Cowley’s Return

I don’t read Bookforum very often. I should really remedy this, especially if their articles are all as good as Doubleday editor Gerald’s Howard’s essay about The Long Voyage, the new collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters edited by Hans Bak. Cowley, like Edmund Wilson, Maxwell Perkins, and Harold Ober, was a man who shaped the early- to mid-2oth century American literary scene even when he wasn’t in America. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he helped shape this scene precisely because he got out of America for a little while. Howard writes:

Gertrude Stein gave the American writers who flocked to Paris in the ’20s their indelible tag, “the Lost Generation,” but it was Malcolm Cowley who first gave his cohort its enduring narrative of rebellious escape from, and chastened return to, America in Exile’s Return (1934), a memoir and generational “collective novel” that beat Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to the punch by three decades. We take the near-mythic saga and achievements of this generation for granted today, but as Cowley writes in his elegiac retrospective chronicle and portrait gallery, A Second Flowering, his memoir was “howled down by older reviewers [who] ridiculed the notion that the men of the 1920s had special characteristics and that their adventures in Paris were a story worth telling.”

Had writing his literary memoirs been Cowley’s sole accomplishment, his letters would be worth reading. But Cowley did much more than write criticism and biography, including editing The New Republic, though this part of his career was tainted by his failure to side with the Trotskyites against the Stalinists in the battle for the future of Marxism. His most important contribution though was championing authors who might otherwise have remained obscure, Faulkner and Kerouac chief among these. It isn’t overstating the case to say that without Malcolm Cowley, William Faulkner wouldn’t have won the 1949 Nobel Prize. And without this award, Faulkner might have been forced to spend the rest of his life tinkering on Hollywood scripts to scrape together enough money to put out a novel here and there that would shortly go out of print. Cowley’s 1946 Portable Faulkner is one of the ten most important books of American fiction because it uses an author’s own works to make a case for his greatness. That’s the power of good editing, and even Faulkner himself was shocked by Cowley’s achievement.

Cowley is also responsible for On the Road getting published by Viking in 1957. It’s fashionable among some academics and writers to dismiss Kerouac (Capote famously called him a “typist”), but On the Road might very well be another of the ten most significant works of American fiction because it’s so threatening to middle-class domesticity. It reminds us (warns us?) that there are always people living on the fringes of American respectability who are just as smart and a hell of a lot more interesting than those living the lives they’ve been told they should. It provokes righteous indignation in older readers because it’s simultaneously naive and true: we have choices when it comes to how we lead our lives, and ultimately our regret-fueled misery is of our own making because we care too much about what other people think. It’s this disdain for respectability that connects Faulkner and Kerouac, making Cowley’s attraction to both writers less unlikely than it might at first seem.

So if you have an erudite wo/man of letters on your Christmas shopping list, you could do much worse than to buy s/h(e)im an 850-page volume of letters written by a man who changed American literary history for the better.

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