Authors: Robert Cantwell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American prose writer and editor

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Laugh and Lie Down, 1931

The Land of Plenty, 1934

Short Fiction:

“Hang by My Thumbs,” 1929

“Never Mind,” 1931

Nonfiction:

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The American Years, 1948

Alexander Wilson: Naturalist and Pioneer, 1961

The Real McCoy: The Life and Times of Norman Selby, 1971

The Hidden Northwest, 1972

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Famous American Men of Letters, 1956

Edited Texts:

The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell: An Anthology, 1951

The Charterhouse of Parma, 1955 (of Stendhal; Lady Mary Loyd, translator)

Biography

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.{$I[A]Cantwell, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cantwell, Robert}{$I[tim]1908;Cantwell, Robert}

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 oppressed workers on strike in a northwestern lumber-mill town, the United States was anything but a land of opportunity.

From 1935 to 1944, Cantwell enjoyed an association with publications established by Henry Luce and his associates. He wrote book reviews for Time and articles on special assignment for Life and Fortune. He traveled to California on occasion to cover the aftermath of the 1934 general strike of San Francisco for The New Republic. He announced plans for a novel about the strike to be called “The Enchanted City” but never wrote it. In 1944, after a nervous breakdown, he retreated for five years to a small farm he had purchased near Sherman, Connecticut. He freelanced for The New York Times Book Review and other outlets and started what he hoped would be a two-volume biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The startling thesis of the first volume, Nathaniel Hawthorne: The American Years, is that Hawthorne was a government spy. The book was deservedly ridiculed by Hawthorne specialists, and Cantwell abandoned plans for a follow-up volume. He became book review editor for Newsweek (1949-1954), edited works of fiction by others for republication, and placed in first-class journals several splendid essays of his own on such major American writers as Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. However, as with his third novel, his announced “Poets and Killers,” a book about contemporary writers, came to naught. What he did put together was Famous American Men of Letters, aimed at juvenile readers.

Returning to Time and Life, Cantwell produced some of his most joyful essays. He was soon contributor, consultant, and senior editor (1957-1978) for its newly launched Sports Illustrated. His dozens of eclectic essays for it contain his sharpest prose and deal with birds, animals, rivers, the wilderness, gambling, crime, traveling and camping, and chess–often displaying careful research.

From such pieces came Cantwell’s three best books. A 1956 article grew into Alexander Wilson, a glowing biography of the wilderness-loving Scot who began in 1791, before James Audubon, to paint American birds and who eventually produced his pioneering American Ornithology (1808-1814). The Real McCoy, beginning as a 1970 biographical sketch, details the life of Norman Selby, also known as Kid McCoy, the welterweight champion prizefighter cheapened by Broadway and Hollywood exploitation but now immortalized in the phrase “the real McCoy.” Finally, out of several articles on environmental issues emerged The Hidden Northwest, Cantwell’s stirring, brooding, disorganized masterpiece. It treats early explorers, both tough and dreamy, in the regions now comprising Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia; explodes erroneous myths about the Northwest; traces its often deplorable political history; discusses several of Cantwell’s forebears; contrasts the peaceful spirit of the region and exploiters of its resources, including rivers, trees, and salmon; and summarizes works by several travel writers dealing with what Cantwell regarded as a unique and still partly misunderstood section of the United States and Canada.

Cantwell’s last years were sad. His wife died. He married Allison Semmes Joy in 1974, but they divorced three years later. He married Eva Stolz in 1978 but died five weeks later. Like his beloved Northwest, Cantwell was too complex for adequate definition. Many events in his personal life must have tortured him. His politics were convoluted. His writings cover a bewildering range of topics, handled in the captivating styles of a prose master. He remains a challenging, finally enigmatic figure, often failing but nonetheless the author of works meriting serious attention.

BibliographyConroy, Jack. “Robert Cantwell’s Land of Plenty.” In Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. Expertly examines Cantwell’s premier novel.Cowley, Malcolm. The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930’s. New York: Viking, 1980. Includes anecdotes about Cantwell’s sometimes naïve political rebelliousness.Lewis, Merrill. Robert Cantwell. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1985. Sketches Cantwell’s life, analyzes his varied writings, emphasizes his western works, and contains an extensive primary bibliography.Pells, Richard H. Radical Visions and American Dreams: Cultural and Social Thought in the Depression Years. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. Places Cantwell’s protest writings in context.Rideout, Walter R. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. Discusses proletarian novels of the 1930’s, including Cantwell’s.
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