A central participant in twentieth-century American literary, intellectual, and political life, Malcolm Cowley is perhaps best known as a chronicler of the “lost generation,” literary editor of The New Republic, and the critic who resuscitated the moribund career of William Faulkner. Cowley’s long writing life was marked by engagement with some of the major cultural and political moments of the American century, and his many correspondents included Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, John Dos Passos, Richard Wright, cummings, Tillie Olsen, Ernest Gaines, and John Cheever. The Long Voyage, new this month, collects around 500 of his letters, including the one below, in which Cowley—tasked with writing on American literature abroad—queries Mrs. John R. Marsh (aka Margaret Mitchell) on the foreign market for Gone with the Wind.
August 7, 1945
Dear Mrs. Marsh:
The last chapter of “The Literary History of the United States,” which I have the job of writing (I mean the chapter, not the history) is supposed to deal with the influence of American literature abroad since 1900. And a great deal of that influence is centered in Gone with the Wind.
“The Literary History of the United States” is a big symposium planned to take the place of The Cambridge History of American Literature. [. . .] The contributors will include most of the distinguished professors of American literature in American colleges. I don’t know what I’m doing among all those long gray beards, but there I am, and I’ll try to make the best of it. The contributors took me in, like an orphan on the doorstep, because they thought I knew more than they did about American books abroad. I do, but there’s a lot of research to be done before I can write the chapter.
I am writing you now, with a cry for help, because it seems to me that the reception of Gone with the Wind is the biggest single phenomenon in the history of American literature in the rest of the world. I should guess that you would prefer not to have the subject discussed in the big magazines, or articles would have appeared already. But this scholarly symposium, this history of American literature, is a different matter—a matter of historical records that ought to be complete—and perhaps you could find a few minutes to answer some questions, from your own records.
What I should like to know is:
- In how many foreign countries has Gone with the Wind been published?
- Into how many foreign languages has it been translated?
- What (if they aren’t a secret) have been its approximate sales in Great Britain? In France? In Germany before the war? In Sweden? In Argentina?
- (Less important)—when was it published in each of the six countries listed above?
[. . .]
I ran into some facts about Gone with the Wind in France that might interest you. Jean-Paul Sartre, the best of our new dramatists, explained to me its special wartime popularity. “The Germans allowed it to be read,” he said, “because [they] thought it would make the French dislike the Yankees. But it didn’t have that effect at all. The reason the French read it—devoured it, you might say”—I’m translating freely—“was that it gave a picture of another occupied country that resisted the invaders. They drew strength from it.”—Jacques Schiffrin, who is André Gide’s friend and publisher, gave the highbrow French verdict on Gone with the Wind. He said to me, “Now confess—it’s better than Dos Passos, isn’t it?” Dos Passos having a very high standing among the French highbrows. Peter Rhodes, a young man who works for the Office of War Information, reached Lyons with the first American forces. He found copies of Gone with the Wind—worn secondhand copies—selling on the semi-black or gray market at 3,500 to 4,000 francs per copy, depending on their conditions, from $70 to $80 at the official rate of exchange. I hear that new copies of the “limited” edition sold for $100.