The Dream of the Golden Mountains Critical Essays

Malcolm Cowley


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The theme of Cowley’s memoir is, above all, an idealistic and optimistic response to a cultural crisis:American society, and business society all over the world, and the trade of writing had all been stumbling downhill since the Wall Street crash. . . . But there was hope. . . . By surrendering their middle-class identities, by joining the workers in an idealized army, writers might help to overthrow “the system” and might go marching with comrades, shoulder to shoulder, out of injustice and illogic into the golden mountains.

Such a lofty vision, Cowley knows, cannot survive forever in the world of reality. Yet his emphasis—for all the clearheaded descriptions of dull meetings, shifting directives from Moscow, and lack of revolutionary fervor among the workers themselves—remains on the loftiness of the vision, the genuine belief that “comes the revolution” peace, justice, and plenty would abound. To join the movement was above all a religious act, a commitment to qualities not found in amoral, materialistic bourgeois society:. . . the comradeship in struggle, the self-imposed discipline, the ultimate purpose . . . , the opportunity for heroism, and the human dignity. Communism offered at least the possibility of being reborn into a new life.

To Cowley in 1932, the old life of the 1920’s seemed “inexcusably wasteful of time and emotions.” Instead, he writes, “I wanted to write honestly, I wanted to do my share in building a just society, and it did not occur to me that those last two aims, both admirable in themselves, might come into conflict.” Yet it was the language of “the movement,” and the Communist Party’s insistence on total obedience, that kept Cowley from applying for party membership in 1932, and by the time the party had loosened its ideological criteria for membership in 1935, Cowley’s doubts had gone beyond the literary.

By continually juxtaposing the dream and the reality, the faith and the doubt, Cowley does justice not only to the complexity of his own experience of the 1930’s but also to that of many other literary and intellectual figures. He presents them as neither heroes nor villains, emphasizing the mood of searching and questioning that seemed dominant. He also includes brief, sharply...

(The entire section is 932 words.)