While Malcolm Cowley’s career as a critic, literary historian, and poet is well-known and highly regarded, one element of his long career remains relatively unexplored. He was a prolific correspondent—his letters reflect not only his personality but his discerning judgments about what he termed “the literary situation.” A selection of his correspondence with his great friend Kenneth Burke has been published, as well as the bulk of his letters to William Faulkner, but very little else. The dozen letters and the reader’s report that follow suggest the quality of his editorial views and the clarity with which he expressed them.
Cowley’s most notable works include his collection of poetry. Blue Juniata: A Life, Exile’s Return, The Faulkner-Cowley File, A Second Flowering, And I Worked At the Writer’s Trade, The Dream of the Golden Mountains, and The Flower and the Leaf.
After holding the position of literary editor of The New Republic during the thirties and forties (he succeeded Edmund Wilson), he became associated with the Viking Press, where he edited The Portable Hemingway (1944), The Portable Faulkner (1946), and The Portable Hawthorne (1948).
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In 1938 Edmund Wilson wrote Cowley an angry letter accusing him of being a mouthpiece for the Soviets in his articles for The New Republic. He took Cowley to task not only for his defense of leftist causes, but in particular for his praise of Hemingway’s recently published To Have and Have Not, which Wilson referred to as Hemingway’s ‘Popeye-The-Sailor-Man” novel.
RFD Gaylordsville, Conn.
October 31, 1938
I hate letters and would much rather do my explaining or berating face to face —that’s why I wrote a couple of months ago that I was anxious to talk things out with you. But once I set out to write a letter, it will have to be a long one. . . .
I agree with you that I ought to get out of politics and back to literature. We ought to all do that —and it’s a course I want to urge on you very seriously. I don’t lay claim to much political talent. But yours —my God —is a minus quantity, for the simple reason that politics is based on the activities of groups, and you have always congenitally mistrusted and at times completely misunderstood group activities. And when political convictions lead you to accusing me of being bribed or blackmailed by the C[ommunist] P[arty]—well, it’s time to stop and think whether the whole business shouldn’t be chucked overboard.