Malcolm Cowley (KOW-lee) is best known as the contemporary chronicler of the generation of American writers, mostly male, who matured during World War I and achieved fame during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Cowley was born in Belsano, Pennsylvania, a village south of Pittsburgh, in 1898, the son of physician William Cowley and his wife, Josephine. Malcolm attended school in Pittsburgh and developed a lifelong friendship with writer and critic Kenneth Burke when they attended the same high school.
In 1915, Cowley entered Harvard University and stayed there until 1917, when he went to France to serve in the American Ambulance Service but actually drove a munitions truck. He returned to the United States and attended Harvard University for the spring term of 1918 but again left to enter the Army until the armistice ended World War I. At that time, Cowley moved to Greenwich Village, where he tried to support himself by writing book reviews for a penny a word. He married Marguerite Bairds, and they both returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard Phi Beta Kappa in the winter of 1920.
Between 1921 and 1923, Cowley received an American Field Service Fellowship that allowed him to study for a year at the University of Montpellier and to live a second year at Giverny, fifty miles south of Paris, where he was able to meet both American and English expatriate writers and French artists he called “the Dada crowd” (later “the Surrealist crowd”). He also earned extra money from editorial work for, and contributions to, American and French magazines, especially Secession and Broom.
Cowley returned to the United States in the summer of 1923 and worked for Sweet’s Architectural Catalogue, but he soon gave that up to do freelance writing and translations from the French. He was also working on semiautobiographical poetry that traced his mental and emotional development. This poetry, published in 1929 as Blue Juniata, was well received critically and launched Cowley on his career as a man of letters.
Only a week before the stock market crash of 1929, Edmund Wilson chose Cowley as his replacement as literary editor of The New Republic, a position Cowley held for almost twenty years. This job decisively affected his career: It shifted his focus from poetry to prose and defined the style and length of his essays, which first appeared in the journal. (Many years later, they were collected...
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