Ever since the Red scares of the 1950’s ruined so many artists’ lives, members of the literary and intellectual Left in the United States have been understandably wary of acknowledging or discussing their support of the Communist movement. Those who have written about their participation have generally emphasized how and why they came to reject and abhor communism (as in, for example, The God That Failed: Six Studies in Communism, 1950) and have taken pains to insist that they were ignorant of the true nature of the Communist movement until some moment of insight brought about their deconversion. Cowley separates himself from that apostate tradition, while at the same time remaining as skeptical of the narrowness of party dogma as he was in the 1930’s. Thus, his work represents an effort to move beyond the passions of the moment and to explain without either apologizing or condemning.
In his major studies of American literature, such as Exile’s Return and A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), Cowley explores the characteristics of literary movements or generations, seeking to trace the ways writers change and are changed by the literary and cultural circumstances in which they work. In The Dream of the Golden Mountains, Cowley extends the range of his interests beyond the purely literary to include the political, economic, and social conditions under which he and his compatriots worked in the 1930’s. Thus, although all of his work is in some ways more than literary criticism, this book shows perhaps the greatest range and depth of any of Cowley’s writings. From his vantage point at the center of American literary life, he has both shaped and explained the leftist intellectual tradition in the United States.