Monday, July 30, 2018

'You All Regard Me As an Eccentric'

Literary history is littered with rightfully forgotten names. Among them is Malcolm Cowley, who never met a fashion trend he couldn’t dabble in. Among them were some of the major hobbies of American writers in the twentieth century: Dada, Marxism and Jack Kerouac. He did Faulkner a good turn but otherwise Cowley was a careerist and literary bureaucrat who headed the National Institute of Arts and Letters from 1956 to 1959, and 1962 to 1965. If, as John Berryman writes in his biography of Stephen Crane -- “Crane was a writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right” – Cowley was no writer at all.

In 1956, Yvor Winters was elected to the National Institute. In 1957, he quit. Shortly after his election, Winters wrote in a letter to Cowley on May 6, 1956, that the organization was “a pretty dismal organization: little better than Phi Beta Kappa or any other self-congratulatory social group.” In his resignation letter, dated June 13, 1957, he writes to Cowley:

“Any such group of people has to conduct its business on a democratic basis—this cannot be helped. But the arts, curiously enough, are not democratic. The result is that decisions are a kind of statistical average of mediocre minds. The Institute, so far as I can see, imposes a penalty upon distinction and places a premium upon mediocrity. The literary people whom I respect most highly are not in the Institute and are unlikely ever to be there.”

Nothing has changed in sixty years. Winters closes the letter by thanking Cowley, Louise Bogan and Allen Tate for their efforts to get him elected to the Institute. “They must have been heroic; but they were misguided,” he writes. Later that same month, Winters returns his Institute rosette to Cowley, but can’t find his diploma. A few weeks later, when he does find it, Winters writes: “I had stashed it away among my old dog show ribbons.” The poet-critic for decades had raised Airedales, a pastime he describes at length for Cowley in a letter dated July 31, 1957. The rest of the letter is classic Winters. He lectures Cowley on the use of trochees and explains his qualified admiration for several poems by Stanley Kunitz: “It is the business of the good critic to rescue the good poems from such a mess.” He describes J.V. Cunningham and Edgar Bowers as “the two greatest poets now writing,” adding that “Thom Gunn, the young Englishman, is pushing them.” His reflections on resigning from the National Institute seem more pertinent today than in 1957:

“I know that you all regard me as an eccentric. But you are the eccentrics, or rather the provincials. As I have said before, you don’t know enough. You know damned little except each other’s opinions and the prejudices of your generation and of the preceding generation. And you have never examined these with any care, or considered their implications.”     

[All quotes are from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000).]

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I still remember the psychic indigestion Cowley exhibited when he reviewed Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror"