America needs another Malcolm Cowley. Someone who will look back on today's economically troubled country the way Mr. Cowley so superbly looks back on a decade when things were really bad. To read his account of the 1930S depression period is to gain fresh perspective on a present that echoes it to some degree. Hope for surmounting current problems rises from the example of American people and institutions coping with a bygone testing time so severe that some thought revolution was the only answer.
Imagine a galaxy of American writers in 1980 coming out before the November election with a statement like this: "We believe that the only effective way to protest against the chaos, the appalling wastefulness, and the indescribable misery inherent in the present economic system is to vote for the Communist candidates." This was a 1932 manifesto signed by Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, And Lincoln Steffens, among many others (including Malcolm Cowley).
What drew so many of the best and the brightest toward communism in those days? Why, as in Mr. Cowley's case, did communism finally fail to satisfy them?
This is the theme on which Mr. Cowley hangs the smooth prose of his evocation of an era. He has the full resources of a literary critic, as indicated elsewhere in such a pithy analytical essay on Hawthorne as "Five Acts of 'The Scarlet Letter.' "But he has also kept tabs on the social context of writing, not excluding how writers earn their living, as in "A Natural History of the American Writer." He writes now with the immediacy of a participant in the literary-radical scene of the '30s, and the maturity of a senior man of letters whose lifetime parallels the century.
Small wonder that, for all his industrious fellow-travelling, literary reservations kept Mr. Cowley from joining the Communist Party. The abstract ideological language was hard enough for any writer to take. The comparatively few who actually did join turned into part hacks. A romantic urge for self-sacrifice almost tempted him to leave a comfortable job with the New Republic for austerity on the New Masses.But he was afraid the party might tell him "which books to admire."
Before long, of course, Mr. Cowley found harsher reasons both at home and abroad for staying out of the party. And he couldn't help noting the Communists' lack of thought and kindness in personal relations: "Was it the right foundation for a new society?"
But Mr. Cowley brings back a sense of the national ordeal that prompted him and other writers to want to do something. They yearned to take some part in the great changes they felt must occur. At least they had to "bear witness."
Edmund Wilson suggested that the progressives ought to take communism away from the Communists.But who would do all those tedious organizational chores the Communists were so ready to assume? Some writers, though nonjoiners by nature, went along with the Communists.
Sometimes the government played into radical hands. Disciplined demonstrators stayed within the law, while police lapsed into breaking it.
Confused moral standards appeared to minimize a sense of evil, and thus heroism, too. There seemed a new possibility for heroes in glorious comradeship with the workers. The twists of Communist reasoning were such that Franklin Roosevelt's election was warned against as a step toward fascism by continuing the cooperate with capitalism. But Mr. Cowley thinks the government would have been overthrown -- not by Communist revolution but perhaps by popular revolt -- if Roosevelt had been defeated by a conservative who "followed Hoover's policies of retrenchment, deflation, and giving doles to bankers, but none to the unemployed." The Communists would have none of what Roosevelt did do, except relief for the unemployed, and that was not enough.
Those were the times, as Mr. Cowley stitches in the details, when hundreds of thousands of wandering Americans were riding the rods and being thrown off railroads. By 1932 the companies found it cheaper to let them ride free, providing open boxcars to discourage them from breaking into loaded cars.
With banks closed, some companies printed their own money for local use. People found all sorts of devices to eke out a living. Goods and services were bartered in sometimes elaborate systems.
Is this where we of 1980 came in? Barter happens to be on the upswing in the United States right now. People are devising various ways to waste less, spend less, as attested by letters to this newspaper and by the whole "voluntary simplicity" movement, among other things. There is a concern for sharing sacrifice equitably, as the economy is brought back on course.
But. . .
Read "The Dream of the Golden Mountains" to be reminded of how different today's worried America is from yesterday's desperate America -- and how far the ugly actuality of communism remains from the comradely promise those '30s writers briefly saw in it.