The Flower and the Leaf
The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941, judiciously edited by Donald W. Faulkner, displays Malcolm Cowley as a graceful, influential, and (as difficult as the term is to prove) sincere practitioner of letters for more than four decades. As much a literary sociologist as a critic, Cowley has gained the optimum position of a man who loves literature, who understands its context, who discriminates among many disparate national and international aesthetic and intellectual confluences, and who expresses his pungent observations with enviable clarity.
This book is divided into three sections. The first, “The War Years and After” (with essays dated from 1941 to 1954), contains the most blatantly ideological, overtly political of the essays, reflecting Cowley’s strong youthful interest in leftist dogmas. Part 1 begins with “American Literature in Wartime” and “Communism and Christianism”; it concludes more than one hundred pages later with “Some Dangers to American Writing.” Between, Cowley examines the lives and works of Arthur Koestler, Maxwell Perkins, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others. As he makes his way through a set of diverse authors, Cowley reveals his predisposition to those who combine high aesthetic goals and “honesty” (another trait difficult to demonstrate in literature but one that most readers seem to believe they can identify). A populist and an elitist at once, he holds firmly to principles of rigorous artistry and insists that art be, or become, accessible to the populace and that the populace be brought to finer awareness of literature. This problem is a little like D. H. Lawrence’s, or Walt Whitman’s, trying to speak rationally about nonrational experiences, attempting to elevate the emotional, the unconscious, the intuitive by means of so consecutive a medium as the written word. Yet Cowley does not pose an impossible aesthetic riddle; he assumes that literature is the medium that best melds the reason and the emotion of human beings, and he proceeds to demonstrate his assumption without apology, remarkably defending without defensiveness.
In the opening essay of part 1, Cowley reports a disappointing experience he had when teaching at a writing workshop in the Berkshires in August, 1941. At a time when the war in Europe was going terribly for the Allies, prior to America’s direct intervention in December, these bright, literate students were put to an automatic writing exercise. Jotting as quickly as possible anything that came to mind and then reading it aloud, not one of this select and articulate group, Cowley charges, made reference to the war that was to engulf them all four months later.
Cowley uses the anecdote to say that neither the general literary public in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s nor the writers, for the most part, were dealing clearly and passionately with the most urgent political questions of the times. Their self-absorption and their evasion of difficult realities were shocking to Cowley. As well as delineating the American literary climate of the times, his response indicates his commitment to humanity through the literary arts.
Cowley’s treatment of these young disciples in the Berkshires did not end with stern pontification. He admits to having chastised them: “I said in effect that by not making an effort toward intellectual and emotional understanding of what was happening in the world, the students were neglecting one of their chief duties as writers.” Then he confesses that he had not been attentive enough at first to catch the few “vague” references some apprentices had made to the rising tide of war.
The point of knowing this tale of Cowley’s indignant pedagogy is that it indicates the broadly humane nature of the man. He conveys deep social concern in his essays; he bears responsibly the mission of the writer as teacher; and he attends constantly to his own fallibility.
The second section of the book, “The Usable Past” (with essays dated from 1944 to 1971), is somewhat more amiable but no less insightful. Here Cowley deals in more strictly literary terms with such authors as Nathaniel...
(The entire section is 1719 words.)