The Travels of Malcolm Cowley
He admitted with ready generosity that men like Sinclair Lewis and Dreiser had done something to point out the diseases with which laissez-faire economy had infected us; but he foresaw for the immediate future a literature of poems and manifestoes with which the factory hands, the farmers, and the office workers would be bombarded by revolutionists from airplanes. If a capitalist war were declared again, he believed it could be stopped by these means, and he was even taking lessons in flying.
Memoirs of Hecate County
“Convictions,” Nietzsche observed in Human, All-Too-Human, “ are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” In our century of ideological ferment, the accuracy of that shrewd aphorism has often been disquietingly confirmed, not only in political assertion and action but also in intellectual life. The impingement of ideology on literature has been a particularly problematic instance of the relation between politics and art because it has laid upon novelists and poets and critics a heavy freight of “convictions” when, according to our stereotypical ideal, as serious writers they should have been moving unimpeded toward the discovery through language of at least some personal truth.
Obviously, no writer ever gives a really innocent account of the world: his assumed values necessarily determine what he sees and how he conceives of the truth; and since these values must to some extent be grounded in his relation to class, culture, society, and state, virtually any act of writing is ultimately implicated in political considerations. But if, as I would argue, an essential autonomy of perception lies at the heart of literary creation, the consequences of a writer’s explicit adherence to an ideological system may be fundamentally different from the effects of his merely assuming or professing certain political values, however extreme or even repugnant those values may seem to us.
America in the 1930’s presents an instructive instance of literature under the sway of ideology, for, at least in the major literary center of New York, this was the decade when revolutionary Marxism dominated writing as no formal ideology has dominated our literature before or since. The attractiveness of Marxism for American intellectuals in general during the years of the Great Depression had obvious enough causes, and it is a story that has often been told. The issue I should like to raise here is the particular attraction of radical politics for the American literary imagination, and the peculiar tension between the literary vocation which many of these writers emphatically professed and their commitment to the revolutionary ideal. Malcolm Cowley’s newly published memoir of the 30’s, The Dream of the Golden Mountains,1 offers valuable double-edged testimony on these questions, for it is a book equally instructive in its virtues of reportage and in its lapses and silences.
Cowley, like Stephen Spender in England, is one of those all-around men-of-letters—critic, editor, poet, memoirist—who somehow cast a larger shadow than their work because they manage to place themselves at the center of literary activity and literary politics. Throughout the 3O’s, Cowley served as literary editor of the New Republic, in which capacity, both through his own weekly reviews and through his editorial decisions, he gave his section of the magazine a distinctly Marxist and often explicitly Stalinist tilt (when John Dewey broke with the magazine in 1937 because in his view it had betrayed its liberal heritage, Cowley’s performance as editor was one of the principal points to which he objected). Cowley was in fact a kind of restless literary lion among fellow-travelers during the 30’s, circulating petitions, composing manifestoes, attending congresses of the Left, organizing radical associations of writers outside the confines of the party but never inimical to it. Now in The Dream of the Golden Mountains he contemplates the radicalism of his circle not confessionally, as a God That Failed, but in a tone of experience-chastened wisdom and self-understanding, as a noble but naive illusion of his youth and that of his likeminded contemporaries. And having chronicled the sojourn in Paris during the 20’s of his literary generation in Exile’s Return (1934), he is himself centrally concerned, by way of providing a direct sequel to that earlier book, to explain in this new volume what radicalism meant to American writers as writers.
The Dream of the Golden Mountains makes engaging reading as a document of the 30’s, though it is not altogether the kind of account one would have hoped to have from Cowley. He is not really a “literary historian,” as he formally designates himself in And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade (1978), but at his best as a memoirist he writes lucidly, gracefully, and with incisive aptness. Thus the group portrait of the Lost Generation that he offers in Exile’s Return evokes the concrete experience of literary expatriation in the 20’s and provides insight into its meaning. Given the nature of the earlier book, one would have liked to find in The Dream of the Golden Mountains a vivid and ample description of American literary life during the Depression years. In bits and pieces, Cowley seems on the point of doing this very well, but for long stretches, a much flatter political chronicle predominates.
He gives us a beguiling introduction to his own experience of the 30’s in an initial description of the family-style existence of the New Republic in its old offices in a New York brownstone, complete with resident gourmet chef and butler (surely intellectual magazines have not had it so good since). In the subsequent chapters, there are some memorable local images of writers Cowley knew—Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, the Fitzgeralds, and, at greater length, Hart Crane, who was accompanied by Cowley’s first wife on the trip from Mexico that ended in the poet’s suicide. A single sentence on Dreiser shows how effective Cowley’s prose can be in rendering such figures: “His mind, it often seemed to us, was like an attic in an earthquake, full of big trunks that slithered about and popped open one after another, so that he spoke sometimes as a Social Democrat, sometimes as a Marxist, sometimes as almost a fascist, and sometimes as a sentimental reformer.”
But Cowley’s principal aim, as I have said, is to provide an explanation—there are moments when it verges on apologia—for the gravitation of literary people toward Marxist politics, and with that purpose in mind, he devotes an inordinate amount of space to a simple review of public events in which for the most part he did not participate directly, and which have been the subject of innumerable historical accounts. Whole chapters are assigned to the epidemic of bank failures in 1932, the Bonus Army, the National Hunger March, the career of the NRA, and even Cowley’s peripheral presence as observer on a couple of these political occasions does not help him to shed much new light on them. The amount of attention given to such events and movements produces a certain regrettable quality of diffuseness in the book, though of course what Cowley assumes is that the story has to be retold in order to make understandable the sharp turn to the Left on the part of American writers of the period.
First, just before the Crash, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial had raised grave doubts about justice in America. Then, the writers who had come of age during the 20’s in a climate of hedonism, devil-may-care cynicism, elitist devotion to art, suddenly found themselves surrounded by a landscape of disaster. A million or more displaced Americans were on the road as hoboes; wretched shantytowns spread like a murrain at the outskirts of our cities; protesting unemployed veterans were treated like criminal subversives; striking workers were clubbed into submission, sometimes actually gunned down by thugs supposedly enforcing the law.
The 1932 visit to the striking miners of Pineville, Kentucky by a delegation of writers, including Cowley, Edmund Wilson, and Waldo Frank, which is effectively recounted here, was an emblematic event in the intellectuals’ discovery of this hitherto ignored American reality. The writers were threatened, briefly arrested, a couple of them beaten, and then they were hustled out of town at gunpoint by the local police. There is an eloquent photograph in The Dream of the Golden Mountains of Waldo Frank’s battered head, crisscrossed with surgical tape: writers were being taught with a vengeance about the brute force to which the powerless in their society were exposed.
On these crisis-ridden public grounds alone, it is not surprising that many intellectuals should have arrived at a radical diagnosis of the national malady. Thus Cowley, in a rejoinder to Archibald MacLeish in the New Republic (September 30, 1933),2 could proclaim that our men who gave their lives in the Great War had in fact died in vain; for “the invaders have come and taken our land in spite of those who died.” It is a way of defining the national predicament at once propagandistically rousing and profoundly misconceived, and underlying it is an assumption characteristic of 30’s radicals which we shall consider presently.
In any case, in The Dream of the Golden Mountains Cowley is not content to attribute the movement leftward to the brute impact of public events. Instead, he wants to argue that there was a unique fit between the revolutionary ideal and the deepest inner needs of his generation of writers. He characterizes that ideal in his foreword as a “daydream of revolutionary brotherhood,” managing in this way both to expose the ideal as an illusion and to evoke its grandeur, its nobility, its sweetness, for the dreamers:
There was hope . . ., the apocalyptic hope that a City of Man would rise on the other side of disaster. By surrendering their middle-class identities, by joining the workers in an idealized army, writers might help to overthrow “the system” and might go marching with comrades, shoulder to shoulder, out of injustice and illogic into the golden mountains. That was the dream in an exalted form; I remember reading it in the shining eyes of younger people.
The way the rhetoric begins to go bad is symptomatic of Cowley’s fundamentally sentimental approach to his subject. If a phrase like “shoulder to shoulder” may be attributed to a mildly satiric imitation of the political slogans used by the revolutionists themselves, that final reading of the ideal in the shining eyes of the young, which sounds like a line from a poshlost patriotic cantata, is solely the responsibility of the author and an awkward reflection of the stance he has assumed. Perhaps intellectuals always tend to sentimentality when they sound the theme of solidarity, for it generally issues from a sense of self-pity over their own condition of alienation. The prospect of comradeship is in fact Cowley’s most recurrent explanation for the revolutionary politics of the American writers: one begins- to feel that they turned to Marx and Lenin and Stalin chiefly because they were lonely. In this mood, Cowley observes later on:
For Communism not only furnished a clear answer to the problems raised by the Depression—that was the economic side of it—and not only promised to draw writers from their isolation by creating a vital new audience for the fine arts in general—that was the professional side—but it also seemed capable of supplying the moral qualities that writers had missed in bourgeois society: the comradeship in struggle, the self-imposed discipline, the ultimate purpose (any action being justified insofar as it contributed to the proletarian revolution), the opportunity for heroism, and the human dignity. Communism offered at least the possibility to be reborn into a new life.
Communism so conceived provides the perfect sequel to the story Cowley had told in Exile’s Return— and, in fact, this passage is close in substance to the original 1934 revolutionary epilogue of that book, wisely deleted in later editions. The 20’s, at least in Cowley’s account, had been a time of sick souls: he concludes his portrait of the generation with the exemplary tale of Harry Crosby, a poet who committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. The 30’s then provided in Marxist doctrine a beautifully effective framework for conversionary experiences of a particularly millenarian character. The most prominent symptom, moreover, of the spiritual malaise of writers in the 20’s, as Cowley describes it, was precisely their loneliness. In the America where they had grown up, they had no responsive audience for their work, no sense of deep connection with the national culture; and in Europe, from which most of them would finally be impelled to return, they were isolated by background and language, embarked on an exuberant but also vaguely uneasy intellectual holiday. If the Symbolist Tower, with its invitation to retreat from the vulgar masses, overshadowed serious Western writing in the 20’s, as Edmund Wilson had argued in Axel’s Castle, critics like Cowley in the 30’s could feel a self-congratulatory sense of exultation in issuing revolutionary invitations for literature to descend from the Tower, as he did in 1938 at the conclusion of a piece on Yeats’s Autobiography: the new social poets, he proposed, may have to surrender certain subtleties, “yet they might gain immeasureably from their closeness to a vast new audience whose language they speak and whose desires they express” (New Republic, September 28, 1938).
Much of this explanation of the appeal of revolution for writers seems valid enough, though I am inclined to suspect that the odd emphasis on loneliness may project on the face of the generation a personal preoccupation of Cowley’s, and the repeated focus on rapturous images of golden mountains and brothers marching together leaves certain aspects of the radical experience entirely out of the picture. In any case, Cowley’s own testimony as well as his retrospective interpretation demonstrates how different in many fundamental respects literary radicalism of the 30’s was from its counterpart in the late 60’s. The earlier wave of radicalism was rigorously ideological in character, possessing a precise technical vocabulary, a defined political program, and for party members and fellow-travelers, an ultimate allegiance to a specific political entity, the Soviet Union. The messianic hopefulness of the movement, as Cowley observes, was intermingled with a peculiar set of expectations about the vital part that writers as writers would play in the radical enterprise: the proletarian literature they were to create would help bring about the revolution, and the revolution fulfilled would in turn give them an ideal audience of true comrades as well as an ideal subject of human dignity at last realized in history (perhaps, if one may invoke the Soviet model, in a glorious vision of tractors rumbling into the crimson sunset).
Finally, the 30’s radicals often evinced a kind of wistful Americanism, returning to their native heritage, paradoxically, through the vehicle of revolutionary doctrine. There is a self-conscious love of the American landscape, American lore, the poor and humble of the American people, the libertarian traditions of American history, in a good deal of this 30’s writing. Cowley’s image of a land invaded, a nation usurped, is symptomatic: the revolutionary program would restore America to itself. Elsewhere, Cowley praised Granville Hicks’s The Great Tradition precisely for what he conceived to be its success in “show[ing] that revolutionary writing, instead of being alien to the American tradition, was always at the heart of it” (New Republic, November 8, 1933).
In contrast to all this, the radicalism of the 60’s was less truly ideological than attitudinal, conceived the world less in socioeconomic terms than in racist categories. Like the more rigorously doctrinaire Marxism of the 30’s, it divided humanity into schematically opposed forces of good and evil, but the former were generally identified by the darkness of their pigmentation: it often sufficed to be an ex-colonial nation populated by non-Caucasians or at least by non-Europeans in order to be seen as a beacon of liberty, no matter how murderously repressive the actual form of government, no matter how ruthlessly aggressive the intentions toward neighboring countries, dark-skinned or otherwise. The correlative of this bad conscience as Occidentals was a powerful revulsion from what the 60’s radicals liked to call “Amerika”—meaning not only the notorious military-industrial complex that was said to rule the country, but also the look and feel and smell of American consumer culture with its middle-class comforts, which, after all, had been the dream of the golden mountains toward which the average American had been successfully advancing during the first two postwar decades. America was no longer imagined as a nation usurped but as a country eaten to the core with a malignant growth nurtured by its own corrupt character—a growth which now threatened to infect all mankind.
This rancorous vision had rather little of the messianic hopefulness that marked the radicalism of the 30’s, and in any event literature was not imagined to have any pride of place in the unfolding order of Third World liberation. Some of the student revolutionaries of the 60’s were in fact anti-intellectual, openly reviling the written word, even undertaking such idealistic projects as the destruction of library card-catalogues. There was now no ideal of a new proletarian literature to be fashioned as a revolutionary instrument, and the radicalism of the times was far from engulfing the major American literary centers. There was, admittedly, a certain vogue of poems that flaunted images of napalm-burned Asian peasants, and some poets were moved as far into disaffection as Adrienne Rich, who proclaimed in one memorable poem that she felt guilty for writing in the language of the oppressor. But these were exceptions to the general rule (perhaps encouraged in part by the practical consideration that the protest poem had a perfect audience and occasion in the teach-in). There was scarcely any substantial attempt to create a body of radical imaginative literature in the American 60’s; most of our leading writers were touched only peripherally by the movement and some (like John Updike and Saul Bellow) remained quietly contemptuous of it.
The 60’s revolutionaries, in their own term, were “radicalized”—a locution that probably reflects the increasing tendency of American English to describe human realities as mechanical process but that also reveals, I suspect, an assumption of instantaneous and total transformation. The 30’s Marxists, in their more decorous idiom, “went Left”—in many cases, treading cautiously as they went because the formidable and not altogether trustworthy apparatus of the Communist party stood at the end of that path, and carrying their baggage of literary aspirations with them. Malcolm Cowley, because he places such emphasis on those idealistically shining eyes fixed on a golden horizon, does not give much sense of what happened morally to these leftward travelers when they arrived at the outskirts of the party. His memoir, that is, conveys little of the ruthlessness, the orgies of character assassination, the readiness to prostitute literature, the willingness to abandon individual conscience, that went on in the name of loyalty to the revolutionary cause. In these more disagreeable aspects of life on the Left, Cowley himself was frequently enough involved. One need not insist that a memoir be a confession, but Cowley’s account of the 30’s foreshortens and blurs the moral history of the times by breaking off around 1935, with merely a summary chapter to tie up the decade. What is chiefly omitted in this fashion is the impact of the Moscow Trials, which was the central trauma of the 30’s for leftists, violently splitting the radical intellectuals in America between Stalinists, who found ways to justify mass murder of staggering proportions, and those who felt compelled to conclude that Soviet Russia had hideously perverted any conceivable revolutionary ideal.
Cowley himself, with minor reservations, remained essentially on the side of the Stalinists through the end of the decade, something about which he is not altogether candid in The Dream of the Golden Mountains. He could never bring himself to join the party, he tells us, because he was “a writer primarily and not a revolutionist or a politician,” and was in fact dismayed by what party membership seemed to be doing to many writers’ prose style; and by 1935, “I had developed other than literary doubts about what the party was doing in America and Russia too.” Such doubts did not prevent him from defending the activities of the GPU in the Spanish Civil War, from attacking the anti-Stalinist Partisan Review as comparable to the worst organs of reaction, and, as late as 1940, in a review of W.B. Krivitsky’s In Stalin’s Secret Service, from asserting this of the Great Purge: “[Krivitsky] wants us to believe something that seems highly improbable—namely, that there was never any plot against Stalin and that all the victims of the purge were wantonly executed” (New Republic, January 22, 1940). In this particular review, Cowley does make gestures toward striking a balance, admitting that there are “gangsters” as well as “heroes” in the Soviet Union, whose existence has forced him to revise his earlier judgment of that country; but the general effect, as the sentence I have quoted indicates, is an apologia for the Soviet regime and, as Edmund Wilson objected in a vehement letter to Cowley, “Stalinist character assassination [directed at Krivitsky] of the most reckless and libelous sort.”3
An earlier letter of Wilson’s (October 20, 1938), occasioned by Cowley’s attack on Partisan Review, touches on an essential ambiguity of the involvement of American writers in radical politics. Wilson, who himself had become increasingly disenchanted with the Soviet regime after his trip to Russia in 1935, first rebukes Cowley for both his polemical tactics and the positions he had been taking: “You’re a great guy to talk about the value of a non-partisan literary review after the way you’ve been plugging the damned old Stalinist line, which gets more and more cockeyed by the minute.” Then, Wilson goes on to a kind of moral exhortation which is not untypical of his letters to his literary friends and associates:
I wish you would purge your head of politics—revolutionary and literary alike—and do the valuable work of which you’re capable. I think politics is bad for you because it’s not real to you: because what you’re really practicing is not politics but literature; and it only messes up a job like yours to pretend it’s something else and try to use it like something else.
Precisely in this regard, it is important to draw some distinction between writers and non-literary intellectuals in the movement leftward. There were of course 30’s intellectuals who lived and breathed politics, who conceived the world in political categories, like Sidney Hook or his friend Herbert Solow, whose progress from the Menorah Journal through Marxism to the staff of Fortune magazine constitutes a kind of paradigmatic career for New York intellectuals of his generation.4 But for many literary people, as Wilson argues in the case of Cowley, the politics was not altogether real, and giving oneself wholeheartedly to what wasn’t real could lead both to unconscionable blindness in political activity and to the twisting or maiming of literature itself.
Perhaps the most egregious instance of the latter effect was the illusory ideal of proleterian literature with the parade of crude, schematic, tendentious works that it engendered. Cowley, at a retrospective distance of four decades, is appropriately satiric on the formulaic, hortatory features of this school, but he is still able to assert of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty that “for all its faults, [it] comes as close to being a classic as anything that directly emerged from the proleterian school.” One wonders what notion of a literary classic could lie behind this remark; for Odets’s one-act play, with its noble, downtrodden workers, its sinister company bosses, its dialogue that is scarcely more than a pastiche of slogans (“Working class, unite and fight! Tear down the slaughterhouse of our old lives! Let freedom really ring,” etc.), is a piece of agit-prop that only by some stretch of classification can be called literature at all. But then Cowley is allowing his perception of the play as a piece of writing to be submerged in his recollection of the first performances by Harold Clurman’s Group Theater in 1935, with the participation onstage of Odets himself, Lee J. Cobb, and Elia Kazan. Even then, the play was not in the slightest degree a serious catalyst of revolution, whether among the American proletariat or the intelligentsia; but it did serve, one gathers, as a stirring ritual of solidarity for intellectuals who had gone Left, allowing them to experience as an audience the warm shoulder-to-shoulder feeling of brave comrades, and thus displacing literature with liturgy.
What is at issue finally is the capacity and the responsibility of serious literature—and of course seriousness by no means precludes all kinds of playfulness—to tell the truth. In the earlier 30’s, a good many writers, Cowley among them, chose to believe that Marxism offered them a set of scientifically grounded principles for telling the truth, and that their personal observation might primarily provide striking illustrations for these general principles through which history could be given a progressive direction. By the end of The Dream of the Golden Mountains, Cowley can summarize the fading of this illusion in the following measured terms: “Gradually we should find that the movement might diminish a writer by giving him what seemed to be noble motives for concealing part of the truth.” Nicely phrased as this is, it does not quite concede enough, for if truth-telling is the gravest, most demanding task to which the writer is called by his vocation, to conceal a part is to misrepresent the whole and thus fundamentally to betray one’s vocation.
There is, let me suggest, a basic contradiction between ideology—any ideology—and literature, for ideology represents the world through general, programmatic, preconceived principles of explanation, while the literary imagination when it is fully alive uses the artful resources of language to make constant small or large discoveries about the general through a bold, unprejudiced evocation of the particular. This evocation will involve a considerable degree of openness to paradox, contradiction, inconsistency, unpredictability, enigma, all phenomena that ideology does not readily assimilate or even tolerate. Ideologically, Dostoevsky may have been a reactionary mystagogue, but as a writer of genius he dares to imagine his characters—socialists, anarchists, diabolists, orthodox believers, and confused hommes moyens sensuels— in the fullness of their wild and at times alluring individuality: he is great enough, that is, to listen to them instead of making them counters in a preconceived scheme.
A singleminded devotion to literature, of course, hardly places a writer above the political fray, and it certainly gives him no immunity to pernicious or merely foolish political ideas, as such notorious modern instances as Céline, Pound, Eliot, and Lawrence make clear. But there is an essential difference between a writer’s appropriating from a climate of ideas and attitudes certain notions consonant with his own vision, and his adopting an ideological system; the former need not undermine his autonomy of perception while the latter necessarily does just that. Lawrence in Women in Love may have more than one axe to grind, but over the hum of the ideological whetstone he allows the urgent voices of his characters to speak out in the dramatic immediacy of their moral interplay (in such interplay, even the spokesman for his own ideas, Birkin, can be imagined with a measure of complicating irony). By contrast, Lawrence in The Plumed Serpent is working insistently with a neo-pagan, quasi-fascist ideology, and one feels too often that character, scene, and event have been forced out of shape to fit the rigid compartments of a prefabricated system.
Because literature is a representation of the world doubly mediated by the consciousness of the writer and the formal properties of his language, many of the greatest literary achievements, from Job to Joyce, have used the resonance of intricately patterned words conveying imagined acts to intimate both the unfathomable wonder and the wrenching contradictions of mind trying to grasp the world. When literature, however, becomes the handmaiden of ideology, this essential activity of our culture is aborted; for ideology evinces singularly little curiosity about the mind, being content to believe that the mind is a given which can be explained by class and economics, by national or racial traits, by biological determinism, or whatever the case may be.
When Edmund Wilson in 1938 exclaimed to Cowley, “I wish you would purge your mind of politics”—perhaps, with a half-conscious echo of Dr. Johnson’s “clear your mind of cant”—he may have been addressing himself as well, though he would have been too fond of his habitually authoritative stance to have admitted that, possibly not even to himself. Wilson’s own day-by-day observations during this decade of revolutionary fervor have just been made available for public inspection in the second volume of his notebooks and diaries to be published to date.5 Now, Wilson’s journals must be taken with some caution as an index of what engaged his mind and feelings through this period, for in contrast to writers like Gide and Virginia Woolf, he did not use the journal form, apart from a few exceptional instances, for the considered, ample articulation of his attitudes and experience. Rather, these diaries are essentially a writer’s workbook, largely comprised of fragmentary notes, sometimes in telegraphic style, which he thought he might use later, whether for something as immediate as a magazine article or something as indeterminate as a future piece of fiction, poetry, or drama. It is reasonable to assume, then, that at least some of what he was thinking and feeling was entirely left out of the notebooks, and much else is only intimated with cryptic terseness. Nevertheless, The Thirties does give us 800 pages of contemporaneous testimony by the foremost American literary intellectual of the period, and its evidence cannot be dismissed.
What might particularly surprise preconceptions about Wilson in the 30’s is the paltry place, quantitatively and emotionally, that he allots in his journal to political reflection, radical or otherwise. The Thirties includes one fascinating document in this regard: a kind of private manifesto some 2,000 words in length which Wilson wrote to reason out for himself the considerations that were leading him to vote the Communist ticket in the presidential election of 1932. This statement jibes well enough with Cowley’s general account of going Left. Capitalism is imagined to have arrived at a total and irretrievable catastrophe; liberalism and socialism ultimately align themselves with the ruling classes; while the Communists are seen as a brave brotherhood embodying the very virtues which the literary intelligentsia had never managed to possess: “They school themselves in austere living, in the discipline that makes possible united action, and in the courage required to declare openly their revolutionary objects and to lead the working class against the owners.” Wilson would be disabused of these illusions more rapidly and more emphatically than many of his contemporaries, but what the rest of the record of The Thirties leads one to suspect is that the political ideal, however visibly and sincerely professed, was never at the real center of his concerns, never enveloped his life as a writer.
The dominant event in Wilson’s emotional world during the 30’s was not the trauma of the Great Depression but the bizarre accidental death in 1932 of his second wife, Margaret Canby. That sudden loss, which filled him with guilt and longing and despair, obsessed him throughout the decade, haunting his dreams, casting a threat of meaninglessness over the projects and pleasures of his life, still pursuing him as late as 1940, when he was already married to Mary McCarthy. More abundant, though less emotionally fraught, than these thoughts of Margaret Canby are the clinically explicit accounts (as in The Twenties) of Wilson’s sexual encounters with a variety of pseudonymously masked women (some of these erotic episodes, with little modification, would be inserted into “The Princess with the Golden Hair;” the central novella of Memoirs of Hecate County that scandalized censors in 1946). I obviously do not want to suggest that Wilson between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five had little intrinsic interest in sex, only that he went into his sexual experiences with one eye to how they might become grist for the writer’s mill, and I think this was even truer of his political experiences.
In the early 30’s, Wilson was devoting a good deal of time to reportorial work of a radical, muckraking sort, but the notes he took on his expeditions into the urban and rural centers of American poverty are for the most part entirely continuous with the non-political entries in his writer’s workbook, primarily motivated by the impulse of verbal mimesis. Whether the object of description is a skyline, a railroad bridge, the quality of light in a sunset, or urban destitution, the compelling task is to get the thing right in words, to find the aptest adjectives, the most revelatory metaphors, the most expressive cadences, and perhaps the single summarizing detail that catches the meaning of the scene as an immanent symbol. All these manifestations of the writer’s attachment to mimesis are apparent in this record of a scene on Harrison Street in Chicago, observed during the winter of 1932-33 when Wilson was gathering material for a New Republic article:
The snow, big dull dark square industrial buildings around it—blackened weeds old springs, picked bones of old cars and black old metallic junk unsalvageable even for the scaly-scabrous-looking huts that have fastened to the vacant lot like barnacles, made out of old tar paper and tin, with stovepipes all slightly crooked and buttresses of packing boxes—people who can’t stand for the shelters—a pole flying a black torn rag, the flag of despair.
Such notes, of course, are the work of a self-consciously engaged writer, but one whose deepest attention is given to the writerly shaping of the experience rather than to the political cause served by the reportage. By the second half of the decade, when Wilson was already “writing out” his intellectual involvement with Marxism in To the Finland Station and was becoming estranged from the practical politics of the Left, these exercises in literary perception would be focused more and more on non-ideological subjects. Indeed, some of the most arresting of the later journal entries are in content and emphasis what in a few years it would become fashionable to call “existential” reflections. Wilson the literary man, turning the page of a book, suddenly observes his hand and is shocked to see in it the prehensile paw of the immemorial primate, “stubby fingers with nails at the service of the dreaming horizonless mind.” Getting out of an elevator in a darkened office building, he is “appalled” by the abrupt vision of a man’s face, staring at him with the indelible stamp of a primitiveness that eons have not altered: “Humanity was still an animal, still glaring out of its dark caves, not yet having mastered the world, not even comprehending what he saw. I was frightened—at him, at us all. The horrible look of the human race” (Wilson’s emphasis). These lines were written a few months after Wilson’s return from Russia, where he and many of his friends had imagined that a new hopeful order of human society was being built in the light of reason. Now, increasingly, instead of vistas of golden mountains there were dark caves which simply could not be encompassed by Marxism or, for that matter, by the explanatory apparatus of any political ideology. Wilson lacked the gifts as a writer of fiction to find in that medium an adequate expression of these brooding thoughts, but they enter profoundly into the volume which would be his most enduring collection of critical essays, The Wound and the Bow (1940), with its acute sense of the link between art and anguish, and its brilliant pioneering study of the troubled Dickens, “The Two Scrooges.”
The New York intellectuals, of course, despite their occasional illusions to the contrary, are not the whole of American literature, and at the very moment in which we have been observing Edmund Wilson, down in Mississippi Faulkner was putting the finishing touches on Absalom, Absalom! (1936), in which he fashioned a remarkable fictional instrument for sounding the depths of his own caves and chasms. With the passage of time, this novel stands out more strongly than ever as the masterwork of American fiction of the 30’s. Granted, Faulkner had the distinct advantage of genius (however wild, unreliable, and self-subverting it could be in him), but he also must have experienced an appreciable measure of freedom to be so utterly removed from all those ideological wars, the endless cliques and petitions and writers’ congresses, the compromising entanglements of imaginative literature in polemic journalism, the expectations that writing should carry out a defined program and exemplify set principles. Far from this shrill scene of conscripted writers, he worked away at inventing his own eccentric artistic idiom, using models as disparate as the Bible, Cervantes, Conrad, and Joyce, and with that idiom, he articulated his compelling doom-ridden vision of Southern history.
Faulkner seeks to represent in his fiction the decaying fabric of a whole culture, but only through the mental reality of his characters, for like other modernists (and unlike the proletarian novelists), he assumes that objects, people, and events do not submit themselves to bur unmediated knowledge but must necessarily be known in the multiple versions of the different minds that construe them, that constantly reinvent them. Here, for example, is how Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom! imagines the Sutpen mansion in 1865, just as the half-brothers Charles and Henry, back from the war, one bent on matrimony and the other on fratricide, are about to meet before its gate:
Inside the gate what was once a park now spread, unkempt, in shaggy desolation, with an air dreamy, remote and aghast like the unshaven face of a man just waking from ether, up to a huge house where a young girl waited in a wedding dress made from stolen scraps, the house partaking of the air of scaling desolation, not having suffered from invasion but a shell marooned and forgotten in a backwater of catastrophe—a skeleton giving of itself in slow driblets of furniture and carpet, linen and silver, to help to die the torn and anguished men who knew, even while dying, that for months now the sacrifice and the anguish were in vain.
As in many major novels, mimesis and memory are interfused, the object of representation seen under the aspect of a certain destiny, through the warp of a highly particularized dimension of time. The passage is all one sinuous, breathless sentence, down to the perfect concluding cadence of “were in vain,” which resolves the meaning of the whole evocation. An uninhibited figurative imagination, akin to the macabre 17th-century wit of Donne and Sir Thomas Browne, discovers the reality of the imagined object from line to line by translating it into metaphor: the dreamy unshaven face of a man waking from ether, a marooned ship, a cannibalized skeleton. It was no doubt with such passages in mind that Malcolm Cowley, writing in 1940, objected to Faulkner’s creating “allegorical melodramas dressed up with stormy but second-rate romantic poetry.” (By 1946, Cowley would play an important role as editor of the Viking Portable Faulkner in consolidating the reputation of the Southern novelist, but at the end of this decade of Marxist criticism, he was still insisting—the occasion was a review of The Hamlet— that only Faulkner’s “daylight” fiction could command any respect, and that Sanctuary was Faulkner’s best novel.)
Faulkner’s weakness for overblown and self-indulgent stylistic effects is notorious, but here I think his language exhibits a beautiful Tightness of intuition. For Faulkner the culture of the South after the Civil War is caught in a terrifying temporal paralysis, condemned constantly to look back on the traumatic events that destroyed all its illusions about itself, incapable—as Jean-Paul Sartre showed in his brilliant 1939 essay on The Sound and the Fury—of projecting any future toward which it might orient its movements. Quentin’s perception of the Sutpen house, which is a small instance of Faulkner’s larger enterprise, is not a “description” of the all-too-familiar white-columned Southern mansion, nor a mere embellishment of the usual picture with macabre imagery. Instead, precisely through the flamboyant figurative language, we get a sense of the mansion as a kind of synechdoche for the South trapped in the medium of historical time that has turned into a living death: an atmosphere of ether, a backwater of catastrophe, a skeleton crazily distributing, to no avail, in slow driblets, what were once its contents.
There is an object-lesson here in what a writer’s devotion to his writing may at best achieve. Faulkner through Quentin gets at the innermost reality of his historical subject by abandoning himself with an artist’s daring to the momentum of his language, to the submerged network of associations it touches within him. The Sutpen mansion thus represented is not the rehearsal of a picturesque stereotype of the fallen South, but a haunting image that somehow implicates the bizarre and contradictory predicament of evanescent man living in history. One sees why some critics have been led to argue that the impulses of fantasy and realism may have a common root. The eccentric and commanding counterexample of Faulkner in the midst of this decade of writing on the Left suggests how much literature surrenders of its capacity to tell the harsh, elusive, protean truth when it makes itself the means to political ends.
p>1 Viking, 328 pp., $14.95.
2 A generous selection of Cowley's New Republic pieces from the 30's has been assembled by Henry Dan Piper under the title, Think Back cm Us (Southern Illinois University Press, 1967).
3 Cowley has published the concluding paragraphs of a long letter he wrote in reply to Wilson in And I Worked at the Writer's Trade (Viking, 1978), pp. 154-157. Here he reiterates his skepticism toward Krivitsky (the review expressed a good deal more than that) and confesses that he is thoroughly sick of politics, would like to put it behind him forever. But he does not really answer 'Wilson's basic charge—that he was serving as an apologist for Stalinist policies.
4 Solow's story has been aptly recounted as an exemplary instance of the 30's milieu by Alan Wald in a carefully documented article, “Herbert Solow: Portrait of a New York Intellectual,” Prospects, No. 3, 1977.
5 The Thirties, edited with an introduction by Leon Edel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 800 pp., $17.50.