A critic's plain-spoken views of American literature since 1941

The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1941, by Malcolm Cowley. Edited by Donald W. Faulkner. New York: Viking. 390 pp. $22.50. Malcolm Cowley's many books and essays on domestic literary subjects entitle him to the status of spokesman for what he calls ``a great period in American letters'' -- the 1920s partway into the '30s. It was a time dominated by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Faulkner, among others; they were Cowley's revered contemporaries and, in some cases, his friends as well.

This new collection of Cowley's occasional writings shows that his range extends rather beyond the period with which he is usually identified. There are knowledgeable essays here on classic American writers and a few vivid pieces focused on British and European writers and topics. What all these writings reveal is a relaxed and plain-spoken prose style and an impressive attentiveness to the social and political dimensions of the literary works that compel Cowley's interest. The best of these pieces (cut, of course, to fit editorial word limits) are frustratingly brief. We sense Cowley's deep and sympathetic interest in everything he writes about and, almost always, wish his essays were longer.

Part 1, ``The War Years and After,'' includes miscellaneous reviews of biographies and memoirs describing how World War II was experienced at home and abroad. It also speculates at length about writers' difficulties with rendering the war. Cowley offers personal testimony on the postwar ``loyalty crusades'' that pretended to find subversive opinions everywhere, and ``the atmosphere of anti-intellectualism'' that clouded the early 1950s.

In Part 2, ``The Usable Past,'' Cowley examines earlier American writers, literary movements, and styles. There's a charming portrayal of Nathaniel Hawthorne as devoted lover and husband, and a keen reading of Walt Whitman's 1855 first edition of ``Leaves of Grass,'' the definitive version graced by ``all the gay impudence and vivid Yankeeisms that were excised from later editions.''

In ``The Middle American Prose Style,'' Cowley traces one dominant strain in our writing from the frontier humorists through Twain, Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. And the superb ``Hemingway at Midnight'' persuasively places that figure among the ``haunted'' writers Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. (Hemingway's heroes, Cowley observes, ``live in a world that is like a hostile forest, full of unseen dangers.'')

Part 3 includes ``Assessments and Retrospections,'' both of more recent writers and of older ones completing their careers. Examples are:

Cowley's generous readings of Thornton Wilder's novel ``The Eighth Day'' and Faulkner's flawed completion of his Snopes trilogy, ``The Mansion.''

A lively remembrance of ``Ken Kesey at Stanford,'' when he was Cowley's writing student.

And a moving memoir of the career of John Cheever, whom Cowley knew first as a brash beginning writer adrift in New York City, then, half a century later, as a chastened old man quietly facing death.

All the essays display Cowley's lightly worn learning and gift for resonant statement. He's the sort of critic who can suggest that Thomas Wolfe ``saved his discarded scenes as plumbers save length of pipe, and eventually fitted them into other novels.'' He's also widely read enough to note (in an essay on James Thurber) ``a curious similarity between one type of fantastic American humor and the current in European poetry that is represented in various phases by Rimbaud and Lautr'eamont, by expressionism, dadaism, and surrealism.''

The book is adroitly edited and arranged by Donald Faulkner so that its contents in sequence observe, not just a formal logic, but also a rising interest and tension that evoke the pleasures of reading an absorbing novel. I don't know when I have so enjoyed a volume of criticism, and I can recommend this one without reservation.

Bruce Allen is a regular reviewer for the Monitor.

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