Paul Ardoin on “Malcolm Cowley, Author of a Lost Generation”
On the first page of Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley attributes the phrase “the lost generation” to someone else—Gertrude Stein (Exile’s 3). But, though Cowley does not claim to have authored the phrase, he certainly contributed to authoring the generation itself. In essay after essay and volume after volume, Cowley shaped cultural perceptions of better-known literary figures, like Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos. In addition to publishing two versions of Exile’s Return (1934 and 1951), Cowley also published such texts as Think Back on Us … : A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930s (1967), A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s (1978), and And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade: Chapters of Literary History, 1918-1978 (1978). That is, in the decades following the 1920s and 1930s of the Lost Generation, Cowley was retelling the stories of that generation, establishing its figures as worthy of critical and popular attention.
At the same time as Cowley was spending years writing introductions to the Lost Generation and shaping popular perceptions of its writers, he was also more literally introducing the works of the Lost Generation and physically shaping those works. As a critic and consultant to major publishers, Cowley wrote introductions to and edited collections of works by Faulkner (The Portable Faulkner 1946) and Hemingway (The Portable Hemingway 1944), thereby both selecting the texts that might introduce readers to those writers and framing those texts through his own lens. Certainly, a new reader’s view of Faulkner’s work would be colored by such introductory statements as “[i]t had better be admitted that almost all his novels have some obvious weakness in structure” (Cowley “Introduction” xxiv). And certainly, a reader’s view of Faulkner’s place inside or outside of a Lost Generation would be influenced by such remarks as “he was home again and not at home” (Cowley “Introduction” vii) and “he has a brooding love for the land where he was born and reared and where, unlike other writers of his generation, he has chosen to spend his life” (xxv).
Cowley’s commentary on Faulkner provides a useful example of the role of the literary critic in positioning a writer inside or outside of a movement, group, or generation. A Second Flowering provides another such example. In this study of the Lost Generation, Cowley chooses “eight representative figures,” establishing a group that “had more experiences in common and was more conscious of possessing shared purposes than the groups that preceded or followed it” (vii). His list here includes Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cummings, Wilder, Wolfe, Crane, and the very same Faulkner he elsewhere describes as, in fact, “unlike” the others of his generation. Cowley, then, arguably authored and revised what we too often think of as a stable category of American expatriate writers.
Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. New York: Penguin, 1994 .
—. “Introduction” to The Portable Faulkner, revised and expanded edition. New York: The Viking Press, 1967 , vii-xxxiii.
—. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking Press, 1973.
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