Malcolm Cowley Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

ph_0111207624-Cowley.jpg Malcolm Cowley Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Although Malcolm Cowley (KOW-lee) began his literary career as a poet and remained a practicing poet, critic of poetry, and adviser to scores of American poets for most of his more than sixty-year career, his literary reputation derives chiefly from his prose works, which include literary criticism and literary and cultural history as well as numerous essays and book reviews written for newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. Many of Cowley’s critical essays are considered to be seminal studies of major American poets and novelists, such as Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. In addition, Cowley’s major works of literary and cultural history, including Exile’s Return (1934, 1951), The Literary Situation (1954), A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade (1978), and The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930’s (1980), have served as primary sources of information about the intellectual, social, political, and historical events and issues that shaped the aesthetic practices and the social and political beliefs of modern American writers. Cowley’s published books range from pioneering translations of important novels and essays by French writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s, such as Paul Valéry and André Gide, to editions of the works of several of America’s classic nineteenth century writers, such as Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. His publications also include a volume analyzing the intellectual history of modern Western civilization, Books That Changed Our Minds (1939; with Bernard Smith), and a historical study of the African slave trade, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865 (1962; with Daniel Pratt Mannix).

Cowley edited anthologies of several of his contemporaries, editions that significantly contributed to expanding their audience and to establishing their literary reputations. The most notable of these are The Portable Hemingway (1944), The Portable Faulkner (1946), The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1951), and Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1953; with Edmund Wilson).

Cowley’s literary journalism has been partially collected in two volumes, Think Back on Us: A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930’s (1967) and A Many-Windowed House: Collected Essays on American Writers and American Writing (1970). The only portion of Cowley’s literary correspondence (most of which is housed in Chicago’s Newberry Library) that has been published is a volume of letters, with explanatory narration, between Cowley and William Faulkner regarding their eighteen-year friendship, The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962 (1966).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Malcolm Cowley was formally honored by the American cultural and educational community relatively late in his career. His fellow writers honored him early and continuously, however, by both public recognition and private expression. Because a significant portion of his work is concerned with the writer in the modern world, Cowley was an acknowledged leader and spokesperson for the American literary community for fifty years. Consequently, many of Cowley’s honors were bestowed for his service to the profession of letters as much as for his individual achievements as a poet and writer.

In 1921, Cowley was granted an American Field Service Fellowship permitting him to spend two years in France studying at the University of Montpellier, an experience that was crucial in exposing him to the revolutionary ideas and practices of modern artists in France. In 1927, he received the Levinson Prize for poetry. In 1939, Poetry magazine awarded him the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize. In 1946, he received a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1967, the newly created National Endowment for the Arts gave Cowley a ten-thousand-dollar award in recognition of his service to American letters. The Modern Language Association of America awarded Cowley its Hubbel Medal in 1978 for services to American literature. In 1980, And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade earned for Cowley the National Book Award in the paperback autobiography category.

Cowley was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in the early 1950’s, and the institute membership shortly thereafter honored him by twice electing him president, from 1956 to 1959 and from 1962 to 1965. Cowley was also elected to the senior body of the National Institute, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he served as chancellor of that body from 1967 to 1977. These tenures were periods in which Cowley helped to supervise the creation and granting of a number of prizes and monetary awards to scores of writers both for individual works of literature and for contributions to literature over entire careers. For more than forty years, Cowley also served as an adviser, director, and vice president of Yaddo, the...

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Aldridge, John W. In Search of Heresy: American Literature in an Age of Conformity. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956. These ten essays derive chiefly from the Christian Gauss lectures delivered by Aldridge at Princeton University in 1954. They lament boldly the tendency toward orthodoxy, and consequently mediocrity, in the literary sphere. One chapter, “The Question of Malcolm Cowley,” appraises the role of Cowley in the shaping of the literature. The criticism is perceptive and stimulating.

Bak, Hans. Malcolm Cowley: The Formative Years. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. Bak focuses on Cowley’s formative years and draws on personal interviews conducted shortly before Cowley’s death as well as published and unpublished writings to trace the unfolding of his thinking and influence.

Burke, Kenneth, and Malcolm Cowley. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981. Edited by Jay Paul. New York: Viking Press, 1988. This collection is a must for those who want to understand the development of Cowley’s thought and critical opinions. Provides a lively narrative and a historical dialogue between two lifelong friends. The editing is masterful. The literary theories and social criticism of both Cowley and Burke are vividly accounted for. The early letters are particularly interesting.

Cowley, Malcolm. “A Conversation with Malcolm Cowley.” Interview by Diane U....

(The entire section is 635 words.)