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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.

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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 a large historical process and not a random disaster. Leninism provided a complementary emotional direction, leading to the “essentially . . . religious experience” of subordinating petty selfish concerns and ambitions to the great cause of bringing about an economic, political, and cultural revolution that would culminate in rule by the workers.

In the second section (chapters 9 through 16) Cowley shows how the painful, violent experiences of Americans in the Depression years before the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt affected him and other intellectuals of the American Left. He witnessed the despair of veterans who had participated in the “Bonus Army” encampments in Washington, D.C., as they passed through Johnstown, Pennsylvania, having been driven out of Washington by tear gas and fire wielded by the troops of General Douglas MacArthur, under orders from President Herbert Hoover. He attended the National Hunger March on Washington in December, 1932, and observed how the bank failures throughout the winter of 1932-1933 deepened the despair of not only workers but also farmers and middle-class citizens. All these events, and many others like them, seemed evidence that the American system could not survive. A Fascist takeover seemed a real possibility—Adolf Hitler was on the rise in Germany—and intellectuals on the Left, regarding revolution as inevitable, feared that “Germany, not Russia, has traced the path which we seem destined to follow if the crisis continues or recurs.” The choice seemed to be between socialism and Fascism; even Roosevelt seemed to be merely perpetuating the old order, and thus few New York writers of the Left participated in the shaping of the New Deal. Ideological purity forbade any compromise with movements that were less than radical.

While the Depression was at its worst, however, young writers and artists were joining John Reed clubs throughout the country, dedicating themselves to creating art that would spread revolutionary ideals. Such plays as Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (1935), such magazines as Partisan Review and Dynamo, and many poster campaigns, poems, and pamphlets on proletarian and revolutionary themes were part of “an amazing burst of cultural activity” with which Cowley sympathized but which he also saw as aesthetically limited by ideological commitments.

After marching with the John Reed Club in the 1933 May Day parade, Cowley spent the summer in Tennessee, working on Exile’s Return and hearing the arguments of the Southern Agrarians, among them critic and poet Allen Tate (who had arranged for Cowley’s retreat), as well as the poets John Crowe Ransom, John Gould Fletcher, and Robert Penn Warren. Although their vision of an ideal agricultural society attracted Cowley, he could not reconcile that vision with the realities of slavery, sharecropping, and limited scope for intellectual talents on the land.

Cowley returns to his main themes in the last nine chapters, which show how the efforts of the Communist movement to embrace rather than exclude other liberal and socialist groups in a common “People’s Front” to oppose Fascism brought about a “brief era of good feeling” during which revolutionary communism was deemphasized. Within this political context, Cowley, always the sympathetic but somewhat detached observer, supported the fresh critical insights of those who applied Marxism to literature but believed that “proletarian literature” was more often stultifying than liberating, showing too great a willingness to “renounce the art of making patterns out of words for the easier task of writing cautionary tales and artless sermons.” The realities of Joseph Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union and the growing certainty that the United States would go to war against Germany, along with the New Deal’s success in dampening revolutionary fervor in the United States, caused bickering and stresses within the American Communist movement that marked the end of the confident comradeship Cowley had found in it.

The Dream of the Golden Mountains

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There is a mercifully protective mechanism that operates with the passage of time to erase gradually, for most, the agonies of pain or other suffering. They remain as a memory, but they are slowly replaced by more pleasant recollections. This is an important factor in one’s nostalgia for what is now perceived as less complex and in some ways more rewarding times. For many of those who passed through the Depression years as adults, the background memory is of hard times; but the overriding memories evoke a certain simplicity, a slower pace, an atmosphere of neighborliness and concern for one another: “We got by. It wasn’t all bad.” For those who passed through it as children, it is a memory of a quiet time, of simple amusements, of penny candy, of empty or idle buildings the adventurous might explore, of persons pointed out as bootleggers, or of gaunt suntanned men coming to the back door and offering to split wood in return for a meal. To those who have come after, it is an era not to be subjectively comprehended and it partakes of myth.

Those who remember the Depression clearly, as it really was, as a time when the capitalist system collapsed and the driving energy of the past seemed incapable of recovery, are few. Equally few are those who saw it not only as a local struggle but also as an overwhelming human catastrophe, national and international in scope. Malcolm Cowley is one of them. Although he writes from the standpoint of one deeply involved in the literary world, his position provided him with a unique opportunity to observe and participate; he was continuously aware of broader contexts and he does not neglect them.

Cowley opens his account with an assessment of himself in 1929, when he joined The New Republic three weeks before Wall Street met disaster and America’s economic structure began to disintegrate. He characterizes the philosophy, policies, and milieu of that important liberal journal, a vantage point in which he served as an editor throughout the Depression and beyond. He establishes that he was then separated from his first wife, who later became involved with his friend, the poet Hart Crane; all three remained friendly but with Crane’s death, Cowley resolutely closed a door upon that period of his life and plunged into the literary and political events of the time.

This preamble is deceptive. Cowley tells the reader in his introduction that he began the book as a sequel to his earlier Exile’s Return, and that it changed in the writing as he pursued it off and on during the 1930’s, becoming an account of turbulence, of struggle, of a dream that he and others shared. The change is an abrupt one and occurs as Cowley turns his back on former relationships. From this point on, the rush of events engulfs the reader.

The Dream of the Golden Mountains is an outstanding memoir, but it transcends the genre and becomes a gripping personal history of a time. That it excels both as memoir and as history is due to Cowley’s intellectual temperament: whatever his sympathies he was able to maintain a relatively objective view of what occurred. He espoused and supported the dream of a world wherein everyone could work happily and productively, a world free of periodic economic collapse followed by seasons of desperation and hunger. Yet, his was still a questioning mind; he could see the violence and ruthlessness incipient in zealots, and he never embraced the movement blindly. Thus, he never became fully committed; he did not join the Communist Party and it did not really want him. He categorizes himself as a fellow traveler. At no point does Cowley underplay his sympathies, but his is nevertheless a reasoned and well balanced account.

As he begins with the onset of economic depression in 1929, so Cowley ends with the first real beginnings of economic recovery that coincided with civil war in Spain and with the first premonitory rumblings of World War II. Within this framework, he examines, from the standpoint of one intimately involved, those liberal intellectuals—and there were many—who responded to the times by turning to radical solutions. The phenomenon of any movement, and of its attraction, is rooted in areas of mass psychology that are often exploited but are seldom understood; Cowley is at some pains to explain this concept and his analysis is persuasive. To these people, a civilization, a system, had failed utterly and was irretrievably dead. Moreover, it was not without its faults. They embraced a new faith that promised them a new and better world. It could not be achieved without struggle and sacrifice, but as comrades they could win it together. It has been stated many times that there is nothing so compelling, or so irresistible, as an idea whose time has come. For many intellectuals the idea was Communism, and the time for it was at hand.

Cowley sees the leftward shift as essentially a religious experience. This argument, repellent as it may be to those who are both anti-Communist and conventionally religious, is nevertheless perceptive. There is essentially very little difference between religious fundamentalism and political fundamentalism, aside from variations in the deities they choose to enshrine. The scriptures may vary but the emotional response is often identical. Group psychology works with equal effectiveness in both: the converts are imbued with a sense of mission, a concept of self-sacrifice and group effort, a conviction that those who are not with them are against them, and the over-whelming vision of a better world to come—a world that they themselves will help to build, and for which they alone possess the key. These are often positive characteristics, but there is always a contrasting darker side that follows in their wake. Fundamentalism requires total commitment: unswerving obedience to doctrine, willing acceptance of intellectual rigidity, and implied or actual ruthlessness toward anything that does not accept it without question. Cowley offers his opinion that if the crash had occurred at some earlier period in American history there would have been a great outpouring of revival meetings. As it was, another kind of salvation offered itself instead.

Cowley provides many glimpses—and, occasionally, brief portraits—of the influential writers and other figures of the time; but they are not examined in isolation. They merely surface now and then in the ferment of activity. The reader takes part in marches, hears doctrine debated, attends rallies, sits through countless committee meetings, and attends the first American Writers’ Conference. Readers witness the brutal treatment accorded the Bonus Army and explore the John Reed Clubs. Also, as so often happens, those who considered themselves the heirs of all the ages lose whatever opportunities they may have had by bickering with one another. National and world events are interwoven with these experiences: President Herbert Hoover attempts to solve the nation’s economic problems and fails because he believes that if the wealthy are protected they will share, when in fact conditions are so extreme that the wealthy can only try to protect themselves. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at times betraying symptoms of desperation, adopts every program that may promise improvement; he continues those that seem effective and allows the others to die out. As the economy improves, the radical influence fades accordingly.

George Santayana remarked that those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it, and various cyclical theories have enjoyed a certain popularity. Human nature being what it is, history does repeat itself but always with infinite variations; there are cycles, but, although there may be similarities, each cycle is always new. This is why forecasting and prophecy are such risky business: there are too many variables. All the same, in looking backward one always encounters the uncomfortably familiar. This is one of the more fascinating aspects of The Dream of the Golden Mountains, and it lends Cowley’s work much of its sense of immediacy.

The radical movement of the 1930’s was echoed, or repeated itself, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. This time it was not in response to crippling economic depression. It was, in large part, the response to an unpopular war and at the same time protested a capitalism that was perceived to be based purely on a war economy. It was a decided movement toward the left and although largely confined to intellectual circles, did not attempt to organize the workers; its major efforts were concentrated upon the student population and upon a corresponding nonacademic age group instead. The movement was supported to some extent by a news media suddenly conscious of its enormous influence as an opinion-molding force and dipping its toes experimentally in the waters of power. It was further encouraged by many of the clergy and judiciary and by many elected representatives of the people. Yet, once again, the idea whose time had come was rejected by the general public.

Another echo, tantalizingly familiar, is that of Hoover’s efforts, once again being tried in an effort to stimulate industry—an effort referred to as the “trickle down” theory. Certainly, the experiment did not work for Hoover. This is another cycle, however, and the slump of today is by no means the Depression of the 1930’s. Various experiments will be carried out; some will work, others will not. In any case, the history of this particular cycle will not really parallel that of any other.

There are ironies in The Dream of the Golden Mountains, many of them implied rather than stated. One is that liberal intellectuals, who prided themselves on independent thought and conscious elitism, would embrace the dictatorship of the proletariat: a moment’s sober reflection would make it clear that any such dictatorship is actually that of the person or persons who organize—and thereby manipulate—the proletariat and who presume to speak for it. It is safe to say these people saw themselves as workers only in the sense that they were workers for a cause and that their real intent was to guide and indoctrinate those for whom they felt compassion and to whom they felt superior. Like all idealists, they saw only the splendor of their goal: such specters as the purge, the concentration camp, or the interrogation cell never rose to haunt them.

Of these people and their more recent inheritors, it is evident that in the majority of cases their motives were benign and even noble. Cowley makes this clear; so does common experience. The desire for a better life is admirable; moreover, it is universal. The lesson, if there is one, is that idealism impairs the critical faculty and that zealotry destroys it altogether.

Another irony is one that calls attention to the metamorphosis of terminology. During the 1930’s, a redneck was a Communist; today, the term denotes a reactionary. It is seldom indeed that the new meaning of a word is the exact opposite of its original definition.

It is interesting to note, as readers follow Cowley’s account into its closing chapters, that the native independence of a great many writers reasserted itself. They became disenchanted with the rigidities of fundamentalism, and abandoned the movement accordingly. Their sociopolitical convictions may not have altered, but they needed to have minds and lives of their own. A further point of interest is that then, as later, revolution was for the young. There are always aging revolutionaries, but they are in a sense anachronisms; maturity seems to eliminate the revolutionary impulse.

Cowley has given several reasons why the radical movement of the 1930’s did not succeed, and others have found equally well-reasoned explanations for later failures. There is one further point upon which they do not dwell, but it may be more significant. It is simple inertia, often misinterpreted as apathy. Human inertia is perhaps another protective device, equivalent to that which erases pain. If this be true, it may well work to one’s advantage; for without it, people would tear themselves to pieces in response to every conflicting rallying cry. There could be no stability and without some form of stability, survival would not be possible. Change is inevitable but it is perhaps beneficial that people are, in the mass, defended by a slow response mechanism.

Malcolm Cowley has given the reader an unusually compelling, evocative, and vivid re-creation of the Depression era as he knew it. He has at the same time given a comprehensive view of the literary movement in which he participated. Few writers have examined their own ideologies and philosophies as carefully and honestly as Cowley. He was by nature, and in spite of his sympathies, something of an outsider; there is the hint that he still harbors a sense of rejection, but that very rejection has made him a more competent and trustworthy observer.

The Dream of the Golden Mountains is more than a splendid memoir. It is a major contribution to our knowledge of the Depression years and to the literary history of America.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 103

Alter, Robert. “The Travels of Malcolm Cowley,” in Commentary. LXX (August, 1980), pp. 33-40.

Brown, Maxine. “The Thirties Revisited,” in The Virginia Quarterly Review. LVII (Winter, 1981), pp. 168-175.

Hook, Sidney. “Disremembering the Thirties,” in The American Scholar. XLIX (Fall, 1980), pp. 556-560.

Kazin, Alfred. “Writers in the Radical Years,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXV (March 23, 1980), p. 7.

Lasch, Christopher. “Alienation a la Mode,” in The Nation. CCXXXI (July 5, 1980), pp. 21-22.

Lewis, R. W. B. Review in The New Republic. CLXXXII (March 15, 1980), pp. 28-30.

Simpson, Lewis P. “Cowley’s Odyssey: Literature and Faith in the Thirties,” in The Sewanee Review. LXXXIX (Fall, 1981), pp. 520-539.

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