The Dream of the Golden Mountains Analysis

Malcolm Cowley

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When Malcolm Cowley’s study of expatriate American writers of the 1920’s, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920’s, was published in 1934, it was attacked by established reviewers not only because of its contention that the so-called lost generation was worthy of serious critical attention but also because Cowley at that time was identified with the American Communist movement, although he never actually joined the Communist Party. Cowley sees 1930—the year that concludes Exile’s Return—as “a watershed between two ages,” and in The Dream of the Golden Mountains he writes of his activities in the 1930’s, when economic chaos in the United States and the rise of Fascism in Europe led Cowley and other writers to believe that “great changes would surely take place; they must take place, and . . . it was our duty as writers to take part in them.” Because this book was not completed until 1979, it both reflects the attitudes of the 1930’s and places them in a wider historical context. Cowley recognizes that many who joined the Communist movement in the 1930’s have explained their disillusionment with it, but very few have explained why they joined the movement in the first place and what they hoped to accomplish. This book is Cowley’s explanation. In it, although he acknowledges that he had doubts and reservations even as he was part of the movement, he evokes above all the genuine desire to effect radical change that motivated him and his comrades.

The twenty-six chapters, arranged in chronological order beginning in 1929 (when Cowley went to work for The New Republic) and ending in 1937 (when the stock market crashed again, the Spanish Civil War was beginning, and news of the purges in the Soviet Union was reaching the West), trace literary, political, and personal events. The first eight chapters describe Cowley’s growing sympathy with the suffering and bewilderment of Americans during the first two years of the Depression. At the same time, an era in his personal life drew to a close with his divorce from his first wife, Peggy Baird Johns, and the suicide of his close friend Hart Crane, the American poet who wrote The Bridge (1930). Cowley observes that he, like many others at the time, wanted both an intellectual and an emotional means of understanding the apparent collapse of the American economy and of doing something about it. Marxism seemed to provide an intellectual analysis, showing that the breakdown of the capitalist system was an inevitable part of...

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The Dream of the Golden Mountains

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)
ph_0111207624-Cowley.jpg Malcolm Cowley Published by Salem Press, Inc.

There is a mercifully protective mechanism that operates with the passage of time to erase gradually, for most, the agonies of pain or other suffering. They remain as a memory, but they are slowly replaced by more pleasant recollections. This is an important factor in one’s nostalgia for what is now perceived as less complex and in some ways more rewarding times. For many of those who passed through the Depression years as adults, the background memory is of hard times; but the overriding memories evoke a certain simplicity, a slower pace, an atmosphere of neighborliness and concern for one another: “We got by. It wasn’t all bad.” For those who passed through it as children, it is a memory of a quiet time, of simple amusements, of penny candy, of empty or idle buildings the adventurous might explore, of persons pointed out as bootleggers, or of gaunt suntanned men coming to the back door and offering to split wood in return for a meal. To those who have come after, it is an era not to be subjectively comprehended and it partakes of myth.

Those who remember the Depression clearly, as it really was, as a time when the capitalist system collapsed and the driving energy of the past seemed incapable of recovery, are few. Equally few are those who saw it not only as a local struggle but also as an overwhelming human catastrophe, national and international in scope. Malcolm Cowley is one of them. Although he writes from the standpoint of one deeply involved in the literary world, his position provided him with a unique opportunity to observe and participate; he was continuously aware of broader contexts and he does not neglect them.

Cowley opens his account with an assessment of himself in 1929, when he joined The New Republic three weeks before Wall Street met disaster and America’s economic structure began to disintegrate. He characterizes the philosophy, policies, and milieu of that important liberal journal, a vantage point in which he served as an editor throughout the Depression and beyond. He establishes that he was then separated from his first wife, who later became involved with his friend, the poet Hart Crane; all three remained friendly but with Crane’s death, Cowley resolutely closed a door upon that period of his life and plunged into the literary and political events of the time.

This preamble is deceptive. Cowley tells the reader in his introduction that he began the book as a sequel to his earlier Exile’s Return, and that it changed in the writing as he pursued it off and on during the 1930’s, becoming an account of turbulence, of struggle, of a dream that he and others shared. The change is an abrupt one and occurs as Cowley turns his back on former relationships. From this point on, the rush of events engulfs the reader.

The Dream of the Golden Mountains is an outstanding memoir, but it transcends the genre and becomes a gripping personal history of a time. That it excels both as memoir and as history is due to Cowley’s intellectual temperament: whatever his sympathies he was able to maintain a relatively objective view of what occurred. He espoused and supported the dream of a world wherein everyone could work happily and productively, a world free of periodic economic collapse followed by seasons of desperation and hunger. Yet, his was still a questioning mind; he could see the violence and ruthlessness incipient in zealots, and he never embraced the movement blindly. Thus, he never became fully committed; he did not join the Communist Party and it did not really want him. He categorizes himself as a fellow traveler. At no point does Cowley underplay his sympathies, but his is nevertheless a reasoned and well balanced account.

As he begins with the onset of economic depression in 1929, so Cowley ends with the first real beginnings of economic recovery that coincided with civil war in Spain and with the first premonitory rumblings of World War II. Within this framework, he examines, from the standpoint of one intimately involved, those liberal intellectuals—and there were many—who responded to the times by turning to radical solutions. The phenomenon of any movement, and of its attraction, is rooted in areas of mass psychology that are often exploited but are seldom understood; Cowley is at some pains to explain this concept and his analysis is persuasive. To these people, a civilization, a system, had failed utterly and was irretrievably dead. Moreover, it was not without its faults. They embraced a new faith that promised them a new and better world. It could not be achieved without struggle and sacrifice, but as comrades they could win it together. It has been stated many times that there is nothing so compelling, or so irresistible, as an idea whose time has come. For many intellectuals the idea was Communism, and the time for it was at hand.

Cowley sees the leftward shift as essentially a religious experience. This argument, repellent as it may be to those who are both anti-Communist and conventionally religious, is nevertheless perceptive. There is essentially very little difference between religious fundamentalism and political fundamentalism, aside from variations in the deities they choose to enshrine. The scriptures may vary but the emotional response is often identical. Group psychology...

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The Dream of the Golden Mountains Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Alter, Robert. “The Travels of Malcolm Cowley,” in Commentary. LXX (August, 1980), pp. 33-40.

Brown, Maxine. “The Thirties Revisited,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review. LVII (Winter, 1981), pp. 168-175.

Hook, Sidney. “Disremembering the Thirties,” in The American Scholar. XLIX (Fall, 1980), pp. 556-560.

Kazin, Alfred. “Writers in the Radical Years,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXV (March 23, 1980), p. 7.

Lasch, Christopher. “Alienation a la Mode,” in The Nation. CCXXXI (July 5, 1980), pp. 21-22.


(The entire section is 103 words.)