Malcolm Cowley was one of the key players in the many literary dramas of the early decades of the twentieth century—crucial years in the development of the modernism that became the century’s dominant literary philosophy. As poet, editor, and critic, Cowley was increasingly active in the literary activities and controversies that dominated the little magazines of the 1920’s and 1930’s. This first volume of Hans Bak’s projected two-part biography takes readers from Cowley’s birth in Pittsburgh in 1898 to the beginnings of the Depression in 1930, and does detailed justice to Cowley’s part in helping to shape the direction of American literary concerns.
Aside from his obvious literary talents, Cowley was clearly fortunate to come of age at the beginning of a remarkable renaissance in American letters; the age was fortunate to have someone of Cowley’s observation and perception to record its achievements. Exile’s Return: A Narrative of Ideas (1934; reissued in a revised edition as Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920’s in 1951) is still one of the most important literary chronicles of the 1920’s and the “lost generation” of Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, and other American writers. As a poet and critic of the 1920’s who had lived as an expatriate, Cowley wrote with intimacy about that decade; as a literary journalist of no uncertain skills, he was able to shape his experience into articles and then books that would continue to define that generation: Exile’s Return, A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), and The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930’s (1980), as well as several collections.
Even Cowley’s birth, as Bak emphasizes in his prologue, was fortuitous. He was born in 1898, as the Victorian age was giving way to the Progressive period-a moment of intense creative tension-and he grew up in Belsano, a few miles beyond Pittsburgh in rural western Pennsylvania. This bucolic background would remain his reference point for the rest of his life. It would give him a special empathy with many of the important writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s who had a similar background and who wrote about the particular power of the American wilderness (William Faulkner in The Bear,” for example, and Ernest Hemingway in “Big Two-Heated River”).
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Cowley’s Pittsburgh youth was the number of literary figures who attended his high school. (He met Kenneth Burke-the American critic whose correspondence with Cowley would span seven decades-in eighth grade.) His attendance at Harvard University was interrupted by a stint with the American Ambulance Field Service in 1917; by the time he was graduated in 1920, he had already lived in Greenwich Village and in France and had begun his literary career in the little journals.
What is deceptive about Bak’s first volume is that it ranks Malcolm Cowley the poet equally with Malcolm Cowley the critic. Cowley’s first poetry volume, Blue Juaniata (1929), was met with wide critical praise. Yet like Charles Baudelaire and Walt Whitman before him, he was essentially a one-book poet; his collected poetry forty years later is still titled Blue Juaniata. Thus Bak’s focus on Cowley’s talents as a poet-he reprints a number of poems and discusses them in detail-is a peculiar slant of this volume. The second volume will emphasize the influential literary journalism that Cowley wrote from the 1930’s until his death in 1989 and collected in numerous volumes, including The Literary Situation (1954) and I Worked at the Writer’s Trade (1978).
In the crucial decade of the 1920’s, however, Cowley wore the double mantle of poet and critic. As a poet he was struggling to get into the various little magazines that had sprung...
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