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...