Malcolm Cowley Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Malcolm Cowley was born on August 24, 1898, in the small farming village of Belsano in the Allegheny hills east of Pittsburgh. His father, William Cowley, was a homeopathic physician who maintained his office in a building in an older section of Pittsburgh. The family rented an apartment in the same building, so Cowley grew up in an urban business neighborhood with few children for companionship. The Cowley summer house in Belsano had been left to William Cowley by the poet’s grandmother, and it was there that Cowley’s mother, Josephine (Hutmacher) Cowley, took her only child to spend the summers while her husband worked in Pittsburgh. The farm community of Belsano and Cowley’s experiences there during the long summers had a profound impact on his life and poetry. He was never comfortable in urban environments. Cowley’s childhood was, like that of many writers, one of periodic solitude and long hours spent alone reading and imagining. Though he received most of his early schooling in Pittsburgh, Cowley was most comfortable in the farming community of Belsano.

He entered Harvard College in 1915 on a scholarship from the Harvard Club of Pittsburgh. There he made several important literary friendships, some of them with older poets such as S. Foster Damon, Conrad Aiken, and E. E. Cummings. These friends, themselves innovators in the modern poetry movement, introduced Cowley to the work of the nineteenth century French Symbolists and to older New England poets such as Edwin Arlington Robinson and Amy Lowell, who was then a proponent of Imagism.

In the spring of 1917, Cowley volunteered for the American Field Service in France, and he served, like other Harvard writers such as Cummings, John Dos Passos, and Robert Hillyer, as part of the earliest group of Americans to see the battlefronts of World War I. Cowley drove a munitions truck for the French army for six months, then returned to New York, where he lived for several months in Greenwich Village waiting to return to college. While living a life of poverty and writing some poetry and book reviews to survive, he met and later married an older artist, Marguerite Frances “Peggy” Baird, who was a confirmed bohemian painter divorced from her first husband, the New York poet Orrick Johns. Peggy Baird introduced Cowley to many older Greenwich Village artists, as well as to Clarence Britten, then literary editor of The Dial, who gave Cowley books for review and indirectly initiated his career in literary journalism.

Cowley returned to Harvard in September,...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Malcolm Cowley Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)
ph_0111207624-Cowley.jpg Malcolm Cowley Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Malcolm Cowley (KOW-lee) is best known as the contemporary chronicler of the generation of American writers, mostly male, who matured during World War I and achieved fame during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Cowley was born in Belsano, Pennsylvania, a village south of Pittsburgh, in 1898, the son of physician William Cowley and his wife, Josephine. Malcolm attended school in Pittsburgh and developed a lifelong friendship with writer and critic Kenneth Burke when they attended the same high school.

In 1915, Cowley entered Harvard University and stayed there until 1917, when he went to France to serve in the American Ambulance Service but actually drove a munitions truck. He returned to the United States and attended Harvard University for the spring term of 1918 but again left to enter the Army until the armistice ended World War I. At that time, Cowley moved to Greenwich Village, where he tried to support himself by writing book reviews for a penny a word. He married Marguerite Bairds, and they both returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard Phi Beta Kappa in the winter of 1920.

Between 1921 and 1923, Cowley received an American Field Service Fellowship that allowed him to study for a year at the University of Montpellier and to live a second year at Giverny, fifty miles south of Paris, where he was able to meet both American and English expatriate writers and French artists he called “the Dada crowd” (later “the Surrealist crowd”). He also earned extra money from editorial work for, and contributions to, American and French magazines, especially Secession and Broom.

Cowley returned to the United States in the summer of 1923 and worked for Sweet’s Architectural Catalogue, but he soon gave that up to do freelance writing and translations from the French. He was also working on semiautobiographical poetry that traced his mental and emotional development. This poetry, published in 1929 as Blue Juniata, was well received critically and launched Cowley on his career as a man of letters.

Only a week before the stock market crash of 1929, Edmund Wilson chose Cowley as his replacement as literary editor of The New Republic, a position Cowley held for almost twenty years. This job decisively affected his career: It shifted his focus from poetry to prose and defined the style and length of his essays, which first appeared in the journal. (Many years later, they were collected...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)