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Malcolm Cowley

Born here in 1898, Cowley became an influential literary critic, editor, poet, and historian after World War I. He chronicles the "Lost Generation" in Exiles Return, his most famous work. Blue Juniata, a book of verse, celebrates this region. He was Chancellor of the American Academy of Arts & Letters, 1966-1976. He died in Sherman, Conn. in 1989.


 

(The Washington Post, March 29, 1989)
Malcolm Cowley, Critic, Dies
Associated Press

NEW MILFORD, Conn.-Writer and literary critic Malcolm Cowley, who was one of the post-World War I "Lost Generation" group of authors that included Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, died yesterday at age 90.

Cowley died at New Milford Hospital shortly after suffering an apparent heart attack at his home in nearby Sherman, hospital officials said.

Cowley, a former editor at The New Republic magazine, belonged to the group of American expatriates in Paris, including Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound, that Gertrude Stein dubbed the "Lost Generation" in the 1920s.

He is credited with being among the first to recognize the brilliance of those writers and with rescuing William Faulkner from obscurity.

"Cowley was a living bridge, both in his genial person and his engaging, shrewd criticism, with the generation that was young in the twenties," author John Updike said in a statement from his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf in New York.

"His reactions to and perceptions of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and [John] Dos Passos are invaluable," Updike said. "He was an energetic and gregarious man who lived the life of the mind with gusto and good nature."

Born on Aug. 24, 1898, in Belsano, Pa., Cowley attended Harvard University from 1915 to 1917, when he joined the American Ambulance Service in France. He reenrolled in Harvard in 1918 and graduated cum laude in 1920.

While a student, he began contributing book reviews to the New Republic and The Dial magazines.

Cowley won a fellowship to study literature in France in 1921-22 and again ther following year, allowing him to hobnob with America's young expatriate writers. He returned to the United States in 1923.

At the encouragement of his friend Hart Crane, he compiled  a book of his poems. The book, Blue Juniata, published in 1929, was enthusiastically received.

Nineteen other poems dealing with his alienated generation were later collected in The Dry Season, published in 1941.

In 1929, Cowley became literary editor of The New Republic. Among those he encouraged as writers was John Cheever.

While at The New Republic, Cowley published the book for which he was best known, Exile's Return: A Narrative of Ideas, in 1934. The book dealt with writers of the 1920s who tried to pursue alternative life styles.

Some consider his most valuable contribution to be his editing of The Portable Faulkner in 1945, which saved Faulkner from obscurity.

"He did that at a time when Faulkner's books were still not selling," said Cleanth Brooks, professor emeritus of rhetoric at Yale University and an eminent Faulkner scholar. "I date Cowley's, 'Portable Faulkner' and Robert Penn Warren's review on 'The Portable Faulkner' as the things that really brought Faulkner into prominence. After that very shortly came the Nobel Prize" for Faulkner.

In 1956, Cowley published his 18-year correspondence with Faulkner. In 1967, he produced a collection of his essays and reviews from The New Republic and other periodicals. He published a A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation, in 1973.

Cowley is survived by his wife, Muriel; a son, Robert, of New York; four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


(Country Journal, October 1983)
Malcolm Cowley: Countryman
By Robert Cowley
In an interview with his son, the renowned editor and author reflects on a lifetime in the country

At times I have difficulty associating my father, Malcolm Cowley, with his most famous book, Exiles Return (1934), his account of American writers in the 1920s. I'm glad to find that it has acquired something of a classic status, but I'm far prouder of the fact that some of his best work-And I Worked at the Writer's Trade, The View from 80, and The Dream of the Golden Mountains-was written in the last few years. It can't have been easy. He was eighty-five this past summer.

Chalk one tip for country living. My father and my mother--she recently turned eighty-one--own 7 acres in Sherman, Connecticut, a village some 70 miles north of New York City. We came there in the summer of 1936, when a trip to the metropolis and back was not just an excursion you made each weekend but an adventure. As a child growing up in New England, I found the great divide was still this: are you a native or not? Though I was hardly two, and though I might live in Sherman for the rest of my life, I could never hope to attain that distinction. My family were considered outsiders, doomed to be "city people" forever.

It has been a long time since Sherman was one of those Ethan Frome places where old folk lingered at the end of a remote road with a cow, a few chickens, and a presumed burden of memories. Perhaps the town never was like that; certainly it hasn't been in my lifetime. But there was another Sherman that has disappeared, something of a self-sufficient arcadia. My father will point out his study window at the long hill that crowds the western horizon and recall that six sawmills were once in operation on it. Today, you can stumble on packs of wild dogs up there. The roadside platforms with their early-morning freight of heavy metal milk cans are gone: about twenty years ago, the big dairies announced that farmers must store milk for pickup in expensive glass-lined tanks holding 10,000 gallons. It was a requirement that immediately wiped out all smaller dairy farms in the town.

If Sherman has managed to preserve some of its rural character, my father is partly responsible. I don't think that is too much to say. As chairman of the zoning board for twenty years, he tried to keep Sherman from surrendering to the patternless subdivisions and garish commercial sprawl that have spoiled so much of the American landscape. From an airplane you can see the result: the suburbs actually end and the country begins at the south end of town.

In 1968, when he turned seventy, my father retired from the zoning board. That was the year when his collection of poems, Blue Juniata, appeared, and one night he gave a reading for the town. Then came a surprise. He was presented with a silver plate engraved with the words:

TO MALCOLM COWLEY
In grateful recognition of many
years of service
to the town of Sherman

"I was a native now," he told me, "but it had taken a long time." You might say that the process of becoming one is what the following discussion is all about--beginning in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century.

ROBERT COWLEY: I find it somehow fitting that you, of all people, were born in the country. You arrived in the summer of the Spanish-American War, didn't you?

MALCOLM COWLEY: Yes, I was born August 24, 1898, in a farmhouse near Belsano, Pennsylvania. The town was 70 miles from Pittsburgh, where my father was a doctor.

That first experience with the country was almost your last, as I remember.

My mother was alone because my father had been summoned down to Norfolk, Virginia, where his younger brother was supposed to be dying of camp fever. He recovered. So Mother, alone in the big house except for my Aunt Margaret-virgin and slightly crippled-was in labor for two days. Tanny, as we called my aunt, became so terrified that she shut herself in a closet. Finally, my mother's moans attracted somebody passing on the road in a horse and buggy--there was no telephone at the time. He drove to the nearest mining camp and came back with the company doctor, who arrived during a thunderstorm and saved two lives.

There's something I've long meant to ask. What is your earliest memory?

Oh, my earliest memory is being brought in to my grandmother, who was deaf and used an ear trumpet. She was sick in the parlor, which was the room I had been born in. She died when I was four.

But for the rest, the earliest memory would be the first time I wandered off into the woods and found the Vinton Lumber Company had just Cut our big timber. The woods were all covered with peeled hemlock logs.

In one of your poems you describe "the woods cut twenty years ago for tanbark/and then burned over, so the great charred trunks/lay crisscross, wreathed in briars . . . ." I take it that the countryside was being ravaged even then.

Even then. And more then. In my earliest childhood there were still great tracts of first-growth hemlock and beech and maple-some of the loveliest woods I've ever seen. The Vinton people got in there with a logging railroad we called "the stumpdodger." At the foot of our hill a train with six carloads of logs would go down every afternoon, until finally the whole area was logged clean.

But the coal mines hadn't sulfur-poisoned the streams yet, at least not near us. The streams were still full of fish. I spent all my time barefoot, going fishing. I would go barefoot from the middle of May until the middle of October, when we went back to Pittsburgh. At the end I would have to walk a mile to school in my bare feet over frozen ground. I still remember that.

You seem to have been left alone a good deal of the time.

I was a fortunate child in that I was moderately neglected. It meant that I could run as wild as a weaned colt in an unfenced pasture. I would disappear from the house after breakfast-or sometimes without breakfast-go into the woods, and be gone all day. I came to feel that the countryside belonged to me and that I belonged to the countryside.

For someone growing up in rural America around the turn of the century, how was life different? Was there something special about it?

Well, there was something really special. In the first place, poverty. Real poverty in that area. In the second place, people ate what they could produce. Potatoes went into the root cellar. Apples were gathered, pressed into cider, and the cider boiled down into apple butter, which would stand on the shelves in the pantry. They even had flour ground from their own wheat. They'd have a cow and a couple of pigs. In the fall you'd hear the pigs being killed by having their throats cut, their terrible wails going over the whole country. But by the end of the winter people actually didn't have enough to eat. And they would have lots of children. I pity those farm wives. The farm wives didn't wear shoes, except on Sunday. They had bare feet, huge slabs of bare feet like slabs of bacon, and usually wore calico dresses. It was all truly primitive and truly a household economy.

What do you think were the best things about the country when you were growing up?

Absolute freedom was the best thing--I mean, for a boy. There was hardly a No Trespass sign in the whole of Cambria County. You could go anywhere your legs would carry you--or, if you had a horse as I did, you could go anyplace the horse would carry you. You could go into anybody's woods and hunt, you could go into any stream and fish; you could wander over old fields anywhere. The only rule was you had to be home for supper.

So, freedom was the first thing -- that sort of scope and possibility. And the second was self-dependence. If you wanted to live well, you had to live well on food you grew yourself.

Do you think we've lost that sense of freedom?

Yes, that is something in the past of this country that has disappeared. I watch children being brought up --including you, you know-- and they aren't allowed to do dozens of things that I was allowed to. Your mother wouldn't let you disappear in the woods for the day.

I think it's even more constricting for kids now than it was for me.

It's much more. Starting out when they're three years old, in nursery school, they have to learn a form of communal living. We're always rubbing elbows with people now.

How has the end of that limitless freedom you once knew affected American life in general?

That is a thought that is very hard to develop. But the increasing lack of freedom has most certainly produced a mass instinct by which any sort of new fad will spread all over the country and everybody will become affected by it-- and then suddenly the fad will disappear. It's the same way with political reactions, when suddenly the country changes its mood and our whole government is actually overturned. The development of the "mass man" is one of the most threatening things that happening to us. Of course, the most threatening is the destruction of natural resources. The land itself, the air, the water. Minerals. Everything is being used up.

Let's go back to Belsano for one more moment. How has it changed since you were a boy?

One thing is the road. With the road being widened and surfaced, the houses all stand within ten feet of it. There is no more of this business of barefoot boys scuffling in the dust of the road or hanging around the porch of the general store. The creeks have turned yellow with sulfuric acid from the mines--though I hear that some of the streams have been cleaned up. All the big timber is gone. The fields are overgrown; there are hardly any fields left any more.

What happened to the house where you were born?

That was a terrible thing. It was taken over for a roadhouse. The big room where I was born was the barroom. In the summer of 1968 I went in there and had a beer. Then I drove on without looking back.

You started coming to Connecticut in the mid-1920s. What attracted you here to Sherman?

Sherman filled a sort of pattern in my mind. If you take American literary history, the pattern is Concord: somewhere that is a couple of hours from the metropolis and yet out in the midst of fields. Sherman was like Belsano, only not so poor. You could live here in quite a primitive fashion. Most of my friends were--you might call them Thoreauvians. When the writer Slater Brown was beginning to remodel his farmhouse, old Charlie Jennings, from whom he had bought it, came over to watch the work. "Well, Mr. Brown," he finally said, "I'm glad to see you ain't putting in one of them bathrooms. I always said they was a passing fancy."

What did Sherman look like when you first saw it?

The main road in the valley was not paved. It ran through very prosperous farms, lush tobacco and cornfields. The hills in back were pastured so that the woods you see now were not woods at all. It was a little vision of Arcadia. Connecticut was almost all farmland in those days. Sherman was all farmland.

Move ahead to 1936. You'd been living in New York City for five years when you decided to settle in Sherman for good. The way you managed it still seems unbelievable.

I was determined to live in the country, so I kept looking for a place up here. Peter [the artist Peter Blume], who had a house for a rent of $10 a month, said that there was an empty barn across the road, and why didn't I buy that? Finances became an obstacle. I had in the bank $300. So here is the how-to recipe that nobody could carry out today.

My secretary offered to lend me $1,000 without making a record of it. So I accepted that loan. I paid $1,300 for the old barn and seven acres, and then I had an equity. On this equity of $1,300 I could at the time borrow $6,500 from the local bank, and with that we could set out to rebuild the barn into this house. But houses always cost more than you think they should: I had to take out a second mortgage of $1,600 from a generous woman in New Milford, Connecticut. Then the house was still unheated, so to buy a furnace and radiators. I made a further loan of $1,300 from another bank. In a little more than six months, I ended up with a house, a cornfield, a briar patch, a trout stream, and an enormous aggregation of debts. Figured out, it came to about $10,800 in all, on my original investment of $300. Credit was so cheap at that time. Just imagine having a 5 1/2-per-cent mortgage today.

Well, you got your wish, but what about Mother? She'd spent her whole life in the city.

There was one time when the three of us were driving to New York. We came to the state line, and Muriel said, "Rob, never forget that you were born in New York City."

I take it, then, that life in the country was hard on Mother at first.

It was unnecessarily hard. She came to the house one summer and said, "I can't stand it any longer. I was crossing the bridge and I saw a rat as big as a small dog." "How did you know it was a rat?" I asked her. "It had a bare tall." And I said, "That was a possum." But she still didn't like it.

Another time she had to put up the bars at the gateway to keep cows from getting in, and she had laid the bars down by the side in the grass, but the grass was really poison ivy. Well, she knew poison ivy after that.

Slowly she became adjusted to the country. Now she finds trouble readjusting herself to New York. But she never learned to share my idea of subsistence living. I could never tempt her into chickens.

How did a place like Sherman take to newcomers in those days? It was still very much an old New England town, isolated and self-sufficient.

When strangers moved in from the city, they were not greeted warmly, but neither were they greeted with the hostility that they met with in some places. The senior Mrs. Osborn said to Muriel [Mrs. Cowley] at the meat counter of the old village store, "Oh, the city people. I don't mind them as long as they don't try to help me. "Later, Mrs. Osborn was asked about a newcomer to Sherman. She said with distaste, "She's the friendly type."

Oh, those wonderful New England remarks. Old Mrs. Edmonds was talking about her daughter, and Muriel said, "She had a hard time having her baby, didn't she?" Mrs. Edmonds, still ironing, said "She thought she did."

I remember, as a boy, how people in this town always seemed to look after one another. Do they still?

They don't because they don't know one another as well. For a long time they did, though. If a barn burned down, there was immediately a benefit held for the farmer who'd lost it. If a farmer was sick at harvest time, the other farmers would pitch in to get his harvest in.

That sounds quite different from Belsano eighty years ago.

Yes, it was. Sherman had much more community spirit. In Belsano, nobody ever went up the back roads to see whether families had enough to eat during the winter, which they didn't. Here the town would take care of destitute people. The first selectman would give them an order for groceries.

How do you account for the difference?

It's something in the whole New England system which settled towns. A town was built around a church, and a church was a community of the faithful. Politics, the town government, and the town meeting pulled everybody together. For people who were thought of as belonging to the community, there was always that helpfulness in New England. I think much more than in Pennsylvania. Tremendously more than in the South.

What are the biggest changes you've witnessed since you moved here permanently in 1936?

Farms going out of business, in the first place. There may have been forty in Sherman that year; at present there are three. Fields that used to be pastures become overgrown, first with brush and then with trees. Not with good trees. Other farms have been subdivided. The whole kind has gone into a mixture of subdivision and scrub forest. The great problem besides the decline of farming is just keeping the land open. Once the land grows up into scrub forest, there are no more views. People come to New England for the views, and then they use up the farmland and there are no more views. There are more woods in New England now than there were fifty years ago.

I believe they call the phenomenon "woodland sprawl." Do you ever envision all that scrubland being made into field again?

Yes, I do, but it's one of the dreams I have to shove aside. As the pressure for food grows, I can imagine whole suburban developments being bulldozed down and turned back to farmland.

What about the people who choose country life now-have they changed, too?

They're not so homogeneous as they used to be. These days you get so many executive types who move from one part of the country to another that the sale of a house isn't permanent any longer. It will have to be sold again when the owner is moved to California. Or Texas. But there are also social divisions arising between white collar and blue collar. We have some very serious ruckuses over taxes and zoning. All this results in less social cohesion.

Zoning has always been a touchy subject here.

I feel that zoning is often carried too far. You know, when I was head of the zoning commission in Sherman I had a simple formula for suggesting what the regulations should be. I drove around town and asked what people were doing. Anything they had been doing for years was legal. For example, Edna Barnes had a rooming house tip on Barnes Hill. I said, "How many roomers has she?" Somebody said six. So the regulations permitted rooming houses with not more than six roomers. The zoning law passed and didn't meet with a great deal of resistance.

Do you think people go overboard in an attempt to protect the environment?

You can't go overboard in actually, protecting the environment. But it ought to be that people can earn their livings in the town. I also find myself on the side of those who want to hunt and fish--especially when it comes to controlling two terrible pests. One is deer, and the other is raccoons. Now, in a farming community deer and raccoons are both kept within reasonable limits. But the suburbanites who don't have any gardens come in and say, "Aren't the deer sweet? People should be forbidden to hunt them"-forgetting that people as well as deer and raccoons have to live in the area. A sort of balance of nature should be maintained, and that's where environmentalists are likely to go too far.

You cited the fights over zoning--and I know you would add stringent protection of the environment--as manifestations of class division in towns like Sherman. Do you feet that the country has become too much the province of the well-to-do?

That is a big question. The people who have enough to live on are really in a way walled off from the people who haven't enough to live on. I don't like that at all. What I would like is a community that is more or less self-contained, a community where the things you need are many of them produced right there. Instead, milk comes from the outside. Most vegetables come from the outside. It seems to me that all the food we eat must taste a little bit of diesel fuel.

Is it still possible for young people without money to live in the country?

It is still possible. It is more difficult. There are no great careers open here--a career, for example, in literature. You have to be in much closer touch with the metropolitan center. And it's the same with people earning their money in any way as freelances. Even lawyers. For doctors, the country is a sort of paradise.
But there are many ways of making a marginal living. A young couple can come out and live by doing odd jobs, which is impossible in the city. That is, if you don't have silly ideas of pride. I know a man of forty and his wife, who started out mowing lawns and doing painting jobs. He ended up by first buying a house and then having another house willed to him by a widow whose grounds he had been taking care of. So that now lie is much better off than the people whose lawns he still mows.

If it's tough being young in the country, what are the problems of aging?

One of the great problems is expense. It costs a lot, especially if you can't drive a car any longer and have to find drivers. Or somebody to help around the house, somebody to take care of the grounds when you can't run machinery any longer. Nevertheless, you have a feeling of support. You're living in a community that knows you. To take one little example, the cars don't run you down as you pick your way across the road with a cane. Or when your wife goes shopping at the local IGA supermarket, she runs into people who know her and help her with her bundles out to the car.

How do you handle the winters?

You have to handle them by getting help. But if you have fuel enough, and your house is snug, then you can live as comfortably in Connecticut as you can in Florida.

Is it your impression that people who live in the country are getting older?

They indeed are, and that is the trouble.

How are places like Sherman trying to cope with that fact?

The little towns of New England are showing enterprise in taking care of their older people. They have "Over-60" centers, for example, or mini-bus service to their shopping centers, so that life does become easier. But we feel here in Sherman--or many people feel--the lack of small and limited housing for older people. One condominium for "Over-60s" woould help a great deal. That's one of the points where conflict arises between the suburbanites and the longer-time residents. The suburbanites don't want any condominiums in town.

Talking about all these problems, I wonder if we're beginning to lose sight of the advantages of living in the country. What are they?

Air, water, and trees. And outside of that there is a certain largeness and leisure of life. Leisure, or the choice of what you're going to do on any given day--that doesn't exist in the city.

What are the things that have made you happiest about living in the country?

I don't know. Sometimes going out of the house and looking at the fields or the garden and seeing how it's growing has made me as happy as anything else. And, of course, I was crazy about fishing when I was younger. That combines the joy of walking with the sound of running water and the thrill of catching a fish. You can still find places to fish, although there are too damn many No Trespass signs. But after you become old enough you can disregard the No Trespass signs because you know the people on the land.

Do you think that living in the country has made you a better writer?

In some respects, because it has made me more conscious of things. I like a "thingy" style, not an abstract style. Sometimes when I read writing full of abstractions I stop and say, "Now, what the hell does he mean?" When you read something I write you know damn well what I mean. The language is simple, and the figures of speech have to do with actual objects, persons, and animals.

I used to go wandering off into the woods, and after an hour or so I would begin thinking or dreaming or reconstructing something I wanted to write. The most grievous blow to my writing came when my legs went bad on me and I couldn't "walk" an article any longer.

Do you think Americans sometimes oversentimentalize living in the country?

It doesn't seem so to me. Of course, anybody can oversentimentalize anything. I can't emphasize too much the beauty of growing old in the same place that you were young in, with people you've known for half a
century. That is something that Americans often lack.

ROBERT COWLEY is an editor at Random House. He is writing a book about the World War I western front.


 

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