Ink Chorus: Malcolm Cowley!
Our book today is The Portable Malcolm Cowley, a compendious volume from 1990 edited by Donald Faulkner that’s one of the best entries in the wonderful Viking Portable Library series not only because it brings together a treasure-pile of great stuff but also because, in Cowley’s case, that assemble stuff is the very essence of the Ink Chorus: Cowley wasn’t a marquee figure like Mark Twain or Leo Tolstoy – in the bustling world of the Republic of Letters, he was very much a librarian rather than a library, very much a subway operator rather than a destination. Unlike every other figure in the old Viking Portable line, he was foremost an editor, encourager, and critic – a background figure whose name back in the 1960s would have been as unfamiliar to the reading public at large as it was familiar to the literati.
Cowley was born in Pennsylvania in 1898 and enrolled at Harvard in 1915. He came and went from the college, leaving first to drive munitions trucks in France in 1917, then coming back, then leaving again to join the Army, then coming back, then leaving again to gad about Greenwich Village and fall in love, finally coming back and graduating in 1920. He studied in France in the early 1920s and there was infected with a love of French literature that would flare up intermittently throughout the rest of his life, even after he moved back to America and lived briefly on Staten Island, then as now considered something of the definitive cure for literary artsy-fartsiness. Eventually he moved to “a house in the country” in Upstate New York and from there to Sherman, Connecticut, where he could pursue his twin passions of gardening, for which he displayed a lifelong and somewhat charming ineptitude, and literary work, where he became a legend. He served as literary editor for The New Republic for decades, writing a weekly book column for nearly ten years, and in the late 1940s he became a literary advisor to the Viking Press and began masterminding such volumes as The Portable Hemingway, The Portable Hawthorne, and, in 1946, The Portable Faulkner, which did more than anything to renovate Faulkner’s literary reputation and install him in the American canon, from which neither time nor taste has yet been able to dislodge him.
Cowley thus was no meteor; he worked his way slowly into the jobs and roles he most wanted. In college, in France, in New York – his whole life, he had a knack for meeting accumulating literary people of all types, so that by the time he was nearing fifty, he was centrally positioned in the writing world, as Donald Faulkner points out:
This is the Cowley, a pathfinder, a shaper of American literature that we know. To say moreover that in the fifties and sixties he edited many books for Viking, translated extensively from the French, taught many of today’s remarkable writers in lectures and writing seminars at universities, and, too, that he wrote much of his finest poetry, is only to confirm what the latter half of Cowley’s life allowed him.
“It was as though he had waited for half of his life to do what he really wanted,” Faulkner continues, but in truth Cowley was doing some version or other of what he really wanted all along – as the immensely pleasing chronological sweep of this Portable volume shows pretty clearly. As Cowley wrote to his New Republic colleague Edmund Wilson, “Dig me down to bedrock and what you’d find there was just one thing I was really fanatical about – clear writing of the English language, that and saying exactly what I think when writing over my own signature.”
He certainly did that part about saying exactly what he thought when writing over his own signature; in fact, the only shortcoming of The Portable Malcolm Crowley is of course the inevitable limitation of printed books: there wasn’t space to include all those years of book reviews. But we have here all of his magnificent longer essays like “Hemingway at Midnight” and “Hemingway’s Wound,” or “Fitzgerald: The Romance of Money,” or his great 1948 essay “Hawthorne in Solitude,” in which he ruminates so thoughtfully about the contradictory nature of this American author he loved so much:
Sometimes he talked and wrote less like Flaubert than like the late George Apley – as when he refused to meet George Eliot because she was living with a man she couldn’t marry and when he refused to believe that any sculptor or painter was a genius unless he could portray nobility in coat and breeches. “I do not altogether see the necessity of ever sculpturing another nakedness,” he said in his notebook for 1858. “Man is no longer a naked animal; his clothes are as natural to him as his skin, and sculptors have no more right to undress than to flay him.”
This collection concludes with some of Cowley’s most bookish pieces, in including his 1958 essay “How Writers Write,” in which he canvasses virtually every major American literary figure on a whole range of topics relating to their creative process. In the course of the essay, he gets some choice quotes out of some of these figures, like William Styron:
The professional writers who dread writing, as many do, are usually those whose critical sense is not only strong but unsleeping, so that it won’t allow them to do even a first draft at top speed. They are in most cases the “bleeders” who write one sentence at a time, and can’t write it until the sentence before has been revised. William Styron, one of the bleeders, is asked if he enjoys writing. “I certainly don’t,” he says. “I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.”
Or James Thurber:
“I never quite know when I’m not writing,” says James Thurber. “Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a dinner party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing.’”
There’s also here his empathetic overview of yet another literary friend of his, John Cheever, in which Cowley digresses briefly on just how amazing was the degree of success Chevers Stories brought him in later life:
Most of the American authors admired in our time did their best work before they were forty-five. Many of them died before reaching that age. Most survived into their sixties, but their truly productive careers had been cut short by emotional exhaustion, alcoholism, or by mere repetition and drudgery. It was Scott Fitzgerald who said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” We produced no Thomas Hardys or Thomas Manns (exception being made for Robert Frost) and no one who made a brilliant rebeginning after a crisis in middle age.
(As Cowley could well have written, the productive careers of all those survivors were in fact cut short only by alcohol. It was ruinous drinking that caused the drudgery and repetition, ruinous drinking that caused the emotional exhaustion – indeed, has the term “emotional exhaustion” ever meant anything else? – it was alcohol that wrought such widespread havoc among so many of the literary figures Cowley knew and liked, but here he’s being kind)
Toward the very end of this great anthology is Cowley’s personal and very touching 1967 piece “Adventures of a Book Reviewer,” in which he takes readers inside the weird, unstructured-yet-pressing world of the weekly book critic. At one point in his reminiscences he makes a disparaging allusion to his own “invincible sluggishness of spirit” – but this book very happily proves him wrong.