Skip to main content

The Thirties Revisited

ISSUE:  Winter 1981
The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s. By Malcolm Cowley. Viking. $14.95.

Three weeks before the Wall Street crash, Malcolm Cowley went to work for The New Republic. It is from that vantage point of intellect and political observation, coupled with a profound respect for writers and “the writer’s trade,” that he recounts the aftermath of the crash in the tumultuous years of The Thirties.

The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s was begun a long time ago and was originally planned as a sequel to Exile’s Return, Cowley’s literary odyssey of The Lost Generation and The Twenties. In his epilogue to that book, Cowley says:

The 1930s were the pentecostal years when it seemed that everyone had the gift of tongues and used it to prophesy the millennium. For some reason the economic system had broken down and almost everyone seemed to feel that it could be set in motion again by some entirely simple operation—it was like a motor that had died because the sparkplugs were dirty or because the battery terminals had shaken loose . . .and thousands of mechanics came forward with hundreds of suggested operations—let the currency be changed or the banking system be remodeled, or let the closed factories be reopened by the government, for use not profit, and not only would the engine run again but it would carry us securely into the future.

Then, in 1933, things changed with the political crisis in Germany and the banking crisis early in the year. Cowley continues:

Thousands were convinced and hundreds of thousands were half-persuaded that no simple operation would save us; there had to be the complete renovation of society that Karl Marx had prophesied in 1848. Unemployment would be ended, war and fascism would vanish from the earth, but only after the revolution. Russia had pointed out the path that the rest of the world must follow into the future. . . . What came next would be a struggle to possess the future and mold it into a predetermined form; there would be a vast crusade that was inspired by generosity and public spirit, then slowly corrupted by individual pride and thirst for power and for influence over the future, always the future—until the army of the future fell apart into bitterly quarreling groups and lonely individuals, and until the Russians, who had helped to inspire the crusade, proved by their alliance with Hitler that they had no interest whatever in the fate of Western liberals. Some day the story will be told in full, but it should wait for calmer years; as long as the hurt bitterness remains it cannot be a true story.

The dream of the golden mountains was a “daydream of revolutionary brotherhood,” and it was this dream—or daydream—and its failure to materialize which led to the hurt and bitterness which the literary community, at least those who made up the intellectuals and the so-called radicals, experienced. Though Malcolm Cowley can now reflect on the period with thoughtful restraint, the hurt and bitterness continue to be much in evidence in other survivors of the period. Like the unresolved loss of a loved one, the feelings of anguish and helpless confusion lie beneath a thin crust of distance and time, but still there and ready to spill forth with the slightest provocation. The most violent eruption was in The Fifties during the ugly activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, when friends pointed accusing fingers at friends like a compass gone crazy.

For the past four years, I have been assisting in research for a biography of John Dos Passos, one of the writers who immediately comes to mind when the literary foment of The Thirties is mentioned. Interestingly, Dos Passos had already begun to back off from his earlier radical stance by this time, and was never a member of the Community Party—nor was Cowley—or even a truly decent Fellow Traveler; he was, however, an important member of the literary community and much involved in the political thought and activity of the time. For some, he continues to be the personification of the literary radical of his time.

In the search for John Dos Passos, I have become fascinated by the period Malcolm Cowley writes about in The Dream of the Golden Mountains. While interviewing friends, colleagues, and acquaintances of Dos Passos for the biography Virginia Spencer Carr is writing, both she and I have been struck by the heated and sometimes totally rejecting responses we have received when political activities of The Thirties come in for discussion. Pleasant and productive interviews have turned sour and of questionable value. Just as often, a survivor would lapse into his own perplexity. All the more reason to be grateful to Malcolm Cowley for feeling that he could now share his recollections of this unique period in our history.

The writers of The Thirties are the author’s main concern in this volume of his memoirs; he himself is rarely seen apart from them, excepting instances when he writes about his own thoughts about writing: “I think most authors feel an immense contrast between the writing of a book, which is a private undertaking, and its exposure to the judgment of whoever is willing to read. Publication: there should be another word to set against it, “privatation,” as describing an earlier stage of authorship. Sometimes the passage from one stage to another is so abrupt that it leads to private disasters.” He goes on to explore his own feelings upon the publication of his first book of prose, Exile’s Return: “A circumstance that made me still more apprehensive was that I had taken the risk of speaking candidly about my own life. I had my share of that almost universal but also specifically American weakness, the craving to be liked—not loved, not followed but simply accepted as one of the right guys. Any judgment of the book would be a judgment of my private self.”

One of the more meaningful things which happened in Cowley’s life in The Thirties which he does relate with remarkable objectivity was the dissolution of his marriage to Peggy Baird Johns, who took his friend Hart Crane as child/ lover and tried to save him from his fixed course of self-destruction. Cowley and Peggy remained friends, and he includes excerpts of her letters about her life with the volatile poet before he finally flung himself from the stern of the Orizaba as he and Peggy were returning to New York from Veracruz.

Even for writers about whom much has been written, Cowley manages to bring into sharp focus some facets not as clearly detailed before. Of Edmund Wilson, who was literary editor of The New Republic, he says Wilson was “an innocent in politics because he never bothered to understand how people act in groups. . . . Yet partly because of that same innocence, his reports [sent back from travels across the country] had a freshness of detail and vigor of interpretation that nobody else could have achieved. They were later published as a book, The American Jitters (1932), and they are still the most vivid picture of this country in the second year of the depression.”

The God That Failed (1950), a symposium edited by Richard Crossman, is also recommended for its appraisal of why so many Americans of more than average intelligence joined or aligned themselves with the Communists: the depression, the fight against Hitler and against racial prejudice, the Spanish Civil War, and generally because “the Communists always had good issues. In most of these they were widely supported by liberal opinion, but they also had the advantage of proposing to do something about the issues, instead of just being indignant like the liberals. . . . The depression, however, was truly their best American issue and the one that produced the greatest number of converts.”

Other divisive issues which led writers to join various camps were the decline of moral standards—in no small measure due to Prohibition and the consequent loss of moral authority on the part of the Protestant churches; the influence of Freudian psychology, which was too often simplified to the foolish notion that suppression of one’s desires was suicidal; and the outrageous schemes proposed to remedy the ills of joblessness, including one proposed to Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley by John B. Nichols of the Oklahoma Gas Utilities Company, which Nichols was trying in Chickasha, Oklahoma, wherein restaurants were asked to dump food left on plates into five-gallon containers from which the unemployed could qualify for a garbage dole by chopping wood donated by the farmers. Not that the farmers could afford to donate anything. A fascinating portion of The Dream of the Golden Mountains has to do with the revolt of farmers in Iowa and Pennsylvania when they could no longer keep up their mortgage payments and were about to lose their farms through foreclosures.

Problems of the Harlan County miners are more widely known, but Cowley’s telling of Dreiser’s leading a delegation of writers into Kentucky, where the miners were being paid around $35 a month in script that could only be spent at the company store for about half its value and where the Communist union was trying to organize, is fresh and succinct. He likens Dreiser’s mind to “an attic in an earthquake, full of big trunks that slithered about and popped open one after another, so that he spoke sometimes as a Social Darwinist, sometimes as a Marxist, sometimes as almost a Fascist, and sometimes as a sentimental reformer. Always he spoke, though, with an uncalculating candor that gave him a large sort of bumbling dignity.”

Other writers who people these memoirs—in addition to those mentioned—are Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James T. Farrell, Sherwood Anderson, Clifford Odets, Allen Tate, John Peale Bishop, Erskine Caldwell, John Howard Lawson, Waldo Frank, Mike Gold, Joe Freeman, Josephine Herbst, John Hermann, Harold Clurman, Heywood Broun, et al. For the most part, these are people he has observed and written about over the years, but he always sheds new light or brings into sharper relief an aspect or event not seen or clearly delineated before. He does tend to give the women writers of the period unfortunately short shrift: “This was also the time when writers appeared [at The New Republic] from Vassar, Mary McCarthy first, then Muriel Rukeyser with her revolutionary poems, then Eleanor Clark and her tall sister Eunice, both strikingly handsome. They made me feel that the Vassar classes of 1933 and 1934 had been exceptionally brilliant and opinionated, an army or a daisy chain with banners.” So much for McCarthy, Clark, and her sister Eunice; Rukeyser gets laudatory mention earlier.

One of the funniest lines in the book does come from a female. Cowley recalls his wife’s referring to any place outside New York City as “an out-of-town city.”

Cowley’s writers are seen against a background of historical detail which he periodically enlivens to the extent events themselves seem to take on a persona, such as the ending of the Hoover Administration and the beginning of the Roosevelt Administration:

The winter of 1932—33 was the last and worst time in American history when four months intervened between the election and the inauguration of a new president. Hoover was still in the White House, but he no longer had enough moral authority to carry through new measures against the depression; the fact was that he hadn’t any measures to offer, except an international conference and a federal sales tax that would have made things worse. Roosevelt had many new measures in mind and a vast willingness to try others if they suggested themselves—anything to get industry moving again—but he was still a private citizen. . . . They could not collaborate; they could scarcely speak to each other. As the time for Roosevelt to take office approached, depositors all over the country had begun to withdraw their money from banks and banks in turn had begun to take unannounced and unorthodox “holidays” to halt the drain.

On March 1 the states where the banking system collapsed were California, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. On the afternoon of Thursday, March 2, Roosevelt and his presidential party boarded a special train for Washington. They learned on reaching the Mayflower Hotel that the banks had been closed, or were about to be closed, in twenty-one states and the District of Columbia. The Federal Reserve reported that it had lost $226 million in gold during the last four days. On Friday . . . the states were falling in clusters. . . . When Roosevelt went to bed at one o’clock, closings had been authorized—at the plea of the bankers—in every state except New York and Illinois. In those two strongholds the bankers were holding out for a mixture of reasons: professional pride, obstinate hope, and—at least in some cases—political calculation. The hope was that with a new president taking office at noon on Saturday the mood of the country might change over the weekend; depositors might come streaming back. The political forethought was that if they stayed open for one more day—for a single morning—the collapse of the banking system might be blamed on the new radical administration. . . . When Roosevelt took the oath of office, a few minutes after twelve, every bank in the country was closed. There was not enough gold in the Federal Reserve to cover the currency then in circulation, let alone the huge new issue of paper money that would have to take the place of checks. In the Treasury there was not enough cash to meet the next government payroll, and an issue of $700 million in short-term notes, redeemable in gold, was falling due in less than two weeks. The United States of America had gone bankrupt.

It’s too bad a Malcolm Cowley didn’t write the history books we’ve plodded through and forgotten. The lessons of history do need to be retained.

With equal eloquence, Cowley covers the formation of the Bonus Army and the John Reed Clubs, the May Day parades, the Communists’ violent disruption of a Socialist mass meeting at Madison Square Garden, The American Writers’ Congress, and the New Deal efforts aimed at recovery—the W.P.A., the Federal Arts Projects, formation of the Social Security Administration, etc.

Throughout all of the interplay of economic, social, and political forces, the author keeps his writers moving, working to understand, explain, and change the events of history. That they failed to do so to the extent they had hoped, according to Cowley, was due to an overblown conception of their ability to lead. One wonders, however, what might have happened had they had today’s electronic technology. Would the revolution have come, given that time and today’s capabilities?


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading