Robert Emmett Cantwell was an immensely talented writer, but too many interests prevented his focusing his literary energies and hence making a permanent name for himself. His parents’ background and his childhood and early youth combined to give him a pioneering, nonconformist spirit, a love of literature, and a desire to help the underdog and the courageous.
One of Cantwell’s great-grandfathers helped lead a wagon train over the Oregon Trail in 1844-1845 to the Puget Sound region, where he built prosperous mills and was appointed by the Washington Territory governor as a treaty-making Indian agent. One of Cantwell’s grandfathers served in the Union army during and after the Civil War, founded Little Falls, and died in 1912. Cantwell’s father was a school principal and then a lumberman, often moved the family, and became a mill-town manager. Cantwell’s mother, once evidently a schoolteacher, encouraged Robert as a young teenager to be a local newspaper correspondent. He enrolled in 1924 at the University of Washington, Seattle, and wrote for the school magazine but left in 1925 when his father fell ill. For the next four years, he combined hard work for a nearby plywood company, sign painting and selling advertisements in Arizona and Texas, intense reading (mainly works by Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, Karl Marx, and Leo Tolstoy) and skillful early writing.
Placing “Hang by My Thumbs,” about a confused, sensitive youth, in an anthology of short stories inspired Cantwell to borrow one hundred dollars and move to New York City, where he published a few more stories and obtained a contract, with an advance of five hundred dollars, to write his first novel, Laugh and Lie Down, which describes restless young people in a mill town in Washington State. It received encouraging reviews. In 1931 Cantwell married Mary Elizabeth Chambers of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; they were to have three daughters. Cantwell soon placed essays, articles, and reviews—either admiring or angry—in prestigious periodicals such as Vanity Fair and The New Republic and became a staff writer for the latter. In addition to more stories, he wrote The Land of Plenty, a protest novel. Its ironic title suggests that for its main characters, who are...
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