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And I Worked at the Writer's Trade: Chapters…

And I Worked at the Writer's Trade: Chapters of Literary History,…

by Malcolm Cowley

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The title of this book suggests autobiography, but this is not autobiography, except for one chapter. It is mostly literary criticism, a discussion of American letters during the author’s lifetime. The literary work itself should be the focus of the critic’s attention, he thought, but also the writers, their social backgrounds, their influences, and “the myths that they embodied in their work.”

There are chapters on individual writers—Faulkner, Hemingway, Conrad Aiken, Erskine Caldwell—Cowley knew all the prominent ones. But he liked to combine authors into clusters, groups, generations, and sort them by regions and time periods. At times he seems to be less interested in the writers themselves than in their contexts. He tends toward abstractions—literary isms, literary ideals and how they change. Literary trends, patterns, cycles, zeitgeists, expansions and contractions of scope, spheres of influence.

As with his other books of criticism, this one is sociological as well as literary, and Cowley was a competent and interesting sociologist. There is a lot of history here, and even some philosophy. He discusses in detail how writers write fiction, and asks: Can bad people create good literature?

Recommended to fans of American literature, its history and practice, during the twentieth century. ( )
  pjsullivan | Nov 22, 2012 |
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