Book Review

'A Long Voyage': Malcolm Cowley's letters burnish his reputation as a champion of writers

And lest we forget: he's a Pittsburgh guy, too

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Let’s get this part dealt with right away: Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989), a writer and, more important, an influential friend, critic and editor of innumerable famous American authors, was born in Belsano in Cambria County but raised in Pittsburgh. His father, a homeopathic doctor, had an office in the then-new Wallace Building in East Liberty, now part of the Highland Building complex.

Cowley was a graduate of Peabody High School who won a scholarship to Harvard. But when the United States entered World War I, he interrupted his education there to serve with the American Field Service ambulance corps (as did Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney).

Dispatches he wrote about the war in France, published in the Pittsburgh Gazette, were the first writings for which he ever received payment. After that, he kept writing — for more than 70 years. But he didn’t live in Pittsburgh after 1918 when he returned to Harvard before lighting out for Greenwich Village and postwar Paris.

Edited by Hans Bak
Harvard University Press ($40)

His best known book, “Exile’s Return,” was the first and most informative memoir of 1920s expat literary life. “The Long Voyage,” edited by a Dutch scholar, is an enormously long and beautifully annotated choice of some of the 25,000 or so Cowley letters housed at Yale, Princeton and, most especially, the Newberry Library in Chicago.

They show that Cowley, a minor poet but an important literary historian, was also, supremely, a tireless promoter of his contemporaries — promoter in the best sense of the world. Considered an intellectual of his generation, he was not so high-minded as, say, Edmund Wilson but a great deal more so than, for instance, Alfred Kazin.

He dreamed of discovering work by “an author whose reputation is less than his achievement and in fact is scandalously out of proportion with it …” He fulfilled the wish with Pittsburgh help. Like so many artists during the Depression, he was sympathetic to communism, a fact that came back to haunt him during World War II when pressure from J. Edgar Hoover cost him his writing job in the Roosevelt administration.

He was rescued from penury by a five-year grant from the Mellon Foundation. The gift enabled him to set to work almost singlehandedly reviving the stature of William Faulkner, whose name had faded and whose 17 novels and short story collections were out of print. The exact cause and effect can never be proved, but Cowley’s 1946 book “The Portable Faulkner” is seen as one factor leading to Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize for literature.

Depending on your viewpoint, Cowley’s discovery a decade later of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” may or may not be a heavy burden for his ghost to carry, but it certainly shows that Cowley remained alert to new voices. Many of these letters have been published previously, especially those to Faulkner and to Cowley’s Peabody classmate and lifelong friend, the critical theorist Kenneth Burke. But “The Long Voyage” gives us a much broader and clearer picture of Cowley as someone who, to use his own phrase, “worked at the writer’s trade” — and did so honorably.

George Fetherling’s latest book is “The Writing Life: Journals 1975-2005” (

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