AMONG THE MEMORIALISTS of the 1930s, Malcolm Cowley is one of the most reliable and informative. This is so not only because, inadvertently or by design, he early took on the role of chronicler for his literary generation, but also because he sees himself as a minor figure in an absorbing panorama. Most literary autobiographers who flourished between the two World Wars refract their experiences through thick subjective lenses. They usually tell us more about themselves than we care to know. Cowley -- poet, critic, journalist, editor, political activist -- manages to swell more than a scene or two, but he makes his political encounters and investigations, his social visits, descriptions of parties and meetings, marital troubles and friendships emblematic of something larger than himself. His easy idiomatic prose perfectly conveys his air of speculative detachment.

Cowley's first venture in the autobiographical-historical vein, Exile's Return , focused on a group of expatriates out of tune with America during the 1920s and on the culture which bred them. It might also be read as a cautionary tale addressed to his generation and himself. It spelled out the price he and his friends had paid for their "religion of art," their feeling of "solitude and uniqueness" that "had reduced some of them to silence and futility and the weaker ones to insanity and suicide," and it invited them to quicken their talents by participating "in a historic process vastly bigger than the individual." Published in 1935 when Cowley had outgrown what he considered his adolescent rebelliousness, Exile's Return got short shrift from most of the influential reviewers. They ridiculed his profession of faith in the working class and found nothing pertinent in the adventures of "his little group of serious-thinking drunkards." Not until it was reissued some years later (and with its emotional appeal to writers to join "the fellowship of the dispossed" deleted) did Exile's return win belated recognition.

The Dream of the Golden Mountains , carries Cowley's narrative through the early 1930s. As the decade opens, he is still, for all his Montparnasse experiences, the essential "country boy" with an antiurban bias. He shares the "American weakness, the carving to be liked." He is striving to become an honest "wordsmith." Across his desk in the dingy New Republic offices pass unsolicited messages from a cross-section of his countrymen reporting economic and social disintegration. Crankish letters propose weird cures for the depression. From his vantage point he surveys the foundering of the republic -- the crashing banks, the expulsion of the Bonus Army, the hunger marches, the election of FDR, and the first days of the New Deal.

These familiar events, artfully illuminated by novel details, form the background for Cowley's story of himself and his literary generation. He is explaining why it was they lost faith in the capitalist system; how the Marxist "long view" of history (which encouraged the notion that any effort to preserve the old order led directly to fascism) caused them to underestimate American vitality and resilience and to isolate themselves from the by no means downtrodden masses; and why most of them, even after their commitment to the revolutionary movement, could never feel at ease within it. Cowley has been faulted for adhering too closely and too long to the orthodox Party "line," and he concedes that he was sometimes "too loyal" to friends and institutions. Yet quotations from his journal show that during the period when he was publicly identified with Party-inspired projects, both cultural and jpolitical, he continued to exchange ideas with writers who detested his politics and who were anathema to Party sectarians.

At this high point of his enthusiasm, he didn't sufficiently appreciate how his aims "to write honestly" and "to share in building a just society" might conflict, but he never confused literary standards with political loyalties. His descision in 1932 not to join the Communist Party was based less on "caution or good sense" than on the low level of Communist writing, and Cowley, the fellow-traveler, scolded the "art-as-a-weapon" practitioners for their narrowness and rigidity. His chapter on the revolutionary literary school is a good natured but devastating critique of proletarian writing. He can't think, he says, "of one truly distinguished work" by anyone who wrote "as an all the-way party member," and he singles out Clifford Odets' play, Waiting for Lefty, as the only production in the proletarian mode that even approximates a classic.

Judging by his remarks on the acrimonious literary debates of the period and the absence of kindliness in personal relations, one suspects that sometimes Cowley may have been put out more by the bad manners of the left partisans than by their literary infelicities. Such behavior he now sees as characteristic of true believers who were certain that history was on their side and who felt a need to be invariably right. He and his friends found themselves embroiled in controversies partly ideological but prompted also by motives seldom recognized, then or later. The passionate amateurs of the John Reed clubs spoke in the metaphors of politics but conducted the ageless war of the young against their established elders. "The nationwide spectacle of breadlines, violence, injustice, and illogic," Cowley observes, "lay behind the 'going left' of American writers," but so, too, did "a substratum of unexpressed emotions," the private dilemmas and anxieties of more concern to agitated sensibilities than the contradictions of capitalism.

Complementing Cowley's accounts of writers' congresses, riots and political conversions are personal interludes: the last days of Hart Crane, a visit to the tormented household of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald -- "the setting for a ghost story of the Jazz Age," fand most memorable of all, an evocative and beautifully written recollection of an idyllic sojourn in rural Tennessee. There, for a moment at least, national affairs took second place to literature, and in the company of the Allen Tates and their relatives, he glimpsed the incarnation of the Southern agrarian myth.

Until the end of 1936, the dream of a writers' front against world reaction, sustained at home by government pump-priming a abroad by the Communist International, still seemed a possibility. Thereafter, the defeat of Spanish republicanism, the Russian purges and the souring of the New Deal weakened "an absolute faith that our side would triumph in the end." Cowley's memoir ends disconsolately and abruptly as his golden mountains recede into the mist.