The Observer Review: The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987

In November 1960, a displaced Easterner and visiting professor at Stanford University named Malcolm Cowley wrote a letter urging British intellectual C.P. Snow to acquaint himself with several of Cowley’s writing students, among them Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Joanna Ostrow, and a certain “wild young man from Texas, expert in pornography.” At Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, Larry McMurtry, under Cowley’s tutelage, was at work on his third book, Leaving Cheyenne, a novel that would cement his path toward name-brand status—a status from which Cowley, if he ever reached it to begin with, has since fallen.

Eight hundred and twenty-two pages of personal correspondence and detailed notes won’t change that, but The Long Voyage is a must-own for any devotee of American literature. Cowley, perhaps best remembered today as a chronicler of the Lost Generation in such books as Exile’s Return, began his writing career as a poet, gained prominence as literary editor at The New Republic, then worked as an advising editor at Viking. From these latter two posts he could claim a large share in kickstarting or rescuing the careers of William Faulkner, John Cheever, Jack Kerouac and very many others.

A number of Texans included. For much of Cowley’s life (1898-1989) and for most of his  career, Texas was no more than a dusty blip on the book industry’s radar. (Some may say the situation hasn’t changed.) But no region was beyond Cowley’s influence, and The Long Voyage provides insight into several Lone Star luminaries, among them Cormac McCarthy, Katherine Anne Porter and William Goyen.

And McMurtry, of course. In addition to his letter to Snow, Cowley in 1968 wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation in support of this “extraordinary character: Texas drawl, cowboy mannerisms, combined with an unusual knowledge of contemporary and seventeenth-century literature.” The letter is notable in particular for the glimpse it provides into the early roots of McMurtry’s Archer City fortress of books: “Since his fellowship at Stanford wasn’t large enough to support him and his wife,” Cowley writes, “he supplemented his income by haunting the places where second-hand books are sold cheaply and picking up first editions for collectors.”

About the other literary legend in whom Texas claims a share, Cowley writes, in a 1965 letter to Random House VP Albert Erskine, “Cormac McCarthy is a new talent, and I congratulate you on finding him.” Random House had just published The Orchard Keeper, a book Cowley enjoyed. McCarthy, Cowley notes, writes “with a sort of baresark joy as he rushes into scenes of violence,” a quality McCarthy has since become infamous for. (Erskine, ex-husband of Texan Katherine Anne Porter, would go on to be McCarthy’s editor for another 20 years, a relationship featured in this Observer piece.)

The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987 Ed. Hans Bak Harvard University Press 822 pgs; $39.95
The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1987
Ed. Hans Bak
Harvard University Press
822 pgs; $39.95

Also worth exploring is Cowley’s correspondence with his nearly lifelong friend, or perhaps frenemy, Porter, who once wrote in a letter of her own, “Malcolm Cowley never was anything but cold oatmeal from the neck up.” (Ernest Hemingway had a different starch in mind, describing Cowley as carrying “a stupid look on his potato face.”)

To editor Hans Bak’s credit, The Long Voyage offers sufficient glimpse into Cowley’s cold-oatmeal side, presenting an even-handed picture of a human being rather than an airbrushed portrait of a literary hero. In one jarring instance, we read a 1951 letter full of avuncular constructive criticism directed at Trinity, Texas-born William Goyen; turn the page and learn that in subsequent letters to confidants, dated the same day, Cowley mocks Goyen’s “terribly self-indulgent stuff” and predicts that the young Texan and his “delicate wrists” (Goyen was rumored to be homosexual, despite an affair with the omnipresent Porter) are “headed straight for the nuthouse.”

At various times throughout his life—particularly after his Communist sympathies in the 1930s made him a polarizing figure—Cowley seemed even to consider himself a viable candidate for the nuthouse, but never did he lose sight of his overarching purpose: to champion American literature. The fact that he extended his reach into Texas years before Texas letters became known for, well, anything, is evidence enough. Though an East Coaster for most of his life, and a denizen of New York City and its publishing industry for dozens of years, Cowley’s impact on the lives and careers of McMurtry, McCarthy, Porter and more make The Long Voyage important reading for Texas lit lovers, and for lit lovers anywhere.

David Duhr is the Observer's copy editor.

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Published at 1:53 pm CST