Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When Malcolm Cowley’s study of expatriate American writers of the 1920’s, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920’s, was published in 1934, it was attacked by established reviewers not only because of its contention that the so-called lost generation was worthy of serious critical attention but also because Cowley at that time was identified with the American Communist movement, although he never actually joined the Communist Party. Cowley sees 1930—the year that concludes Exile’s Return—as “a watershed between two ages,” and in The Dream of the Golden Mountains he writes of his activities in the 1930’s, when economic chaos in the United States and the rise of Fascism in Europe led Cowley and other writers to believe that “great changes would surely take place; they must take place, and . . . it was our duty as writers to take part in them.” Because this book was not completed until 1979, it both reflects the attitudes of the 1930’s and places them in a wider historical context. Cowley recognizes that many who joined the Communist movement in the 1930’s have explained their disillusionment with it, but very few have explained why they joined the movement in the first place and what they hoped to accomplish. This book is Cowley’s explanation. In it, although he acknowledges that he had doubts and reservations even as he was part of the movement, he evokes above all the genuine desire to effect radical change that motivated him and his comrades.

The twenty-six chapters, arranged in chronological order beginning in 1929 (when Cowley went to work for The New Republic) and ending in 1937 (when the stock market crashed again, the Spanish Civil War was beginning, and news of the purges in the Soviet Union was reaching the West), trace literary, political, and personal events. The first eight chapters describe Cowley’s growing sympathy with the suffering and bewilderment of Americans during the first two years of the Depression. At the same time, an era in his personal life drew to a close with his divorce from his first wife, Peggy Baird Johns, and the suicide of his close friend Hart Crane, the American poet who wrote The Bridge (1930). Cowley observes that he, like many others at the time, wanted both an intellectual and an emotional means of understanding the apparent collapse of the American economy and of doing something about it. Marxism seemed to provide an intellectual analysis, showing that the breakdown of the capitalist system was an inevitable part of...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)