Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932
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 drawn sketches that evoke something essential about already well-known figures: F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda (“ghosts . . . both frozen in the moment when they met at the governor’s ball”), Theodore Dreiser (“he spoke . . . with an uncalculating candor that gave him a large sort of bumbling dignity”), Richard Wright (a “gentle-voiced young Negro from Mississippi with only a grade-school education . . . friendly, unassuming, immensely gifted”), and John Crowe Ransom (he carved a country ham “with the air of performing a sacrament”).
Cowley best explains his motives and judgments, however, when he writes of the moments of contact between his personal sensibility and historical events. Cowley sees the 1930’s as the period of closest connection between society at large and literature in American history, and his firsthand accounts of such events as the coal miners’ strike in Harlan County, Kentucky, the American Writers’ Congress, and the debacle of a dinner honoring novelist Sinclair Lewis in the hope of inducing him to join the movement demonstrate clearly how uneasy was the balance between idealism and pragmatism for Cowley himself and for the entire American Left. With the memoirist’s privilege of hindsight, he shows both the courage and commitment of those who went to Kentucky and were beaten for their efforts to aid the miners, and the fact that no Writers’ Committee ever aided a strike that the workers won. Similarly, he shows the tension between maintaining ideological purity and turning out a large crowd at the Writers’ Congress, and the foredoomed dream of bringing Nobel laureate Lewis into the fold. In more philosophical terms, Cowley finally concludes that although revolutionary belief can strengthen a writer, it can also weaken him or her by giving “what seemed to be noble motives for concealing part of the truth.”
If the movement seemed a kind of religion, it was a faith that saw the world in either/or terms: Either one accepted Communism and the Soviet Union or one was on the side of the Fascists; either one marched in the May Day parades, or one favored the imperialists over the workers. If, in hindsight, Cowley himself realizes the fatally simplistic nature of this view, he also sees himself as having tried to choose the humane, just alternatives during a time when history moved so quickly that no one seemed quite able to keep up with it. Although the last chapter reports “the fading of a dream” and Cowley’s decision to move from New York to a Connecticut farmhouse, separated from the movement, he never denounces the dream or denies its essential nobility.
Although the specifics of the 1930’s are always the foreground of this work, Cowley’s unobtrusive commentary from the perspective of the late 1970’s enriches and broadens the discussion so that it becomes of interest not only as information about the 1930’s but also as insight into the nature of religious movements and the roles of individual people in historical events. Maintaining a delicate balance between attachment and detachment, Cowley suggests that human nature consists of nobility and venality in varying proportions, with noble motives at times corrupted by expedient means, and with noble means at times ineffective in reaching their ends. Although he answers his specific question—why so many writers of his generation were attracted to the leftist movement—he leaves open the larger, unanswerable question of why idealistic commitment so often degenerates into narrow-minded repressiveness or obsession with bureaucratic trivia.
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