Urbanities

Adam Kirsch
What’s Left of Malcolm Cowley
The famed critic’s insight deserted him when it came to politics.
Spring 2014
BETMANN/CORBIS
Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic’s literary editor from 1929 to 1944

What in God’s name has happened to you?” wrote Edmund Wilson to Malcolm Cowley, his successor as the literary editor of The New Republic. The year was 1938, and under Cowley, the magazine’s book section had become, many believed, a megaphone for the Communist Party line. By then, Wilson had already gone through his own romance with Communism and come out the other side. He found Cowley’s adherence to party-line Stalinism, at the height of the Moscow show trials, to be inexplicable: “I was told some time ago that you were circulating a letter asking endorsements of the last batch of Moscow trials,” Wilson wrote, “and I can’t imagine any inducement short of bribery or blackmail—which sometimes appear in rather inobvious forms and to which I hope you haven’t fallen a victim—to justify and imitate their practices at this time. You’re a great guy to talk about the value of a non-partisan literary review after the way you’ve been plugging the damned old Stalinist line, which gets more and more cockeyed by the minute . . . at the expense of the interests of literature and to the detriment of critical standards in general.”

Wilson’s letter, published long ago in his magisterial Letters on Literature and Politics, reflects a political atmosphere hard to imagine today. The political voices of the 1930s that we still remember, and read, tend to be from the anti-Stalinist and anti-Soviet Left—in particular, the group of New York intellectuals associated with Partisan Review (including Wilson for a while). These writers have been the subject of so much mythmaking that it’s easy to forget that they viewed themselves at the time as a persecuted intellectual minority. In the 1930s, mainstream publishing, journalism, and academia were dominated not by Trotskyists or independent leftists like Wilson or Dwight Macdonald but by adherents of the Popular Front, for whom loyalty to the Soviet Union was also loyalty to progress and freedom.

Of these fellow travelers, Malcolm Cowley was hardly the most important or the most culpable. But as The New Republic’s literary editor throughout the decade, he was one of the most visible symbols of cultural Stalinism for the writers who sought his patronage—and who went on to write the memoirs that now define the period. Daniel Aaron’s classic study Writers on the Left devotes a chapter to Cowley that begins: “The intelligentsia who turned against the [Communist] party before Malcolm Cowley singled him out as the classical ‘horrid example’ of the ‘Stalinistǒ stooge or muddled pseudo-Marxist.” That is exactly the picture that emerges from Wilson’s letter, which goes on to attack Cowley as a political dilettante: “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.”

The same general image of Cowley appears in Starting Out in the Thirties, a memoir by Alfred Kazin, one of his successors at The New Republic: “During the Moscow Trials of the mid-Thirties, when [Cowley’s] lead review of the official testimony condemned the helpless defendants accused of collaboration with Hitler and sabotage against the Soviet state, I felt that Cowley had made up his mind to attack these now helpless figures from the Soviet past, had suppressed his natural doubts, because he could not separate himself from the Stalinists with whom he identified the future. To Cowley everything came down to the trend, to the forces that seemed to be in the know and in control of the time-spirit.”

For Kazin, Cowley embodied the bien-pensant radicalism of the thirties all the more perfectly because he also embodied the bohemian radicalism of the twenties. In 1934, Cowley published Exile’s Return, a sort of collective memoir in which his own experiences—in college, World War I, postwar Greenwich Village, and Paris—served as the prototype for his literary generation. Cowley wrote, edited, and translated many books, but Exile’s Return is the one that has lasted, and the glamour of the “Lost Generation” is largely his own creation. “Cowley’s face,” Kazin observed, “had kept the faint smile of defiance, the swashbuckling look and military mustache of intellectual officers in the First World War, the look of gallantry in sophistication that one connected with the heroes of Hemingway—he even resembled Hemingway in much the same way that matinee idols once resembled Clark Gable; he had an air.”

Cowley was one of the magnetic literary figures of his era, attracting both the admiration and the contempt of his contemporaries. The 1920s remain Cowley’s territory, but the history of the 1930s would be written by his enemies, and the rest of his long career—he lived until 1989—remains little discussed. It’s symptomatic that while Edmund Wilson’s letters were published in 1977, it is only this year that we finally have The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987, edited by Hans Bak. Now, at last, we can see the history of twentieth-century literature, which he helped to shape, through Cowley’s own eyes.

Among other things, we can finally read Cowley’s response to Wilson’s blast of October 1938. Cowley begins by counterattacking the Trotskyists at Partisan Review. Trying to keep faith with the Soviet experiment while still criticizing Stalin’s rule, many independent radicals had thrown in their lot with the erstwhile Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, living in exile in Mexico. But in Cowley’s view, this was functionally equivalent to giving up on the Revolution: “I always thought that Marxism called for a union of theory and practice, and the only thing I see the Partisans practicing is the book reviewer’s trade. . . . It is true that they call for a revolution against the Kremlin, but it is pretty safe making faces at Stalin from a distance of five thousand miles.”

Cowley’s crack about “the book reviewer’s trade” is revealing about his self-image in the late 1930s. If anyone could be said to practice that trade, it was Cowley himself, then in his ninth year editing book reviews for The New Republic. (He would title a 1978 essay collection And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade.) Yet he clearly saw himself as making a more than literary contribution to the cause. Cowley never joined the Communist Party but was a prominent fellow traveler, serving as a leader of the League of American Writers, a Communist front group. To remain completely outside the Party, like the Trotskyists, was to condemn yourself to mere scribbling; to work with the Party was to join the main current of history.

Cowley makes his views clear to Wilson. “What is my own position? Generally pro-Russian, pro-Communist, but with important reservations.” These reservations didn’t so much concern the Moscow trials—“I believe that they were about three-quarters straight”—as Soviet policy toward the arts. As for the mass starvation in the Ukraine, Cowley acknowledges it in an afterthought: “But nobody can say that life is perfect in a country that let two or three million of its own citizens starve to death.” Those millions of deaths intrude starkly and bizarrely into a letter that goes on to talk about whether Margaret Marshall was fair in her review of To Have and Have Not in The Nation.

Cowley’s letters make clear that one of the great motivators for writers drawn to Communism was the promise that it would allow them to leap from the sterility of literary-coterie politics to the vital urgency of the class struggle. This would benefit the writers themselves, Cowley believed, as he explained to Allen Tate in a 1934 letter: “[T]he conception of the class struggle is one that renders the world intelligible and tragic, makes it a world possible to write about once more in the grand manner—and . . . artists have greater days in front of them if they can succeed in living up to the stature of their times.”

This was exactly the argument that Cowley made in Exile’s Return, which appeared the same year. Ironically, the book that would ensure Cowley’s posterity initially met with contempt and mockery from most critics, as he explained in The Dream of the Golden Mountains, a later memoir covering the 1930s. The day it came out, Cowley recalled, he went to the newsstand to buy the New York papers that carried book reviews—at that time, a glorious half-dozen—and found that all but one of the critics “had a grand time demolishing the book. Most of them said that it was a trivial story, intermittently amusing, that dealt with unimportant persons.” Today, of course, those unimportant persons—Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, Hart Crane, Tristan Tzara, and André Breton—are exactly the ones whom students of the period want to know about.

But for all his celebration of the era’s bohemian glamour, Cowley was also deeply critical of it. Just as Wilson had done in Axel’s Castle, Cowley regarded even the greatest Modernists—writers like Marcel Proust and James Joyce—as, in some sense, representing a dead end. “The religion of art,” he writes in Exile’s Return, “is too dehumanized to nourish rich careers or to bring forth characters that compel our admiration.”

Notably, the criticism here is not of books like Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, which Cowley acknowledges are incomparable achievements, but of the character of their authors. As The Long Voyage reveals, Cowley had from the outset regarded literature not primarily as about texts but as a matter of people, groups, and movements. In the early letters from the 1910s and 1920s, mainly written to the critic Kenneth Burke, a childhood friend, Cowley zestily surveys the literary scene. He is deeply involved in the maneuvers of various factions and publications—the Broom group versus the Secession group versus The Dial. “I think we are fools if we don’t work together. The requisite for an intelligent literature . . . is an intelligent society, and an intelligent society may consist of only half a dozen people,” he tells another friend, in what amounts to a credo.

In a letter to Burke in 1922, when Cowley was just 24, he gives a matter-of-fact account of his own strengths and weaknesses as a writer: “My brain is a practical brain, a brain that likes to work on definite lines, a brain that thinks about means rather than ends and that can make at least A– on any subject set for it. No one ever does justice to this type of brain.” In Exile’s Return, however, Cowley offered a kind of morality play about what can happen to a brain that is utterly unpractical, that follows the Modernist cult of art to the point of no return. This was the fate of Harry Crosby, the wealthy scion of a Boston banking family, who, like Cowley and so many others, devoted himself to art and dissipation in Europe. For Crosby, this path led not to artistic achievement but to madness, and in 1929 he and a girlfriend killed themselves in a suicide pact.

Cowley makes the moral of the story explicit: “The religion of art had failed when it tried to become a system of ethics, a way of life,” yielding only “inertia, demoralization, delusions of persecution and grandeur, alcohol, drugs or suicide.” In writing about Crosby, Cowley also had in mind the death of his close friend Hart Crane. Cowley’s ex-wife, Peggy, was traveling with Crane when he committed suicide, in 1932, by leaping from the ship that was carrying them back to New York from Mexico. Cowley’s letter to Tate describing Crane’s death is probably the most authoritative account we have of that tragedy:

Hart, in pajamas and a bathrobe, had walked through the smoking-room and down the full length of the deck to the stern and then dived overboard. The sea was calm—not oily—but with hardly a wave. The people in the stern threw him a life preserver, to which he paid no attention. He came up, waved his hand to the vessel and began swimming away from it. By the time a boat was lowered he had disappeared entirely.

Even before Crane’s death, Cowley had discovered that the antidote to the religion of art, the cure for the hangover that followed the twenties, was radical activism. Today, Exile’s Return is usually read in the revised edition that Cowley produced in 1951, which omits much of the first version’s political rhetoric. But in The Dream of the Golden Mountains, Cowley quotes his original conclusion—written on May Day, 1934—in which he observes that the class struggle “can offer an end to the desperate feeling of solitude and uniqueness that has been oppressing artists for the last two centuries, the feeling that has reduced some of the best of them to silence or futility and the weaker ones to insanity or suicide. It can offer instead a sense of comradeship and participation in a historical process vastly bigger than the individual.”

Cowley, always drawn to “comradeship and participation” in literary life, enthusiastically joined the struggle. In 1932, he took part in a delegation of writers bringing aid to the striking miners of Harlan County, Kentucky. “We didn’t go in as Communists,” Cowley explains to Tate. “We went as Jeffersonian Democrats to test whether relief could be distributed to the miners and whether anybody except coal operators had any constitutional rights in southeastern Kentucky. We proved pretty conclusively that nobody had.”

Cowley’s equivocation about whether he was acting as a Communist or a liberal was typical of fellow travelers of the period. Despite his protestation to Tate, though, Cowley was already deeply involved in Communist causes. Also in 1932, he joined the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, which campaigned for the Communist Party candidates in the presidential election. And a number of letters testify to the general impression that the review section that Cowley edited slanted heavily toward Stalinism. In 1937, for instance, we find him justifying himself to John Dewey: “As for the Soviet Union, I certainly would not defend, and have not defended, everything that has been done there. . . . But I also feel that in general the Soviet Union has been moving in the right direction and that it has to be defended against the fascist nations.”

It took the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 to break Cowley’s allegiance to Communism—though even then, he waited until June 1940 to resign publicly from the League of American Writers. The pact was the kind of shock that led some Communists and fellow travelers to wrestle seriously with their former commitment—to probe the relationship between liberalism and radicalism and the dangers of totalizing idealism. Cowley, however, continued to see political issues in personal terms. His “quarrels with the anti-Stalinists,” he writes in 1941, were essentially “a renewal of my high-school and college quarrel with the grinds, the people who made no higher marks than I did, or not much higher marks (remember I was ninth in my class at Harvard) but hadn’t cultivated the ironic attitude that study was unimportant.” The Trotskyists may have been right, or at least more right than the Stalinists, but this matters less than their unappealing earnestness, so at odds with Cowley’s debonair style.

Cowley’s Communist phase had a sad sequel in late 1941, when Archibald MacLeish offered him a job working for the Office of Facts and Figures, the wartime propaganda agency. Cowley eagerly accepted the job, wanting to do his part for the war effort, in which he now strongly believed. But in an early example of Red-hunting, the Dies Committee and the press publicized his Communist history and hounded him out of office after just a few months. The letters chronicling this affair are fascinating for what they reveal about Cowley’s own understanding of his political past. Once again, he equivocates between Communism and advanced liberalism, and he writes disingenuously about his past commitments: “I am not and have never been a Communist. . . . I have no connection with any organization whatsoever in which there are Communist members.”

This was at best technically true, even if by late 1941 Cowley had severed his prominent and long-standing ties with Communist organizations. He goes on in other letters to obfuscate the plain meaning of poems he had written in honor of the Communist martyrs in China and Spain (“ ‘Tomorrow Morning’ is not even a political poem, let alone a revolutionary poem. It is a lament for those who died in vain”). Never at the time or afterward does it seem to occur to him that the government might have had a legitimate interest in refusing to employ someone who, for a decade, had supported the overthrow of the government.

But then, as Wilson had seen, politics wasn’t quite real to Cowley, even when he found himself in the thick of it. What Cowley cared about, what occupied him exclusively before and after the 1930s, was literature, and politics existed for him primarily in literary terms. The Long Voyage is, among other things, a document of the difficulties that can beset such a man when he lives in an era that makes politics unavoidable.

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