AND I WORKED AT THE WRITER'S TRADE: Chapters of Literary History, 1918-1978 by Malcolm Cowley

AND I WORKED AT THE WRITER'S TRADE: Chapters of Literary History, 1918-1978

Email this review


The only slight incongruity about Malcolm Cowley's elegant new book is the title. Writing is a trade, yes, and very hard work, but hardly on a par with weaving, and Cowley's art has very little of the popular about it. Several themes recur: changes in literary fashions, how writers write, the dangers of meta-Freudian criticism, art and ethics. Tucked in are two appealing essays on writers, friends of his, who (deliberately?) eschewed the fame Cowley feels they deserved. S. Damon Foster, Harvard '14, in his youth a poet, wrote about Blake's symbolism too early to be fashionable. Robert M. Coates, Yale '19, in the Twenties wrote a Dadaist novel but settled down to writing book and art criticism for the young New Yorker. The affectionate tone in which Cowley treats these two men permeates the book. Never sentimental, he speaks clearly and disagrees when he must, but without the personal animus one finds so often in literary discussions. The style is quiet but polished: the book is full of memorable and funny sayings. ""As compared with Continental Europeans, the English since Boswell, who was Scottish, and Americans from the beginning have seldom been good at literary interviews."" ""Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens."" . . . . In common with most intellectuals of his generation, Cowley and his conscience had to wrestle with the complexities of developments in Russia--whether to follow the Leninist, Ttotskyist, or Stalinist line. Contemporaries and historians of the period will read with interest his assessment of the ideological struggle, his own part in it, his decision in favor of quietism. This too is told without bitterness. Malcolm Cowley is now in his eightieth year. He is lucid, and has earned the right to be mellow.

Pub Date: May 4th, 1978
Publisher: Viking