The View from Eighty

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

This book is for everyone. Malcolm Cowley has, in his own words, entered “the country of age” and declared it “different from what you supposed it to be.” His essay is a “report, submitted as a road map and guide to some of the principal monuments.” Ninety-eight percent of the American population is under eighty years of age, and everyone can certainly profit from the wise, warm, and witty insights Cowley offers to those who will someday be old. The two percent of the population who are more than eighty years old finally have an experienced spokesman to explain what being old is really like, for, as he points out, a person who is merely in the sixties or seventies is not yet fully informed. They still, he says, “have the illusion of being middle-aged.” Cowley’s subject is life, and everyone needs to know more about that. He tells us what aging and old age mean and how to seek out the pleasures and tolerate the pains in the country of the old.

Cowley is unusually well qualified to appraise the patterns of a culture and offer measured judgments about large, important subjects. He is the premiere critic for understanding and articulating the events and ideas and personalities that dominated a major literary generation of twentieth century American literature: the “lost generation” that included not only Cowley himself but also Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, e. e. cummings, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, and more than 350 others, who lived mainly in the left bank area of Paris during the 1920’s. He told about them in two books. Exile’s Return (1934) established the idea that his generation, formed by the expatriate life and the experiences of war, differed significantly from previous generations of American writers. In part, they differed in that they came to believe an unexpressed idea that theirs was the generation that would change the world for the better in this new century. In A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), Cowley continued his finding of patterns, this time exploring the long careers of the major writers of the lost generation and finding that some of the most extraordinary writers of his generation “lacked the capacity for growth after middle age that has marked some of the truly great writers.” He also found that Faulkner may be the only one to remain a “world figure” in literature. Pronouncing such judgments became a career for Cowley, and his work is among the most respected criticism of the 1920’s as a reward for its excellence in clarity and perception.

The View from 80 benefits from Cowley’s special gift of writing with grace and simple eloquence. Typically, his books are part memoirs and part history. They are, in other words, created out of his own experience and reading, without relying much on other sources. Luckily, his books do not suffer from ideological biases or axe grinding. When they contain parts that are weak, the weakness derives from Cowley’s own lack of experience with the writer he discusses. The experience, however, on which he does report is wide ranging and without peer. He demonstrates his value twice in two recent books,—And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade (1978) and The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s (1980). In the first, he recalls his work as writer and editor and even offers a theory of literary generations in a chapter dealing with Hemingway. In the latter, Cowley provides a fascinating memoir of the cultural and social climate during the Depression and New Deal. While he participated in Communist-front writers’ organizations, he did not join the Party. He is particularly good at detailing the consciousness of the middle class and professions and at explaining how the sense of decay of capitalism and, indeed, of American culture gave rise to a vision that was religious in its intensity. As the young became involved in this new vision, they could dream of “the golden mountains,” of merging with the workers, suffering their hardships, and being born again.

Those were the years when he was young. He lived life fully. He was not merely a writer, editor, and lecturer, he was a visiting professor at several leading colleges and universities; he helped organize the first American Writers Congress in 1935; he was associate editor for short periods of time for Broom, Cessation, and New Republic (1929-1944); he translated numerous books from the French; and he edited numerous works, most notably The Portable Faulkner (1946), which, more than any other factor, is credited with reviving Faulkner’s work for the reading public and paving the way for him to publish more, to receive the Nobel Prize, and to become one of America’s most prominent authors. From 1956 to 1959 and from 1962 to 1965, he was President of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He also published three books of poetry—Blue Juniata (1929), The Dry Season (1941), and Blue Juniata: Collected Poems (1968). He is a man whose experience and accomplishments, one being to live past eighty, entitle him to educate others about what it is like to be old and to offer octogenarians some sage advice.

The View from 80 continues to offer anecdotes and appraisals of patterns that Cowley has established as his style. For example, he tells when an individual realizes he or she is old—the signs are subtle. He recalls the near-collision he had several years ago in a parking lot. When the irate driver of the other car saw him, he immediately cooled down and said, “Why, you’re an old man.” Then there was the time a young woman got up and offered him her seat on a crowded bus. While he declined her offer, he accepted a similar offer the next year, “though with a sense of having diminished myself.” So how do we start growing old? “We start by growing old in other people’s eyes, then slowly we come to share their judgment.” With this pronouncement is the implication that the casual judgment is more harsh than anger or outright condemnation, and this view characterizes a strong part of the book: that of challenging old-age stereotypes.

What are the signs of growing old, of entering the “country of age”? The body sends some messages on occasion. For example, “You are old” when the bones ache, when more little bottles of medicine crowd the medicine cabinet, when year by year the feet seem farther from the hands, or when a man “can’t stand on one leg and has trouble pulling on his pants.” More sadly, a person becomes old when “a pretty girl passes him in the street and he...

(The entire section is 2743 words.)