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Cowley, Malcolm

COWLEY, MALCOLM

Malcolm Cowley (August 24, 1898–March 28, 1989) was a critic, editor, and literary historian, and the preeminent chronicler of the 1920s literary generation. Born in western Pennsylvania, Cowley grew up in Pittsburgh with a number of future literary figures, including his lifelong friend, the critic Kenneth Burke. In 1915 Cowley matriculated in Harvard, where he associated with a literary circle that included Conrad Aiken and e. e. cummings. Despite being ranked second in his class, Cowley withdrew from Harvard to drive a munitions truck for the American Field Service in France and later served in the U.S. Army. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1920.

Cowley studied French literature at the University of Montpelier from 1921 to 1922. While there, he became friends with, among others, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and John Dos Passos. These were the key years described in his classic memoir Exile's Return (1934). Back in the United States, Cowley did various literary jobs and wrote for the little magazines of the day.

In 1929 Cowley became literary editor of the New Republic, the most powerful position of its type. As Cowley became more involved with editorial responsibilities and political activities, he became a leader in the political movement leftward of American writers. In 1935 he helped organize the League of American Writers and became its vice president. Cowley was sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin, but conspicuously never joined the American Communist Party. He justified the show trials, but quickly cut all Communist connections after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. After joining the Office of Facts and Figures in 1940, Cowley was attacked for his earlier radical positions and forced to resign.

Cowley made some of the great literary discoveries of his day, most notably John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry, and his championing of William Faulkner led to Faulkner's rediscovery.

After World War II, Cowley became an editor at Viking where he made some of the great literary discoveries of his day, most notably Jack Kerouac, John Cheever, and Ken Kesey, and successfully championed the republication of such neglected figures as William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman. In his own work, Cowley continued to mine the veins begun in Exile's Return in such autobiographical works as The Dream of the Golden Mountain: Remembering the 1930s (1980) and And I Worked at the Writer's Trade, and such critical works as After the Genteel Tradition (1964) and A Many-Windowed House (1970).

See Also: LITERATURE.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bak, Hans. Malcolm Cowley: The Formative Years. 1993.

Kempf, James Michael. The Early Career of Malcolm Cowley: A Humanist among the Moderns. 1985.

Young, Thomas Daniel, ed. Conversations with MalcolmCowley. 1986.

Mark C. Smith

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