Malcolm Cowley, the only child of a homeopathic physician, was born in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, on 24th August, 1898. A successful school student, Cowley won a scholarship to Harvard University in 1915. While at university Cowley contributed to the Harvard Advocate and attended lectures by Amy Lowell.
In 1917 Cowley left Harvard to drive munitions trucks for the American Field Service in France. While on the Western Front Cowley wrote articles about the First World War for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Cowley returned to the United States in 1918 and soon afterwards met the artist, Peggy Baird. She was briefly married to Orrick Johns but after a visit to Europe she left him and settled in New York City where she mixed with a group of radicals that lived in Greenwich Village. This included Michael Gold, Dorothy Day and Eugene O'Neill. Cowley married Peggy in 1919. He continued with his studies and graduated from Harvard in 1920. For the next few years he wrote poetry and book reviews for The Dial and the New York Evening Post.
In 1921 Cowley moved to France and continued his studies at the University of Montpellier. He also found work with avant-garde literary magazines such as Broom and Secession. While in France he became friendly with American expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound.
Cowley returned to the United States in August 1923 and went to live in Greenwich Village where he became close friends with the poet Hart Crane. As well as writing poetry Cowley found work as an advertising copywriter with Sweet's Architectural Catalogue. He also translated seven books from French into English.
In 1929 Cowley published Blue Juniata, his first book of poems. Later that year he replaced Edmund Wilson as literary editor of the New Republic. Cowley's marriage broke up in 1931 and Peggy Baird went to live with Hart Crane in Mexico. This ended in tragedy when Crane committed suicide by jumping from the ship Orizaba on the way back to New York City on 27th April 1932. Two months later Cowley married Muriel Maurer.
Coming under the influence of Theodore Dreiser, Cowley became increasingly involved in radical politics. In 1932 Cowley joined Mary Heaton Vorse, Edmund Wilson and Waldo Frank as union-sponsored observers of the miners' strikes in Kentucky. The men's lives were threatened by the mine owners and Frank was badly beaten up. The following year Cowley published Exile's Return in 1933. The book was largely ignored and sold only 800 copies in the first twelve months. The following year he published an autobiography, The Dream of Golden Mountains (1934).
In 1935 Cowley and other left-wing writers established the League of American Writers. Other members included Erskine Caldwell, Archibald MacLeish, Upton Sinclair, Clifford Odets, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, Carl Van Doren, Waldo Frank, David Ogden Stewart, John Dos Passos, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. Cowley was appointed vice president and over the next few years Cowley was involved in several campaigns, including attempts to persuade the United States government to support the republicans in the Spanish Civil War. However, he resigned in 1940 because he felt the organization was under the control of the American Communist Party.
In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Archibald MacLeish as head of the Office of Facts and Figures. MacLeish recruited Cowley as his deputy. This decision soon resulted in right-wing journalists such as Whittaker Chambers and Westbrook Pegler writing articles pointing out Cowley's left-wing past. One member of Congress, Martin Dies of Texas, accused Cowley of having connections to 72 communist or communist-front organizations.
MacLeish came under pressure from J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to sack Cowley. In January 1942, MacLeish replied that the FBI agents needed a course of instruction in history. "Don't you think it would be a good thing if all investigators could be made to understand that Liberalism is not only not a crime but actually the attitude of the President of the United States and the greater part of his Administration?" In March 1942 Cowley, vowing never again to write about politics, resigned from the Office of Facts and Figures.
Cowley now became literary adviser to Viking Press. He now began to edit the selected works of important American writers. Viking Portable editions by Cowley included Ernest Hemingway (1944), William Faulkner (1946) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1948). In 1949 Cowley returned to the political scene by testifying at the second Alger Hiss trial. His testimony contradicted the main evidence supplied by Whittaker Chambers.
Cowley published a revised edition of Exile's Return in 1951. This time the book sold much better. He also published The Literary Tradition (1954) and edited a new edition of Leaves of Grass(1959) by Walt Whitman. This was followed by Black Cargoes, A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1962), Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age (1966), Think Back on Us (1967), Collected Poems (1968), Lesson of the Masters (1971) and A Second Flowering (1973).
Malcolm Cowley died on 28th March 1989.