Historical Markers
Malcolm Cowley Historical Marker
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Malcolm Cowley


Marker Location:
U.S. 422, 2 miles W of Belsano

Dedication Date:
August 20, 1994

Behind the Marker

Malcolm Cowley Standing with Pipe
Malcolm Cowley, circa 1950. 
 "I owe Malcolm Cowley the kind of debt no man can ever repay." That’s the way William Faulkner described Cowley’s importance to his own standing as a writer, and given the sweep of the immense shadow Faulkner came to cast over American literature, those words have heft. Few critics ever hear that kind of praise—or are ascribed that kind of influence—but then few held Cowley’s weight and respect. He was, in several ways, the helmsman whose sway steered the course of the nation’s letters for almost half a century.
An acclaimed literary historian and memoirist, Cowley’s first book of recollections, Exile’s Return, published in 1934, helped define the so-called Lost Generation of American writers, led by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Paris after World War I. Some forty years later, he revisited that scene in A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation.
As both a book and magazine editor, Cowley helped launch the career of such novelists as John Cheever, Jack Kerouac, and Ken Kesey; steadied the reputations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald; introduced Nathaniel Hawthorne to a new, mid-twentieth century readership; and virtually salvaged Faulkner from the bins of the largely forgotten. As a translator, he shepherded important works by Paul Valéry, André Gide, and other French writers into English.
Yet for all his worldliness, the poet within Cowley— for he was a fine poet, too— loved nothing more than conjuring his boyhood home in western Pennsylvania through his memories of the countryside in which he found so much solace. The region had a magnetic, even magical, pull on him. His most famous poems,marker "Blue Juniata"  and marker "The Long Voyage" are testaments to that. 
Group Posing with Boxes and Holding Bread(L to R): Adelaide Walker, Melvin Levy, Malcolm Cowley (front row); Polly Boyden, Mary Heaton Vorse, Liston M. Oak, and Charles R. Walker (rear row). Seated is Belle Keller.
Press photo, delegation of progressive journalists, writers and activists, including...
David Malcolm Cowley was born in 1898 on the family’s farm in Belsano and grew up largely in Pittsburgh, where his father practiced medicine. An only child, he made his most enduring lifelong friendships early—with books and with nature. Indeed, he would later affirm that the countryside and its values imbued his writing with a wistful sensibility and an ethical strength. As a boy, he spent his summers wandering through the woods and fields around Belsano; as an adult, he would retreat to the woods regularly in search of solace and solitude.
A stellar student, Cowley graduated from Pittsburgh’s Peabody High School in 1915, and entered Harvard that fall, but, in 1917, cut short his studies to drive ambulances and munitions trucks in France during World War I. After the war, he moved to New York, married, and tried supporting himself as a writer before returning to Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Advocate and completed his degree, with honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key, in 1920.
Virtually penniless, Cowley returned to France on a fellowship in 1921. To add to his coffers, he began writing for a variety of small American magazines. The two years he would spend in France shaped him, his ideas about literature, and his thinking on politics. There, he befriended literature’s rising stars: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, Thornton Wilder, and Hart Crane. There, too, he embraced Marxism, a tenet he held on to until the dawn of World War II. But, mostly, he used his keen mind to question how the world was changing, and how literature fit into that change.
Malcolm Cowley seated.
Malcolm Cowley, March 26, 1963.
Returning to the United States in 1923, Cowley settled in Greenwich Village and took a job as a copywriter. He hated it. When he quit after two years, he vowed to support himself as a man of letters for the rest of his life.
For the next several years, he freelanced for a variety of mostly obscure magazines and worked as a translator of French literature. He also moved to a small farm in Patterson, N.Y., with his first wife, and then, after his divorce and remarriage, to a farm in Sherman, Conn., his home for the rest of his life.
In 1929, literary lightning struck twice. Cowley published Blue Juniata, the first of his two volumes of poetry, a well-received collection of fifty-six meditations that would always be his favorite book, and he replaced the esteemed Edmund Wilson as literary editor of The New Republic. Under Cowley’s stewardship, the magazine’s reputation as one of the nation’s premier intellectual and literary journals grew tremendously, as did its leadership role in directing America’s reading tastes. It became his bully pulpit: Cowley wrote the lead review in each issue. He formally left the magazine to associate himself with Viking Press in 1944, but Cowley would remain a regular voice in its pages—and in America’s literary discourse—into the 1980s. All in all, he contributed almost 1,500 essays and reviews.
As a critic, his approach was simple, even if his thoughts were not. "I try to start with a sort of innocence," he once wrote, "that is, with a lack of pre-conception about what I might or might not discover. To preserve the innocence, I try not to read the so-called secondary or critical sources until my own discoveries, if any, have been made."
In 1934, Exile’s Return, his reflections on the literary life of Paris and Greenwich Village of the 1920s, came out to mixed reviews. Younger critics loved it, but the older generation did not. (This book on the "Lost Generation" would later become his most famous work.) Admittedly stung, Cowley shied away from producing another original book for two decades. Still, he remained prolific, assembling collections of his own work, and editing the writings of others. In 1944, he introduced and edited The Viking Portable Hemingway, followed in 1946 by The Portable Faulkner, the book that resurrected Faulkner’s reputation. He later edited and wrote introductions to several collections of Fitzgerald’s, The Portable Hawthorne, three novels of Hemingway’s, and a reissue of the original edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
In the 1970s, now in his seventies, a time when most writers are winding down, Cowley found his second wind. In 1973, he took another look at the heady days of Paris in A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. Why revisit that time and place? Cowley’s response was two-fold. Professionally, he said, writers then were "more ambitious to produce a masterpiece than writers today." More personally, he wondered, "Did other generations ever laugh so hard, or do crazier things just for the hell of it?"
In 1978, Cowley published a memoir called And I Worked at the Writer's Trade, which he then followed with another memoir, The Dream of the Golden Mountains: Remembering the 1930s, and an extended essay, The View From Eighty, in 1980.
In addition to his writing, Cowley held visiting professorships at several universities, including Stanford and Cornell. He presided over the National Institute of Arts and Letters from 1956 to 1959 and again from 1962 to 1965, and was chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1967 to 1976. Closer to home, he chaired Sherman’s zoning board from 1945 to 1968.
Cowley died of a heart attack at the age of ninety in 1989. In 1990, Viking’s Penguin imprint issued a 604-page collection of his work. Its title, The Portable Malcolm Cowley, was an apt tribute.
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