Malcolm Cowley was born on August 24, 1898, in the small farming village of Belsano in the Allegheny hills east of Pittsburgh. His father, William Cowley, was a homeopathic physician who maintained his office in a building in an older section of Pittsburgh. The family rented an apartment in the same building, so Cowley grew up in an urban business neighborhood with few children for companionship. The Cowley summer house in Belsano had been left to William Cowley by the poet’s grandmother, and it was there that Cowley’s mother, Josephine (Hutmacher) Cowley, took her only child to spend the summers while her husband worked in Pittsburgh. The farm community of Belsano and Cowley’s experiences there during the long summers had a profound impact on his life and poetry. He was never comfortable in urban environments. Cowley’s childhood was, like that of many writers, one of periodic solitude and long hours spent alone reading and imagining. Though he received most of his early schooling in Pittsburgh, Cowley was most comfortable in the farming community of Belsano.
He entered Harvard College in 1915 on a scholarship from the Harvard Club of Pittsburgh. There he made several important literary friendships, some of them with older poets such as S. Foster Damon, Conrad Aiken, and E. E. Cummings. These friends, themselves innovators in the modern poetry movement, introduced Cowley to the work of the nineteenth century French Symbolists and to older New England poets such as Edwin Arlington Robinson and Amy Lowell, who was then a proponent of Imagism.
In the spring of 1917, Cowley volunteered for the American Field Service in France, and he served, like other Harvard writers such as Cummings, John Dos Passos, and Robert Hillyer, as part of the earliest group of Americans to see the battlefronts of World War I. Cowley drove a munitions truck for the French army for six months, then returned to New York, where he lived for several months in Greenwich Village waiting to return to college. While living a life of poverty and writing some poetry and book reviews to survive, he met and later married an older artist, Marguerite Frances “Peggy” Baird, who was a confirmed bohemian painter divorced from her first husband, the New York poet Orrick Johns. Peggy Baird introduced Cowley to many older Greenwich Village artists, as well as to Clarence Britten, then literary editor of The Dial, who gave Cowley books for review and indirectly initiated his career in literary journalism.
Cowley returned to Harvard in September, 1919, and graduated in the winter of 1920 after another absence spent in Army ROTC training. He had been elected president of The Harvard Advocate in the spring of 1918 and spent his last two college terms working to keep alive what little literary life there was at Harvard during the war years.
After college, Cowley returned to Greenwich Village, where he and Peggy lived a bohemian life again in a cheap tenement while Cowley worked as a copywriter for Sweet’s Architectural Catalogue. He continued to do some freelance book reviewing and wrote poems and essays for magazines.
In July, 1921, Cowley went to France for two years. There he studied at the University of Montpellier and lived for short periods in Claude Monet’s village of Giverney outside Paris. In Paris, his New York friend Matthew Josephson introduced him to the French Dadaist and Surrealist writers and painters, and Cowley met most of the American expatriate writers who had gone to Europe after World War I to escape the conservative, sometimes reactionary political, aesthetic, and social ideas dominating American culture in the postwar years. In France, Cowley also worked as an editor and writer for two of the most famous “little magazines” of the expatriates in those years, Broom and Secession . Although most of the American expatriates absorbed a good deal of the social, political, and aesthetic ideas of the modern European avant-garde art movement, Cowley...
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