reasons more complex than personal tastes alone. True, the crowds and the noise irritated him, but New York had come to symbolize something more malevolent—the corruption of culture. He told Tate that the great weakness of New York literary life was that it “had no moral value.” To survive as a young writer in the city required the betrayal of one’s artistic principles. Cowley confessed that he, too, had succumbed to its degrading influence: “According to my own standards, everything I am doing now is rotten.” But were the alternatives any better? Slater Brown, he pointed out, had solved the problem in Thoreauvian fashion by moving to the country and avoiding New York as much as possible. Cowley was tempted to follow his example. “It’s a beautiful life cutting wood, gardening, mending a lovely house, being surrounded by all the joys of nature and hard cider.” But such rural seclusion nevertheless represented an abdication of responsibility. “I admire it from a distance,” he added, “but think it is a mistake to retire, to narrow your circle of experiences.” He warned his Tennessee friend that in order to progress as a writer, he would eventually have to confront the reality of modern urban life. “Sometime you’ll have to return to New York,” Cowley concluded, “and be in a worse fix than I.”

Two months after Cowley gave Tate such advice he and his first wife Peggy moved from Staten Island to the Connecticut countryside. There he would take up summer residence and work as a free-lance writer until the first heavy snowfall, when they would move back to the city. Thus he could write in the country and also maintain his involvement with the New York literary community. As he had told Burke earlier, “I agree with you that the ideal life for the American writer is somewhere within two hours of New York.” His literary and cultural interests were “inexorably tied to New York.” So he arrived at a compromise that ideally would combine the rural charms of the country and the cultural offerings of the city, thereby tying his past and present together.

Throughout the rest of the 1920’s Cowley’s commuter pastoralism seemed to satisfy his personal and artistic needs. The onset of the Great Depression, however, produced another dramatic change in his outlook. Politics, especially the politics of the left, thrust itself upon literature, and writers saw in the revolutionary movement a means of ending the alienation they had felt toward their homeland and the toiling masses. In this sense Cowley became a Communist fellow traveler for many of the same reasons he had earlier embraced Dada. For years he had felt a “craving to be liked—not loved, not followed, but simply accepted as one of the right guys.” In both Dadaism and communism Cowley found a haven, a sense of “comradeship in struggle,” that both attracted him to urban culture and served as an antidote to the social loneliness he had long felt.


In 1930 Cowley succeeded Edmund Wilson as literary editor of the New Republic, and soon thereafter he found himself embroiled in the ideological warfare that dominated New York literary life during the Depression years. By 1932 he had come to believe that “there was no refuge from the storm, that the profession I loved was involved in the fate of everything else, and that everything, including literature, would have to be changed.” This meant changing his style of living as well. During the early 1930’s he spent much more time in Manhattan and much less in the country. But for the moment he seemed to thrive amid the intellectual ferment bubbling throughout Manhattan and especially at the New Republic. In the magazine’s old brownstone house on a side street in Chelsea, he experienced a renewed sense of shared convictions that had earlier attracted him to Dada and Broom. “The atmosphere,” he remembered, “was of a home where one family had been living for a long time.” Alfred Kazin portrayed the magazine in much the same light, remarking that it was “not merely a publication but a cause and the center of many causes. . . . There was a heady sense of involvement in the air, a spirit of literary crusading, the sense of a movement.”

Moreover, Cowley found living in New York more hospitable now that he was not forced to do mere hackwork but was instead in charge of the literary department of the nation’s foremost journal of opinion. For the first time in his career he enjoyed a wide and responsive audience and with it a sense of communion with his native culture. Through his weekly lead reviews and his selection of books and reviewers, he shifted the stance of the literary section from a gentle Progressivism to a cosmopolitan Stalinism. Kazin recalled that Cowley’s reviews “brought the week to focus for people to whom this page, breathing intellectual fight. . .represented the most dramatically satisfying confrontation of a new book by a gifted, uncompromising, critical intelligence.” But Cowley’s influence among the New York literary Left extended far beyond his role as editor. He was active in the League of American Writers and served as its delegate to an international writers’ congress in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. At other times he was busy circulating petitions, drafting manifestoes, speaking at conferences, and occasionally joining fellow “comrades” in picket lines.

Such involvement sometimes led Cowley and others associated with the New Republic to adopt the myopia and snobbism that have since been commonly associated with New York literary intellectuals. Edmund Wilson once observed that the result of extended living in New York is that “you never meet the people who hold the boob opinions ridiculed there, and are very much surprised when you do.” Wilson’s sense of isolation was what in large measure spurred him to tour the country reporting at first hand on the devastating human impact of the Depression. Cowley also traveled, but he spent much more time in the New Republic offices than on the road. “There, in a big room under the roof, with its windows looking over a double rank of backyards,” he remembered, “I could lead a sheltered life in the midst of the hurricane, almost as if I had been given a post in the General Theological Seminary across the street.” In spite of occasional forays into the provinces, he remained for the most part detached from the day-to-day turmoil around the nation. Thus it was easy for him to assume that New York, almost by default, must lead the country out of intellectual and cultural darkness. The virtues of the New Republic, he maintained in 1937, “are partly caused by the shortcomings of our audience—in the sense that we are trying to compensate for its geographical dispersion and its difficulties of communication.” New York’s detachment from the rest of the nation was an unfortunate, but necessary reality. Every “world city,” Cowley observed, “is more or less cut off from its own country. In New York I think that is especially true.”

Yet, as involved as Cowley was in New York intellectual life during the Depression years, he later claimed that as early as 1934 he had privately begun to develop doubts about his role as activist. “You won’t believe it,” he wrote in a recent letter, “but I was always uncomfortable about being classified as a “New York intellectual.” I never regarded myself as a genuine New Yorker and I wasn’t even sure that I was an intellectual—that is, I dealt in moods, impressions, facts much more than theories.” Such a portrait is hard to believe. Cowley may indeed have had private misgivings about his new role as political radical, but at the time he hid them extremely well. To the readers of the New Republic and to his political opponents on the right and left, he seemed quite sure of his theoretical position and quite at home as a “New York intellectual.”

But in a larger sense Cowley’s characterization of himself as feeling personally out of place among New York leftist intellectuals is accurate. Certainly he was by background, training, and temperament quite unlike the genuinely radical New York intellectuals such as Lewis Corey, Sidney Hook, Irving Howe, Dwight MacDonald, and Herbert Solow, who were indeed serious students of Marxist political theory. Where they were abstract, philosophical, and urban, Cowley was unspeculative, literary, and rustic. As the decade wore on, and Cowley’s personal involvement in the politics of the literary Left deepened (apparently despite his private misgivings), it became increasingly obvious to many of his old friends that he was letting his politics get the better of his critical abilities. In 1938 Edmund Wilson was so dismayed at Cowley’s clumsy defense of the Moscow Trials that he gave his successor at the New Republic some blunt advice:

I wish you would purge your head of politics—
revolutionary and literary alike—and do the
valuable work of which you are capable. I think
politics is bad for you because it’s not real
to you: because what you’re really practicing
is not politics but literature; and it only
messes up a job like yours to pretend it’s
something else and try to use it like something else.

Wilson surgically laid bare his friend’s misplaced loyalties, but Cowley was still so bedazzled by the Stalinist myth that he failed to take heed. Even the startling announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was not enough to end his self-deception. After September 1939, Cowley continued to attend radical conferences, defend Russian actions, and keep silent about his inner reservations. It was not until the Russian invasion of Finland and the German conquest of France that he finally recognized the moral fraud of Stalinism and began to alter his political stance.


The sudden collapse of the Popular Front and the catastrophic events in Europe in 1940—41 created in Cowley a sense of guilt, a gnawing feeling that his common sense had betrayed him during the 1930’s and that he in turn had betrayed his literary craft. The once-involved editor and fellow traveler was now ready to be rid of the rough and tumble of New York literary politics, as he confessed in a letter to Wilson in the winter of 1940:

I am left standing pretty much alone, in the air,
unsupported, a situation that is much more uncomfortable
for me than it would be for you, since my normal instinct
is toward cooperation. For the moment I want to get out
of every damned thing. These quarrels leave me with a
sense of having touched something unclean.

Cowley not only wanted out of politics, but also out of New York altogether. His former and chiefly urban revolutionary ideology now seemed only banal. He had resigned from the League of American Writers after the fall of France. In the spring of 1941 he vacated his editorial desk at the New Republic and returned to his rural home in Sherman, Connecticut, finding there a “sense of relief in planting and hoeing and watching vegetables that grow according to plan, as persons refuse to do.”

Cowley solved his search for community in essentially the same way as Emerson, who wrote in 1844 that, “I wish to have rural strength and religion for my children, and I wish city facility and polish. I find with chagrin that I cannot have both.” Emerson had resolved his dilemma by moving to Concord. In similar fashion Cowley settled in Sherman. For years he had straddled the fence between city and country, trying to maintain an equal position in both environments, but finally his feet swung down onto the rocky New England soil. With the exception of periodic teaching stints at colleges and universities around the country, Cowley has been a permanent resident of little Sherman for more than 40 years. Although he continued to visit Manhattan regularly, he could no longer identify with the New York intellectual community, just as Emerson could not relate to Unitarian Boston. To Cowley, the writers associated with the Partisan Review and later the New York Review of Books were too self-consciously urban and polemical in politics and difficult and opaque in expression. They seemed to embrace alienation rather than struggle against it.

In Sherman, Cowley stopped writing about political questions and joyfully returned to literary criticism pure and simple, discovering a new appreciation for native American literature—Hawthorne, Whitman, Hemingway, and Faulkner. His recognition of Faulkner’s stature in 1944 reflected how far he had recoiled from the politics and outlook of the New York literary community. How timely it was to find in Faulkner a writer who was nourished on local tradition and who shared the same instinctive preference for rural community. Frenchmen’s Bend, it turned out, was not so different from the Belsano of his youth, and Cowley came to feel that he, too, was best suited for country living. Years before, he had predicted as much when he confided to Allen Tate in 1928: “I think you are fundamentally, like me, a regionalist poet. Your years in New York—and my years also—are only an extended episode. Eventually I think we shall both retire, you to Tennessee, I to Belsano, and continue a friendship in letters and visits.” In Sherman, living in his converted barn among the foothills of the Berkshires, he felt at home among the dairy farmers and craftsmen who inhabited the village. There was a satisfying sincerity in developing human relationships unencumbered by political attitudes and professional jealousies. Unlike so many writers who left the city for the country, Cowley became an active participant in town life, serving for more than 20 years as chairman of the local zoning board and also editing the village newspaper. “It’s fun,” he noted in 1944, “not merely living somewhere, but feeling that you’re actually part of a community.”

The drama of deracination—the impact of city upon country, Europe upon America, politics upon art—is, of course, much greater than Malcolm Cowley and indeed represents a basic motif throughout American literary history. To generalize, perhaps recklessly in such brief space, it is a drama that tends to end in exile, tragedy, or reconciliation. The lives of Melville, Twain, James, Crane, and Fitzgerald illustrate the various consequences. Why some were better able than others to manage such tensions remains an unanswered question. Certainly individual circumstances and temperament played a crucial role. But Cowley’s example seems to suggest that the salvation of his generation of writers lay in achieving the settled temper of mind provided by an embraced sense of rural tradition. The tradition may be regional or national, but it must be strengthened and informed by confrontation with its urban opposite, for it is through the discordant clash of ideas and experiences that one eventually discovers the self-awareness and perspective crucial to the literary vision.

Over the years what had sustained Cowley’s life in New York was his association with a group of like-minded artists working toward a common purpose. Magazines like Broom and the New Republic provided him with a renewed sense of community in a city of the uprooted. But once that group consciousness disintegrated, he could not survive long in Manhattan. Perhaps his experience indicates the most significant function of New York magazines over the years. For Cowley and countless other writers from the hinterlands who migrated to New York in hopes of living out their artistic dreams, the city’s magazines provided not only a medium of expression but also much-needed comradeship in the midst of urban anonymity. But the surrogate family life afforded by New York magazines is notoriously short-lived. Once it disappears, the writer must normally fall back upon the community tradition of his childhood for support and sustenance.

Among the influential critics of this century, Brooks, Burke, Cowley, Tate, and Wilson all initially rejected their cultural and geographic traditions and moved to New York in search of a cosmopolitan ideal, only to find there a passing sanctuary, and one by one they returned to their boyhood settings, either physically or imaginatively. Perhaps it was the last generation of writers for whom such a regional consciousness had any significant meaning. “What worries me,” Cowley warned in 1965, “is the urbanization of culture. What worries me is that literature in the past was usually produced by people who had some sort of feeling for the soil out of which things come. . . . The new literature is an urban literature, and I wonder if something hasn’t gone out of writing with the change of emphasis from vegetables to psychosis.” Cowley was, as he said, a regionalist—but not blindly so. His regionalism shaped his medium of expression, his crisp, lean prose style and his concrete critical vision, but it did not define his message. Writing literary criticism in Sherman, he has remained concerned with the universality of human experience, as did Faulkner. Cowley had tried his best to be modern, only to discover that he was, after all, a traditionalist. After sampling Dada and Marx, Paris and New York, the exile had finally returned.


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Peter Erickson's picture
Peter Erickson · 5 years ago

Cowley added much to 20th American literature in his sensitivity to creation and human behavior. He remains indispensable to understanding 20th century American writers, their work, their lives.


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