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The Letters of Malcolm Cowley

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

To: John C. Farrar, The Bookman

American University Union, 1, rue de Fleurus, Paris, VIe

October 28, 1922

Dear Mr. Farrar: [. . .]

Joyce has been getting a lot of publicity these days, and I believe you will want something pretty fresh about him; certainly not the conventional article on Ulysses. I am going to write up Joyce from the standpoint of his audience; his reaction on the people who know him; a collection of the bromides that one hears in a Parisian conversation on Ulysses. My aim as usual will be to send you something that couldn’t be written in New York.

In spite of the note about me in the Contributor’s Column of The Bookman, I have joined no band of expatriates and show every intention of returning to New York. Only, I came to France on a two-year’s fellowship from the American Field Service and shall stay until the second year is up. The chief advantage of two years in France is to give you a taste for America. It does. Not that I have no fondness for French people and French literature, but I happened to be born on the other side of the water and it will be a sad day when I forget it. The only expatriates in Paris are the people who arrived on the last boat and Harold Stearns. As for the rest ... say, if you want to hear good, nasal, limey-hating Amurricns, if you want to hear Amurricn spoken in all its ungrammatical purity, come to Paris.

Anyway, Paris is a great town to come to. For two years. [. . .]

Yours faithfully,

Malcolm Cowley

To: Mary Mellon

August 18, 1944

Dear Mrs. Mellon:
There is no business to bother you with, but I’m writing to tell you how things are going, as if to continue our conversation—I wish it were over a very cold bottle of Pouilly Fumeux.

Yes, it’s hot here, so hot that there have been many days when I wasn’t able to work, even when I carried the typewriter down to the cellar. But unlike most of the East, we’ve had enough rain and the garden has flourished. This is the time of the year when it assumes a look of slatternly, sprawling abundance, like an unpainted farmhouse overflowing with children. The melons spill into the grass, the squash vines climb the cornstalks, the tomato vines loll among the zinnias with terrific clashes of color, the eggplants bend down the branches till they rest on the ground. Everything is rich and diseased, with the grapes suffering from mildew and the bugs crawling over everything [. . .] as if nature in this next-to-last month were trying to exhibit her inexhaustible fecundity. And I too in this month would like to have innumerable children, dirty and crying and laughing and fat as the pumpkins among the corn. Instead of that, I have one nice child and I’m squeezing out words with that American scrupulosity and straining for perfection.

I have finished one job that pleased me very much, a one-volume Hemingway for the Viking Press, with a long preface and editorial notes. Rereading his books in rapid succession, I discovered that he was quite a different writer from what people had suspected: not a realist at heart, no matter how carefully he has tried to copy reality, but a tortured and haunted novelist with curious affinities to Hawthorne and Poe and Melville. His heroes always suffer from insomnia, and half their experiences are walking nightmares. He seems to have a natural feeling for legends, rituals, ceremonies, sacraments. And his four novels tell a sort of continued story dealing with the relations between one man and society and with his efforts to overcome the fear of death. The critics have always kept urging him to get rid of his obsession with death, as if he could perform that feat by an act of will. In reality, he has done something more admirable: that is, he has come to terms with death; he has accepted it for his hero (and thereby symbolically for himself).

Just now I’m reading Robert Frost for a different sort of piece. I don’t like Frost—or, to be more exact, I don’t like the sort of veneration that surrounds this honest but rather minor poet. He is the Cal Coolidge of American literature, and I don’t like to hear him mentioned in the same breath with Emerson and Thoreau and those other Yankees who really wrestled with their problems, instead of saying (in verse as lax as the sentiment it expresses, “Me for the hills where I don’t have to choose.”) He’s a genuine Hitchcock chair, a saltbox cottage, a grandfather’s clock, a well sweep carefully preserved after the electric pump system has been installed; he’s everything nice in the antique shop, but he isn’t the voice of America.

There is a long piece I’m anxious to write on Faulkner too; nobody has ever done a good job on him. All this is preparatory to the book on American literature. I had another talk with the publishers recently, and they agreed that it would be better for me to do a short book on contemporary writers before launching into the longer work on American literature from the beginning [. . .]. You can see that I’m being a very busy writer under the new dispensation, perhaps more fecund than I expected to be, and more like the garden in August, though not so slovenly.

And I’d better close before this letter gets too long to read in the August heat. Maybe by the time it reaches you, the American tanks will be rolling through Pouilly, and the tankmen will be learning to drink the smoky wine. I wish I were there.

As ever,

Malcolm Cowley

To: Gilbert Harrison, The New Republic

Sherman, Conn.

January 25, 1951

Dear Hal:
This Fitzgerald business is blowing up like a balloon. [. . .] Poor Scottie is frantic about the “beset by drink, debt, a mad wife” line in Life. The fact is that it’s Fitzgerald the alcoholic and Zelda the schizophrenic that everybody is writing or dreaming of making pictures about, and they seem to forget that poor Scott was also a writer who produced a considerable body of work. Anybody can marry a mad wife, and Zelda’s madness was a hell of a sight more tragic and dignified than anything written about her. Not everybody can write Gatsby or Tender Is the Night or “The Rich Boy” or “Babylon Revisited.”

That’s the point of this piece I’m sending you—I thought that in all this hullabaloo it was time for somebody to publish something about Fitzgerald as a serious writer, which he was. [. . .]

As ever,


To: Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan

May 21, 1951

Dear Scottie:
You must have learned by now that I’m an undiligent letter writer, without your excuse for delay of being a mother with small children. There’s only one child in the Cowley family and he’s not a child but a boy of sixteen in his third year of Exeter. He’s a good boy generally speaking and a damned nice one, better than I deserve, but he has his shortcomings and his spiritual troubles and sometimes I address him in the tone that Scott sometimes addressed you. Incidentally Scott’s letters should certainly be collected and published, but I’d rather think that this wasn’t exactly the right time to do it. In a year or two the letters can be published in a perfectly dignified way, without reference to the hoopla that is only now dying down. I think we’re about to subside into the trough of the Fitzgerald wave. First there was the unjust neglect in 1940, then the great hoorah that followed the Schulberg and Mizener books, with a lot of silly things being said, then the unfriendly critics will have their say (they’re having it already)—down and up and down and up again go the quotations on the literary stock exchange and you’d think that people were actually changing their opinions about Fitzgerald, but the truth is that intelligent readers’ opinions don’t change; they know the truth is that Scott was a good writer and as such his reputation, his real reputation, not the quotations on the Big Board, will always be there and living. It’s the permanent Fitzgerald that we ought to be concerned with in any question of publishing his books and papers.

What I’m trying to do with Tender is to establish a text that can always be read. Once we had decided on the big change, in accordance with Scott’s wishes, there was still the job of proofreading the book. That was something that practically speaking had never been done—I think the book wasn’t proofread at all, except by the proofreader at the Scribner Press, and of course by Scott himself—but it appeared when he was almost at his worst stage emotionally and he was a pretty terrible proofreader at his best, says this truthful critic. Anyhow I found some slight error in spelling or punctuation or French or German on almost every page of the book; and I suspect that carefully as I went over it I didn’t find them all. [. . .] I’m going to make the introduction short, so that I won’t be playing the part of a guide who takes the reader by the hand to point out the scenery, and points it out so insistently that he blocks the reader’s view of the scenery. Anything more I have to say—and there will be more—can go into an appendix [. . .]. You know that Scott worked at the novel for nine years, off and on, and wrote a manuscript of 400,000 words, then cut it to a little more than one-fourth that length. Some of the cut things, now at Princeton, are very good, and I thought that a couple of the best might go into the appendix, both because they are interesting in themselves and because they show how ruthless Scott could be with his own writing and what good things he was willing to sacrifice for the sake of the whole effect. One passage I like particularly is the one that Mizener printed in The Kenyon Review under the title of “The World’s Fair”—it’s about Francis Melarky going home with a girl who turns out to be lesbian and tries to shoot herself with a revolver so old that the pearl handle of it comes off in her hand. It’s one of the eeriest things that Scott ever wrote and it’s marvelous as a picture of that life.

[. . .]


Malcolm Cowley

To: Allen Ginsberg

[New York, Viking Press]

July 14, 1953

Dear Mr. Ginsberg:
You are right in thinking that I am interested in Kerouac and his work.

He seems to me the most interesting writer who is not being published today—and I think it is important that he should be published, or he will run the danger of losing that sense of the audience, which is part of a writer’s equipment. But the only manuscript of his that I have read with a chance of immediate book publication is the first version of ON THE ROAD. As much of the second version as I saw contained some impressively good writing, but no story whatsoever. SAX [Doctor Sax] might be published by New Directions or Grove Press, but I am afraid that neither of them would be taken by any of the larger publishing houses.

I am generally free on Tuesday afternoons. Why not phone me on Tuesday morning before eleven at Viking? I will be very glad to see you.

Sincerely yours,

Malcolm Cowley

On July 2, 1961 Ernest Hemingway committed suicide in his home in Ketchum, Idaho.

To: Conrad Aiken

July 7, 1961

Dear Conrad, [. . .]

I mourn for Hemingway. He could be as mean as cat piss and as sweet as a ministering angel. It’s hard to think that so much vitality, vanity, unflagging zest, eagerness to excel in everything, willingness to learn and study and finally teach everything, ability to participate in other people’s lives—that all this should simply vanish. Some time I’ll tell you some of the curious things I found out about him that he didn’t want the world to know. When he conquered certain weaknesses of character, when he stopped being a coward, when he became more or less the image he had created of himself—at that point he pretty well stopped being a writer. Let’s nurse our vices and neuroses; it’s dangerous to cure them.

As ever,


To: Mary Hemingway

July 15, 1961

Dear Mary,

I can’t help writing to say how much I was saddened by Ernest’s death.

Even though we hadn’t been exchanging letters for a long time, it was a comfort to me just to know he was there, standing for so much talent and vitality, so much enjoyment of life, so much interest in people, such a passion to study and master everything that isn’t written in the books. I can’t get over the feeling that he’s still there. Some of the primitive tribes believe that immortality is a privilege granted only to a few, and only by virtue of what they were and did. Ernest won that privilege a long time ago.

To: Christopher Lasch

29 December 1982

Dear Mr. Lasch,
For almost two years I have intended to write about your review of The Dream of the Golden Mountains (The Nation, July 5, 1980). It disturbed me, and not because it was unfavorable. I didn’t expect you to link arms with others and sing hosannas. You have always had a thing about The New Republic and its editors during the 1930s. I remember that in your first book you pictured them as sitting smugly in their “pine-paneled offices”—my God, you should have seen those shabby offices or had a first-hand account of them. You have a pictorial imagination and a right to prejudice. What disturbed me in your review was that it condemned me for being exactly what I am not, playing a social role that I detest even more than you, and for being the sort of person that I have always disliked and pitied.

I am and have always been a country boy, a little uneasy in the company of urban intellectuals (which doesn’t mean that I don’t understand them). I grasp ideas and can express them well, that being my business, but have always been moved by feeling more than by intellection. Those are grave limitations and they have led me into egregious errors, for which I don’t resent my being condemned. But I hate to be condemned as a tool of American consumerism or as helping to create a market for sales policies and intellectual fashions. I am not and have never been a consumerist; I have always been the opposite of that, a conservationist attached to the land.

[. . .]

One of my first published poems, in 1916, was a lament for the ruined countryside around Belsano, where I was born. Sixty years later I wrote a long poem of age that ended with a prayer:

I pray for this:

to walk as humbly on the earth as my father and mother did;

to greatly love a few;

to love the earth, to be sparing of what it yields,

and not to leave it poorer for my long presence;

to speak some words in patterns that will be remembered,

and again the voice be heard to exult or mourn—

all this, and in some corner where nettles grew in the black


to plant and hoe a dozen hills of corn.

Corny, you’ll say, but it isn’t consumerism. So go right ahead abusing me, but don’t gang up with the Neon Conservatives and abuse me for what I’m not. You’re essentially honest, but do get your facts straight.


Malcolm Cowley

From The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987 edited by Hans Bak. Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.