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Book Review: The Long Voyage

By (January 7, 2014) No Comment

The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987the long voyage cover

Edited by Hans Bak

Harvard University Press, 2014


Robert Cowley, the great editor of military history anthologies (his volumes No End Save Victory and With My Face to the Enemy belong in the library of every serious reader of war literature), pens the Foreward to The Long Voyage, the enormous new collection of the letters of his father, legendary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley now out by Harvard University Press and edited by Hans Bak. It’s an appealing but foolhardy gimmick, conscripting sons to write about their fathers in volumes like this one – it’s never once worked, and it doesn’t work here. And the failure is always so much worse when both father and son are professional writers; the Oedipal convolutions would have sent Dr. Freud hurrying from the room.

And you get no chance to brace yourself; the sheep-dip is hip-deep in son Robert’s very first line: “There are moments when I am convinced that the letters written by my father, Malcolm Cowley, constitute his most noteworthy literary achievement.”

Newcomers would nod in fascination at the poetic prospect of a son so belatedly discovering his father’s true legacy. Except this book isn’t going to have any newcomers – what kind of spendthrift ignoramus would shell out $40 on a 700-page Malcolm Cowley letter-collection if they’d never heard of Malcolm Cowley? And anybody who has heard of Malcolm Cowley is going to stare at that preposterous opening line by son Robert and stare and stare, trying in vain to differentiate it in category from “There are moments when I am convinced that the personal logs my father, Malcolm Cowley, kept as captain of the starship Enterprise constitute his most noteworthy literary achievement.”

Newcomers to this review there may well be, so it bears pointing out that Malcolm Cowley was for years one of the most influential men of letters in the 20th century. His fantastic book Exile’s Return painted a defining portrait of the so-called “Lost Generation”; his incredible essays on William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway literally re-set their careers; in his long stints at the Viking Press and The New Republic, he wrote an unbroken string of very nearly perfect literary essays and shaped the canon of an entire generation of American readers.

His letters, usually dashed off to friends (how many make some reference to being “fifteen minute letters”? Or, as to Edmund Wilson, “I hate letters”?), are most certainly not his most noteworthy literary achievement. His letters are not a literary achievement. His letters are by and large not even noteworthy.

Son Robert goes on:

Why not begin, then, at the point where I first became aware, dimly to be sure, of the travails that shaped my father’s career and forced him (as the cliche put it) to reinvent himself? Those would be the years, roughly from 1940 to 1951, when the downs sometimes seemed more numerous than the ups – though, in the end, it was the ups that would prevail.

From which you will rightly gather that son Robert was not at the top of his form when writing these few pages. Better if he’d skipped the job, but how could a volume like this appear without him? Fortunately, there’s indefatigable Hans Bak with a proper (though frustratingly brief) Editor’s Preface, laying things out a bit more soberly than ups prevailing:

For almost seven decades, Cowley held a place of influence and distinction that has been widely recognized and documented and occasionally challenged but that has not, as yet, been properly documented and evaluated. Though he is often ranked with Edmund Wilson as a preeminent American “man of letters” of the twentieth century, the nature and extent of his significance as critic and public intellectual remain to be fully assessed.

Bak aims for this collection to begin correcting that neglect, which is much akin to hoping General Custer’s prowess at the pianoforte will correct the general drift of Little Bighorn. Establishing Cowley’s significance as a critic and public intellectual will be accomplished by whipping up solid, pretty new editions of his collected criticism and speeches (perhaps in the Library of America, if paper-and-ink can be spared from yet another volume of Kurt goddam Vonnegut); if you want to immortalize the man’s work, present the work, not the breaks he took from it.

But in the meantime, and for entirely different reasons, these letters are priceless, a great whopping improvement over Paul Jay’s excellent 1988 volume The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981. Almost from the very beginning, both men, Cowley and Burke, but especially Cowley knew that their correspondence was something remarkable; Cowley often commented that it represented his true, best effort at writing an autobiography. Dozens and dozens of other correspondents are included in this very generous collection, but the show still belongs entirely to these two, who somehow found a finely-tuned knack for communicating with each other that stayed unchanged even while everything else around them was changing. You can read Cowley cracking Burke up in 1922:

I met Ford Madox Hueffer in the Dome. He is pathetic and sympathetic. He is so used, from infancy, to the company of great men that he mistakes his every table companion for a great man and bows to his beliefs. He says: “You won’t be interested in this, but … All this must bore you.” Any one who mentions the word “bore” is mistaken for one, and Hueffer has suffered that common fate. Unjustly, for his is charming.

And it’s the same Cowley still effortlessly amusing his old friend in 1971:

I’m reading Sir Walter Scott. He seems more antiquated in technique than Defoe or Fielding. Also a dreadful snob. But my God, what memory, what imagination, what a pouring forth of persons and adventures! There are fine scenes of low life in The Heart of Midlothian – The requisites for a writer are 1) memory, 2) vigor, 3) dreams, imagination, vision; 4) the need to explain himself, 5) intelligence mixed with a little necessary stupidity.

Burke of course shares a crowded stage; Bak rightly comments that Cowley knew everybody worth knowing in the Republic of Letters, and they all put in appearances here. He commiserates with Hemingway in 1951:

When Harvey [Breit, long-time critic for The New York Times Book Review and certainly no fool] in his piece in The New York Times made me refer to Fitzgerald as “Fitz,” not once but several times, it made me sound like a drunk who had come up to Fitzgerald in a barroom and slapped him on the back and insisted on calling him “Fitz, old man.” It’s a little point, but it helped me to appreciate your troubles with backslappers and interviewers. If they are fools, then everybody they write about sounds like a fool.

And he tries – in his cheerful, non-pushy way, to offer a bit of solicited advice to a John Cheever who in 1971 was having bourbon for breakfast and beginning to worry about it:

About the drinking – hmmm … I have two friends, Conrad Aiken (83 this summer) and K. Burke (74) who have kept on drinking nobly till this day and a lot of other nobly drinking friends who are under the sod. Me, I studied to be an alcoholic, but I flunked my exams, and now I take one big slug of bourbon per diem, at six P. M. If I take more I either get shaky on my pins or pay for it with a bout of indigestion. One thing you can say to yourself at the advanced age of 59 (on May 27), Nobody in God’s world is going to help you or beseech you or argue with you to stop drinking – nobody but yourself (and Mary). It’s completely up to you – and isn’t that a relief? A focusing of responsibility? Why not join me in that one big sundown slug?

There’s no denying how much fun this sort of eavesdropping is to read, and Bak is to be commended for the sheer heaps of it he provides. Less commendable are some of his editorial decisions. I became increasingly irritated by his custodial ellipses. You’d be hard-pressed to guess from The Long Voyage that anybody in their right mind ever hated Malcolm Cowley, yet some people did and with good cause. You’ll also need to hunt around for the infuriating Grand Old Man pronouncements he was prone to make even when he was still a Grand Young Man (to feminist author Ellen Moers, for instance, he asked in 1972 “Why haven’t we now, here, a good woman novelist, I mean better than Joyce Carol Oates or Joan (early Hemingway) Didion? Has the consorority dissolved? Was Virginia W. the last of the great line?”). And Bak’s (or perhaps Harvard’s?) decision to put nearly 70 pages-worth of notes at the end of the book instead of at the bottom of each page necessitates endless hiking expeditions rather than a simple glance down at a footnote. Try just this one quick paragraph to Burke in 1929 knowing that the answers to all of its 42 questions can only be found 515 pages away:

I’ve just finished the second of two leading essays for Mrs. Van Doren. One of them appeared last Sunday; the other appears next Sunday; they deal, one with “Our Own Generation,” the other with “The New Primitives.” They speak in generalities, half of which are commonplaces, the other half questionable. I hope you read them, and I’m anxious to get hold of the essay you wrote for The Bookman. Our judgments must have coincided except on Hemingway, whose work I enjoy on the whole; out of malice I listed “some of Kenneth Burke’s short stories and the long description of the fiesta in The Sun Also Rises” side by side in a brief catalogue of what I thought were the permanent achievements of our own generation. My other listings were The Enormous Room, the introductory essay to Goodbye, Wisconsin (and I should have added The Apple of the Eye if I had read it in time), Orient Express, “The Bridge,” My Heart and My Flesh, and did I give others? I forget. Callaghan is entirely trivial, so I did not mention him anywhere.

Incunabula aside, the real, essential Malcolm Cowley sparkles forth quite often from these letters, dashed-off though they often were. That essential Malcolm Cowley was not only a champion of literature but a champion of literary enthusiasm. How often was he right about some author nobody even thought to be wrong about? How often did his literary instincts – as thunderous as Edmund Wilson’s, as prescient as Randall Jarrell’s – get him to certainties when even the best of his colleagues saw only doubts? How often did some fifteen-minute letter send a gust of bracing wind into the sagging sails of some poor wretch’s pet project? We’ll never know, even seventy feet of archive-boxes won’t contain it all, but we can let one quick note stand in for all the rest. It’s written in 1967 to courtly intellectual Gay Allen Wilson, and it’s quintessential Malcolm Cowley:

It is heartening news that you are planning to do a life of Emerson. Rusk’s big book is so dull. I have to assign it to at least one student every time I give a seminar on Emerson, but I know he won’t get anything out of it except facts. Rusk is good when he writes about the pears that Emerson raised. He is good enough on Emerson’s last years, when he was as passive and benign as an October pumpkin, but no good at all, so bad as to be positively misleading, on the years of Emerson’s first marriage, and his leaving the church, and his decisive trip to Europe. A real biography is needed, and you can do it.

When Wilson’s Waldo Emerson finally appeared, in 1981, it was dedicated to Cowley.

He was, foremost, a patient gardener.