Selected Criticism

Cowley, Malcolm (1898–1989)
Altman, Matthew C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Born in 1898, Malcolm Cowley received his A.B. from Harvard University and served in World War I. Afterward, Cowley lived in Greenwich Village until, frustrated with America's hostility toward art, he returned to France and became acquainted with the dadaists, several French writers, and a number of Americans, including Ernest Hemingway. In 1923, Cowley returned to New York City, where he published Exile's Return (1934), a literary history of the "lost generation" of writers that matured during and after World War I. From 1934 until his death in 1989, Cowley wrote a number of memoirs and collections of criticism, including The Dream of the Golden Mountain: Remembering the 1930's (1980).

Although he initially disliked Whitman's poetry, Cowley's views began to change while he was in France, where Whitman was greatly admired. In a series of articles that originally appeared in the New Republic in 1946 and 1947, Cowley insisted that the early versions of Whitman's poems are his most powerful, for they were written before Whitman had adopted the persona of the gray bard of democracy. Like the members of Cowley's "lost generation," Whitman's early and honest sense of alienation sparked a genuine creative impulse that was obscured by later revisions; the early Whitman, Cowley felt, was the real poet. In 1955, Cowley reviewed Gay Wilson Allen's The Solitary Singer (1955) and completed "Whitman: A Little Anthology," which commemorated the centennial anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass. Cowley also edited the 1855 edition of Leaves, which was published in 1959.

Cowley was a prominent literary critic whose perspectives on literature and culture crystallized the thoughts of a generation. Cowley's opinions on Whitman thus represent a modern and considered evaluation of a poetic forebear to American writers of the twentieth century.


Bak, Hans. Malcolm Cowley: The Formative Years. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993.

Cowley, Malcolm. "Walt Whitman, Champion of America." Rev. of The Solitary Singer, by Gay Wilson Allen. New York Times Book Review 6 Feb. 1955: 1, 22.

———. "Walt Whitman: The Miracle." New Republic 18 March 1946: 385–388.

———. "Walt Whitman: The Philosopher." New Republic 29 September 1947: 29–31.

———. "Walt Whitman: The Poet." New Republic 20 October 1947: 27–30.

———. "Walt Whitman: The Secret." New Republic 8 April 1946: 481–484.

———. "Whitman: A Little Anthology." New Republic 25 July 1955: 16–21.

Whitman, Walt. The Complete Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. 2 vols. New York: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1948. Rpt. as The Works of Walt Whitman: The Deathbed Edition in Two Volumes. 2 vols. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.

———. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959.


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