Born August 28, 1898, in the town of Belsano in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, Cowley grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where his father William was a homeopathic doctor. He attended Shakespeare Street elementary school and graduated from Peabody High School's first graduating class in 1915 where his boyhood friend Kenneth Burke was also a student. In 1920 he earned a B.A. from Harvard University.
Cowley interrupted his undergraduate studies to join the American Field Service in France during World War I. From the Western Front he reported on the war for The Pittsburgh Gazette (today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
Life in Paris
As one of the dozens of creative literary and artistic figures who migrated during the 1920s to Paris, France and congregated in Montparnasse, Cowley returned to live in France for three years, where he worked with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, Harry Crosby, Caresse Crosby and others. He is usually regarded as representative of America's Lost Generation. Hemingway removed direct reference to Cowley in a later version of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, replacing his name with the description, "that American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement".:214 John Dos Passos's private correspondence revealed the contempt he held for Cowley, but also the care writers took to hide their personal feelings in order to protect their own careers when Cowley became assistant editor of The New Republic.:214 From his two decades of struggling, he (along with Edmund Wilson) later became a well-known chronicler of the expatriate generation.
Perhaps the most famous work he wrote was his early book of poetry, Blue Juniata (1929), encouraged by Hart Crane. His most autobiographical was Exile's Return, published in 1934. The second book is one of the first published in the United States about the "Lost Generation", and was reissued in a less radical edition with new material, like his Fitzgerald revivals, in 1951. American literary historian Van Wyck Brooks described it as "an irreplaceable literary record of the most dramatic period in American literary history." Coming under the influence of Theodore Dreiser, Cowley became increasingly involved in radical politics. In 1932 Cowley joined Mary Heaton Vorse, Edmund Wilson and Waldo Frank as union-sponsored observers of the miners' strikes in Kentucky. Their lives were threatened by the mine owners and Frank was badly beaten up. The following year Cowley published Exile's Return. The book was largely ignored and sold only 800 copies in the first twelve months. The following year he published an autobiography, The Dream of Golden Mountains (1934).
In 1935 Cowley and other left-wing writers established the League of American Writers. Other members included Erskine Caldwell, Archibald MacLeish, Upton Sinclair, Clifford Odets, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Carl Van Doren, Waldo Frank, David Ogden Stewart, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. Cowley was appointed vice president and over the next few years Cowley was involved in several campaigns, including attempts to persuade the United States government to support the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. However, he resigned in 1940 because he felt the organization was under the control of the American Communist Party.
In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Archibald MacLeish as head of the Office of Facts and Figures. MacLeish recruited Cowley as his deputy. This decision soon resulted in anti-communist journalists such as Whittaker Chambers and Westbrook Pegler writing articles pointing out Cowley's left-wing past. One member of Congress, Martin Dies of Texas, accused Cowley of having connections to 72 communist or communist-front organizations.
MacLeish came under pressure from J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to fire Cowley. In January 1942, MacLeish replied that the FBI agents needed a course of instruction in history. "Don't you think it would be a good thing if all investigators could be made to understand that Liberalism is not only not a crime but actually the attitude of the President of the United States and the greater part of his Administration?" In March 1942 Cowley, vowing never again to write about politics, resigned from the Office of Facts and Figures.
Cowley now became literary adviser to Viking Press. He now began to edit the selected works of important American writers. Viking Portable editions by Cowley included Ernest Hemingway (1944), William Faulkner (1946) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1948). In 1949 Cowley returned to the political scene by testifying at the second Alger Hiss trial. He testified that in 1940, Chambers had told him that Francis B. Sayre was connected with the Communist underground apparatus. Chambers denied Cowley's claim, and said that Cowley must have mistaken a reference to Hiss, who worked for Sayre, as a reference to Sayre himself.
Cowley published a revised edition of Exile's Return in 1951. This time the book sold much better. He also published The Literary Tradition (1954) and edited a new edition of Leaves of Grass (1959) by Walt Whitman. This was followed by Black Cargoes, A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1962), Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age (1966), Think Back on Us (1967), Collected Poems (1968), Lesson of the Masters (1971) and A Second Flowering (1973).
Cowley began reviewing books during his college days (at USD 1 each) and edited and contributed to small journals. His biggest impact was from 1929 through 1944, when he was an assistant editor at The New Republic. During this period, as with a number of American writers and artists, he became a communist and began writing about politics in addition to his many literary productions. Like some of his peers, Cowley came under scrutiny by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. During World War II, he was an information analyst for the Office of Strategic Services.
As an editorial consultant to Viking Press, he pushed for the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. In 1946 Cowley edited Viking's edition of The Portable Faulkner, and his introduction is generally considered a turning point in William Faulkner's reputation in the United States at a time when many of his early works were in danger of going out of print. Cowley's work anthologizing 28 Fitzgerald short stories and editing a reissue of Tender Is the Night, restructured based on Fitzgerald's notes, both in 1951, were key to reviving Fitzgerald's reputation as well, and his introduction to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, written in the early 1960s, is said to have had a similar effect on Anderson's reputation. Other works of literary and critical importance include Eight More Harvard Poets (1923), A Second Flowering: Works & Days of the Lost Generation (1973), And I Worked at the Writer's Trade (1978), and The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s (1980). And I Worked won a 1980 U.S. National Book Award in the one-year category Autobiography.
When The Portable Malcolm Cowley (Donald Faulkner, editor) was published in 1990, the year after Cowley's death, Michael Rogers wrote in Library Journal: "Though a respected name in hardcore literary circles, in general the late Cowley is one of the unsung heroes of 20th-century American literature. Poet, critic, Boswell of the Lost Generation of which he himself was a member, savior of Faulkner's dwindling reputation, editor of Kerouac's On the Road, discoverer of John Cheever, Cowley knew everybody and wrote about them with sharp insight. . . . . Cowley's writings on the great books are as important as the books themselves . . . . All American literature collections should own this."
To the end, Cowley remained a humanitarian in the world of letters. He wrote writer Louise Bogan in 1941, "I'm almost getting pathologically tender-hearted. I have been caused so much pain by reviewers and political allrightniks of several shades of opinion that I don't want to cause pain to anybody."
Personal life and death
He died of a heart attack March 27, 1989.
- Malcolm, Cowley, The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014
- Paul, Jay (1989). . University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-06899-5.
- Malcolm Cowley, The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962, New York: Viking, 1966
- List of ambulance drivers during World War I
- Letters to Cowley from Yvor Winters in The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R. L. Barth, Athens, OH: Swallow Press/Ohio UP, 2000.