MALCOLM COWLEY is now well into his 87th year, and the last thing he needs is an impertinent book reviewer barely half his age nipping at his heels over the shortcomings of his latest book. So let's get them out of the way at the outset. The Flower and the Leaf is a collection of odds and ends, mostly essays and reviews, several of which are excellent but many of which seem dated and, after all these years, thin. By contrast with Cowley's splendid volumes of memoirs and literary history, much of what is collected herein looks hasty and insufficient; a short review of a dreadful novel called Women and Thomas Harrow, for example, hardly serves as Cowley's summary pronouncement on the work of John P. Marquand, yet it is presented as such. Compared with Exile's Return or A Second Flowering, The Flower and the Leaf is in large measure a paste-up job.
Still, the writer being pasted up is Malcolm Cowley, and that alone is reason to pay respectful, admiring attention. These essays and reviews add little new to what Cowley has already told us about the generation of which he has been a principal chronicler -- the generation that, in the 1920s, produced the "second flowering" of American literature -- but they provide a welcome opportunity to read examples of Cowley's work that otherwise would remain buried in the back-issue files of the magazines and literary supplements in which they were originally published. The sum of all these parts is not very large, but the parts themselves are often enticing and agreeable.
Cowley's appearances as a book reviewer are infrequent these days, but in the '40s and '50s he was a formidably activtic who appeared regularly in The New Republic, The Nation and other magazines. He is quoted by his editor, Donald Faulkner, as saying of this period: "The relatively short book review was my art form for many years; it became my blank-verse meditation, my sonnet sequence, my letter to distant friends, my private journal. . . . As writers tend to do with any form imposed upon them by accident, I poured into it as much as possible of my adventures among events and opinions." This meant a certain amount of writing about books with political or social overtones, but primarily it meant passing judgment on the literary work of his contemporaries; at this he was astute, clear-eyed and outspoken.
For Cowley the reviewer nothing was so sacred as to be spared mordant commentary, and he seems never to have shied from writing against received opinion. In 1945, for example, he spoke highly of Gertrude Stein's Wars I Have Seen, but tempered his praise as follows: "the great mystery about Gertrude Stein is how this woman with a real influence on American prose, so that her first book marks an era in our literature; this woman famous for her conversation, able to change the ideas of other writers, able to hold and dominate big audiences when she lectures, should at the same time have written books so monumental in their dullness, so many pyramids and Parthenons consecrated to the reader's apathy." Similarly, here he comments on the work and personality of Ezra Pound:
"Spoiled work: that is the phrase for most of Pound's poems and I think for all the Cantos; they are never cheap or easy, never lacking in new phrases, but they are spoiled -- and spoiled by vices that are inseparable from the virtues of his poetry; spoiled like the man himself by arrogance, crotchets, self-indulgence, obsessive hatreds, contempt for ordinary persons, the inability to see the world in motion (everything in Pound's poems is frozen, as in a gallery of broken plaster casts), and finally by a lack of constructive power that keeps him from building his separate perceptions into unified works of art."
BOTH OF THESE passages suggest what may be Cowley's greatest virtue as a reviewer: his capacity to see a writer's work in whole, to recognize both its strengths and its weaknesses and to give them proper weight. His comment on Theodore Dreiser is perfectly on target: "Dreiser is the clearest example in American literature, and perhaps in American life, of a man who possessed genius in its raw state, genius almost completely unfortified and unrefined by talent." Writing about Sinclair Lewis, he makes the accurate judgment that his novels after 1930 were pale imitations of the major work of the '20s, but also gives Lewis full credit for refusing to "write easy books after Main Street" and for serving as "the acknowledged center of a whole galaxy of gifted writers, the leader, so to speak, of a new generation." Marquand he describes as "a professional entertainer, and one of the best," but also gives him full credit as a student of "social stratification."
There is not a great deal of commentary in these pieces on broad literary questions, but such as is to be found is often telling. An excellent essay called "The Limits of the Novel" makes the point -- you'd be astonished how many novelists ignore it -- that "the novelist is compelled to meet only two stipulations," those being that "he must present characters in whom the reader can believe, and he must create a mood of expectancy." In some instances he displays a prescience that borders on the extraordinary; writing in 1954, for example, he remarks, "Unable to support themselves by writing books, many authors have been taking refuge in the universities, and that . . . might prove to be a danger to American writing."
In a way this comment echoes another that Cowley had made more than a decade earlier, when he bemoaned "the divorce of contemporary literature from contemporary life." This is a point to which he returns over and again -- that literature must not retreat into the cloister, but reach out to the larger world in which it is situated -- and one that has acquired special pertinence now that the university has become the cloister in which American fiction is hidden. By contrast with the prevailing opinion in today's literary climate, Cowley is an advocate of literature that seeks to embrace a large audience and to connect with it; he is out of fashion, perhaps, but he is right.
So it is good to have another book from him, even a paste- up job. As he wrote in 1954, while McCarthyism still seethed, "In our age of suspicion and intolerance we need more voices speaking for decency (not merely of language), good manners, and good sense." Malcolm Cowley's, need it be said, is precisely such a voice.