And I Worked at the Writer's Trade
In a recent speech at a Modern Language Association meeting, Malcolm Cowley referred to himself as an unpaid national literary resource. No doubt he has become tired of reporters and writers of dissertations making demands on his time, but where else is there to turn? Simply by outliving all of his major contemporaries, he has become, like it or not, the dean of the Lost Generation—though he has come to deplore that term. He contends that the generation preceding Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner was far more lost and tragic than the writers and artists who grew up during World War I. (Incidentally, Cowley now prefers the term “World War I generation” to “Lost Generation.”)
Be that as it may, Cowley has become the leading authority on the literary situation of his times, and students of contemporary letters, especially fiction, should be properly grateful for the many essays, reviews, and books he has written during a long career at the writer’s trade. His list of books includes such well-known titles as Exile’s Return, his study of the postwar expatriates; After the Genteel Tradition; The Faulkner-Cowley File; and A Second Flowering, a study of the later careers of the Lost Generation. Cowley writes with grace, intelligence, and quiet humor (there does not seem to be a pedantic bone in his body), and his books are always enhanced by his intimate knowledge of his subjects, to say nothing of his compassion for the often messy lives of his writers. Not only did he know such figures as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Dos Passos well, but from the start he displayed an insatiable curiosity about their works and lives—as his use of his letters and journals later revealed. Since he was based in New York and Connecticut, however, his knowledge of, say, Southern or Western writers seems limited, and his “histories” of the contemporary literary situation are slightly unbalanced, tilting quite naturally to the writers he first knew at Harvard or met later when he was an editor of The New Republic. For example, the only Southern writers he knew well were Conrad Aiken, Allen Tate, his wife Caroline Gordan, and, later, of course, William Faulkner. This does not keep him from writing sympathetically of such novelists as Erskine Caldwell—but he is not as likely to write about writers here that he has not met and known in New York or Connecticut.
—And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade is a difficult book to classify, but it is an easy one to read and enjoy. As are all his books, this one is informative and interesting, revealing on every page a consuming passion for the American letters of his time. Cowley’s subtitle, “Chapters of a Literary History, 1918-1978,” suggests more of a unity than the book has, for it is really partly memoir and partly literary criticism. (A number of the essays have appeared before as introductions to books he has edited or as magazine pieces that have appeared in the last two decades.) Certainly the author would not claim this as a definitive literary history of the period, though he touches on everything from the impact of World War I on the Lost Generation to the love children of the 1960’s. Though he devotes a chapter to Faulkner and Hemingway, he has little to say of such giants as Eliot and Fitzgerald, devoting most of his space to minor writers he has known or admired. (There is even an informal history of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, of which he was president for a number of years.)
Perhaps a quote from the Foreword can best suggest the author’s aim:These are chapters of literary history written at intervals over the last twenty years, though dealing with a longer period. I call them chapters, rather than essays, because they tell parts of a continued story and because each of them presents what I have learned about a particular situation or problem in the lives of American writers since the First World War. I was one of the writers, beset with the same problems as others, so the book tells part of my own story too.
Perhaps the autobiographical part of the book can be disposed of first—though the writer weaves his own life and experiences into all of the chapters. Malcolm Cowley is eighty years old now, and it is natural that much of his latest book concerns itself with more than a backward look at his career as a writer—primarily as a literary historian—though he began as a poet and reviewer. But even in the personal chapters, since he knew intimately and corresponded with so many important writers, he is constantly throwing fresh light on his contemporaries, as well as on himself.
Without attempting a full-fledged memoir, Cowley traces his development as a man of letters from his undergraduate years at Harvard, his first marriage, and his precarious life in New York supporting himself as a free-lance reviewer for the Saturday Review and the New York Times. Later came two years in Paris on a fellowship, where he met the expatriates of his Exile’s Return. Back in New York and still struggling and poor, he eventually became an editor for The New Republic, where he had opportunity to meet (and...
(The entire section is 2125 words.)