Authors: Malcolm Cowley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic

Author Works


Exile’s Return, 1934 (revised as Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920’s, 1951)

The Literary Situation, 1954

Writers at Work: The “Paris Review” Interviews, 1958

Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865, 1962 (with Daniel Pratt Mannix)

The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962, 1966

Think Back on Us: A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930’s, 1967

A Many-Windowed House: Collected Essays on American Writers and American Writing, 1970

The Lesson of the Masters, 1971

A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation, 1973

And I Worked the Writer’s Trade, 1978

The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930’s, 1980 (memoir)

The View from Eighty, 1980 (memoir)

The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941, 1985

The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981, 1988

New England Writers and Writing, 1996 (Donald W. Faulkner, editor)


Blue Juniata, 1929

The Dry Season, 1941

Blue Juniata: Collected Poems, 1968

Blue Juniata, a Life: Collected and New Poems, 1985


On Board the Morning Star, 1925 (of Pierre MacOrlan’s novel À Bord de l’Étoile Matutine)

Joan of Arc, 1926 (of Joseph Delteil’s biography La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc)

Variety, 1927 (of volume 1 of Paul Valéry’s essay collection Variété)

Catherine-Paris, 1928 (of Marthe Bibesco’s novel)

The Green Parrot, 1929 (of Bibesco’s novel Le Perroquet vert)

The Count’s Ball, 1929 (of Raymond Radiguet’s novel Le Bal du comte d’Orgel)

Imaginary Interviews, 1944 (of André Gide’s essay collection Interviews imaginaires)

Leonardo, Poe, Mallarmé, 1972 (with James R. Lawler; volume 8 of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry)

Edited Texts:

After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers Since 1910, 1936, revised 1964

Books That Changed Our Minds, 1939 (with Bernard Smith)

The Portable Hemingway, 1944

The Portable Faulkner, 1946

The Portable Hawthorne, 1948

The Complete Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 1948

The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1951

Tender Is the Night, 1951 (by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Great Tales of the Deep South, 1955

Leaves of Grass, the First (1855) Edition, 1959 (by Walt Whitman)

Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age, 1966 (with Robert Crowley)

The Lessons of the Masters: An Anthology of the Novel from Cervantes to Hemingway, 1971 (with Howard E. Hugo)


The Portable Malcolm Cowley, 1990


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.{$I[AN]9810001271}{$I[A]Cowley, Malcolm}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cowley, Malcolm}{$I[tim]1898;Cowley, Malcolm}

Malcolm Cowley

(Library of Congress)

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 in Think Back on Us, A Many-Windowed House, and The Flower and the Leaf.) It also gave him a perspective on writing as a craft as well as an art, and on publishing as a trade. Cowley’s personal life changed dramatically as well. In 1932, he was divorced from his first wife and married Muriel Maurer, with whom he had one child. They purchased a small farm in Sherman, Connecticut, where they settled. There, Cowley was able to pursue and write about the avocations he liked best: gardening, fishing, and hunting.

During the early years of the Depression, Cowley became a political radical who supported a variety of leftist causes and adopted a Marxist perspective, which shaped his first and most famous extended work of criticism, Exile’s Return. In this work, Cowley comments on writers of his own generation who rebelled against American society first through exile and art and later by returning to their own country and committing their art to the tasks of social reconstruction. In the revised edition, Cowley modified this interpretation somewhat and adds a chapter on important writers he had not previously covered. Nevertheless, it remains the most important and most characteristic of Cowley’s books because it introduced his abiding interests in literary generations and in the historical study of the relation of art and artists to society. When it was first published in 1934, the book received praise from youthful but unimportant critics and damnation from older, established ones. As a result of this criticism, Cowley did not write another critical study for twenty years.

Cowley, however, left a record of his life in the 1930’s in his memoir The Dream of the Golden Mountains. Aside from his work for The New Republic, Cowley was one of many intellectuals and artists who actively supported socialist and antifascist causes. Like many intellectuals, by the end of that decade Cowley had become disillusioned with politics and had withdrawn into his literary work. Unfortunately, leftist connections caused Cowley trouble in later years, including an attack by the Dies Committee which forced his resignation from a government job with the Office of Facts and Figures in 1942.

In the 1940’s, Cowley renewed his interest in writers of his own generation. His introduction to The Portable Faulkner rescued the work of future Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner from obscurity by explaining and praising the totality of his literary output. A later work, The Faulkner-Cowley File, collects the correspondence of these two men and includes the letters that Cowley used to write the introduction. After Cowley gave up his position at The New Yorker, he became an editor for Viking Press. He was also a visiting lecturer in various colleges and universities. In these positions he was able to encourage and help talented young writers such as Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey. It was not until after the Korean War that Cowley wrote another book-length study, The Literary Situation, about the post-World War II generation of writers.

After he turned seventy, Cowley reached his peak of literary productivity. He returned to his own literary generation–to Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Faulkner in A Second Flowering and to minor figures such as Conrad Aiken and S. Foster Damon in And I Worked the Writer’s Trade. Later still, he published two volumes of memoirs, The Dream of the Golden Mountains and The View from Eighty, a delightfully written discussion about the life of an active octogenarian. Cowley’s earliest ambition was to be a person who could write well in several forms. Although he is best known for his literary criticism, there is no doubt that he made significant contributions to all the forms he attempted. Cowley died of a heart attack in March, 1989.

BibliographyAldridge, 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.Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the Nineteen Twenties. New York: Viking Press, 1951. This autobiography presents Cowley’s own account of his role in the expatriate movement of the 1920’s. Defines and explains the “lost generation” and is an energetic, witty, sometimes touching account of the ideas that dominated the period. Provides engaging portraits of Cowley’s fellow writers: John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others.Cowley, Malcolm. “Last of the ‘Lost Generation.’” Interview by Peter Gambaccini. Yankee, March 3, 1983, 92-93, 123-130. Cowley is interviewed at his home in Sherman, Connecticut. The chatty dialogue provides a sketchy biography, especially the growth of Cowley’s reputation as a critic, and provides vivid reminiscences of Hart Crane, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.Dolan, Marc. Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-reading of “The Lost Generation.” West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1996. A study of the “lost generation” that locates autobiographical works by Cowley, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the context of their contemporaries and within an understanding of modernism.Eisenberg, Diane U. “A Conversation with Malcolm Cowley.” Southern Review 15 (Spring, 1979): 288-299. This essay is a verbatim recording of an interview of Cowley in dialogue form by the compiler of Malcolm Cowley: A Checklist of His Writings, 1916-1973. What emerges are Cowley’s impressions of the craft of writing and his recollections of his literary associates.Gambaccini, Peter. “Last of the ‘Lost Generation.’” Yankee, March 3, 1983, 92-93, 123-130. Cowley is interviewed at his home in Sherman, Connecticut. The chatty dialogue provides a sketchy biography, especially the growth of Cowley’s reputation as a critic, and provides vivid reminiscences of Hart Crane, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway.Hoffman, Frederick. The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade. New York: Viking Press, 1955. A work of solid literary scholarship, a penetrating analysis of the literary flowering that occurred during the 1920’s. Provides, in addition to helpful literary criticism, a stimulating account of the cultural and social history. The essay on Cowley shows his role in the arena of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, and Hart Crane.Jay, Paul, ed. The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981. 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.Kempf, James Michael. The Early Career of Malcolm Cowley: A Humanist Among the Moderns. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. This study in six chapters, limited to Cowley’s formative years at Harvard, in Greenwich Village, and in Paris, is an effort to correct earlier misrepresentations of the critic’s influence and opinions. Provides a substantial basis for an evaluation of Cowley’s whole career. The best chapters detail Cowley’s postwar years in France.Simpson, Lewis P. “Malcolm Cowley and the American Writer.” Sewanee Review 84 (Spring, 1976): 220-247. Reprinted in Simpson, The Brazen Face of History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. One of the very best essays on Cowley, this article is a very readable substantial examination of Cowley’s writings, particularly Exile’s Return and A Second Flowering. Provides a perceptive and searching commentary on the “poetics of exile” and on the “pragmatics of the writer’s life,” noting that Cowley’s most graphic images are those of loneliness and showing how the basic motive of alienation runs through all of his work.
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