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Protected: On Malcolm Cowley

By Hans Bak

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Reviews

Praise for Hans Bak

Malcolm Cowley: The Formative Years

University of Georgia Press, 1993

Winner, American Studies Network European Book Prize, 1994

“Bak’s masterful, vivid, eloquent critical biography, first half of a two-volume opus, is a major reassessment of Cowley’s place in American letters.”  Publishers Weekly

“An impeccably researched and vividly narrated account of the development of a twentieth-century man of letters who participated centrally in the modern remaking of American literature after World War I. Bak’s rich intellectual biography conveys both Cowley’s inward perspective and the milieu in which he matured, focusing on the crucial period from 1915 to 1930. What emerges is a fascinating story that brings to life Cowley’s provincial background, his Harvard education, the war experience, Greenwich Village bohemia, Paris and the expatriate scene, and the politics of little magazines. Bak illuminates the literary career and cultural significance of a most interesting ‘middleman’ of letters.” —Werner Sollors, Harvard University

The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987

Harvard University Press, 2014

“Cowley was perhaps the greatest literary cross‐pollinator of the 20th century. It’s impossible to imagine the American canon without him… Cowley’s best letters—they are alternately frisky, warm, pushy and ruminative—are collected now in The Long Voyage … Many are to his childhood friend from Pittsburgh, the philosopher of language Kenneth Burke, and to his lifelong confidant Allen Tate. This volume also records his end of correspondences with Faulkner, Kerouac, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dawn Powell, Lionel Trilling, Louise Bogan, Edmund Wilson and multiple others… Consistently busy on a multitude of fronts, Cowley wrote letters that are grainy with gossip and ringing observations, almost from the beginning.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Cowley earned, many times over, his status as the grand old man of American letters. Did anyone do more to establish the current canon of the major writers of the twentieth century? Did anyone do more than Cowley, as the indefatigable consulting editor for Viking, to identify new talent among the following generations? …Did anyone work harder behind the scenes of influential organizations (the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Yaddo, countless book prizes, and so on) to support writers in need and reward deserving achievement? …He ultimately belonged, like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner, to what his friend Hart Crane called ‘the visionary company,’ and not as a fellow traveler but as a full member.” —Christopher Benfey, The New Republic

“Cowley’s letters carry the style he had in all of his writing, featuring a very American, cynical, go-getter voice and an uncanny facility with a sharp closing line… The Long Voyage is also a reminder of a time, not long ago, when literature had a more central place in the cultural conversation… Bak has done a masterful job with this collection… Cowley has never quite been forgotten, but the work he did was often as hidden as it was influential. This collection will remind readers of 20th-century American literature of the key role Cowley played in its development, and might perhaps spur them to read some of Cowley’s own works.” —Greg Barnhisel, The Los Angeles Review of Books

“Boswell of the ‘lost generation,’ literary editor of The New Republic, and champion of authors from Fitzgerald and Faulkner—whose career he resuscitated—to Kerouac and Kesey, Malcolm Cowley lived a long life and wrote a ton of letters debating, critiquing and defending the state of American literature. (Kenneth Burke, Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken and Edmund Wilson were among his closest interlocutors.) The majority of the letters in this collection have never before been published… His collected letters amount to a heady portrait of American literary and intellectual life in the twentieth century.” —Rachel Arons, The New Yorker blog

“[This is a] vast collection of letters, sensitively compiled and annotated by [Cowley’s] biographer, Hans Bak … At his best he wrote from an empathy that few contemporaries shared.” —Marc Robinson, The Times Literary Supplement

“Bak’s a fair-minded and microscopically well-informed guide to the material… Cowley’s correspondence also makes it possible to get a sense of him as a fairly stylish performer in his day, a sense that’s harder to get from the stuff he wrote for publication.” —Christopher Tayler, Harper’s

“Malcolm Cowley was one of the most important (and easily the most omnipresent) literary figures of the past century… Cowley’s was a long, eventful and controversial life, amply documented in his letters… Bak has done on the whole an astounding job of effectively boiling down Cowley’s voluminous correspondence… To delve into Cowley’s letters is to get a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the literary life, with its glittering prizes, really operates… This volume is a permanent addition to American literary history the likes of which we may never see again. If the telephone made letter-writing a luxury, email and texting have rendered it as obsolete as the manual typewriter, and we as readers are undoubtedly the poorer for it. That is all the more reason to cherish this invaluable collection.” —Tom Moran, The Chicago Tribune

“Now, at last, we can see the history of twentieth-century literature, which he helped to shape, through Cowley’s own eyes.” —Adam Kirsch, City Journal

“[Cowley] 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… 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, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Hans Bak’s selection of Cowley’s letters will interest anyone with specialized knowledge of American literature during its 20th-century apogee … The Long Voyage [is] a fine memorial of those high days when book reviewers were not afraid of showing their intelligence and discrimination, and wrote pieces that changed the way the educated segment of nations thought.” —Richard Davenport-Hines, The Spectator

The Long Voyage is a must-own for any devotee of American literature.” —David Duhr, The Texas Observer

“[A] vast and rich omnium-gatherum of epistolary activity… Cowley [was] one of the most important and influential men of letters (or freelance literary intellectuals, if you prefer) of the twentieth century… [He had] an immensely influential critical and editorial career that spanned seven decades… [Cowley] is nowhere near as famous or well regarded as he deserves to be… Bak’s commentary and notes are helpful, to the point, jargon-free, and superbly well-informed, and the letters themselves have been selected and judiciously edited to form an almost biographical narrative. Because the book focuses on letters that illuminate Cowley’s involvement with both literature and politics, the private man barely makes an appearance, but that absence is more than made up for by his son Robert Cowley’s foreword, a moving act of filial piety and a shrewd assessment of the shape and significance of his father’s career. And why should anyone produce an 850-page volume of Malcolm Cowley’s letters, and why should you care that someone did? Because, simply put, the American literature of the twentieth century would look considerably poorer and less interesting without his activities as a critic, editor, and memoirist, and our broader understanding of American literary history much less clear… If you don’t reckon with Malcolm Cowley’s works and days, you can’t really understand how American literature ascended to its rightful place among the great literatures of the world, or how it was made.” —Gerald Howard, Bookforum

“Malcolm Cowley (1898–1989) may be one of the most important (and unheralded) literary figures of the twentieth century. His critical track record for fostering genius and capturing the sensibility of the Lost Generation now receives a spotlight, thanks to savvy editor Hans Bak.” Barnes & Noble Review

“As a poet, editor, literary historian and memoirist, Cowley (1898–1989) had his finger on the pulse of American literature for most of the 20th century… In this collection, editor Bak gathers approximately 500 letters culled from Cowley’s papers in Chicago’s Newberry Library, most previously unpublished. Correspondents include Kenneth Burke (a childhood friend), Allen Tate, Conrad Aiken, Edmund Wilson, Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Tillie Olsen, and almost anyone who was anybody in American literature… In addition to his literary activities, the letters shed light on Cowley’s politics, including his ties to communist front organizations in the 1930s, his reaction to the Moscow Trials, and his fight to preserve his reputation during the McCarthy era… This title will appeal to students of modern American literature, particularly those familiar with Cowley’s oeuvre.” —William Gargan, Library Journal

“A committed, contentious life at the center of American letters comes alive in this scintillating collection. The book follows Cowley (1898–1989) from his 1920s salad days as a poet and critic in New York and Paris, immersed in fierce literary squabbles over the emerging modernist aesthetic; through his 1930s reign as the New Republic’s literary editor, when he discovered Marxism and drew (not unfounded) accusations of pushing a Stalinist line that dogged him during and after World War II; to his postwar efforts to champion old masters and newcomers, from Fitzgerald and Faulkner to Kerouac and Kesey. Cowley’s letters fizz with gossip, bawdy jokes, lurid anecdotes, witty reflections… Ably contextualized by editor Bak’s extensive biographical insertions, these missives convey the intense passions aroused by the aesthetic and political upheavals of the 20th century through the pen of one of the era’s leading literary intellectuals.” Publishers Weekly

“This is a grand reunion. They are all here—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hart Crane, Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, and all the rest—presided over by the indefatigable and conscientious intelligence of Malcolm Cowley, the great friend and critic and chronicler of American writers and their work. These wonderful letters amount to the diary of American literature in the twentieth century.” —Lance Morrow

“Malcolm Cowley—who was there, at the inner ring—is an eloquent voice in helping us to know how twentieth-century American literature got made. This selection from a lifetime of letters only confirms how indispensable he was and is.” —Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934–1961