The Professor and the Profession

By Robert Bechtold Heilman | Go to book overview

8
Malcolm Cowley as University Professor

The worries and conflicts preceding Malcolm Cowley’s stint as visiting professor at the University of Washington early in 1950 have been pretty well described by Jane Sanders and by Cowley himself.1 But some details of the Cowley episode do not enter into their published accounts, and history may be served by spelling out these details. They should add some color, and may even add a little bit of body, to an episode of more than forty years ago. I write, however, not as a formal historian, but as a participant working primarily from his recollections of happenings in 1949 and 1950. This report belongs, then, to the realm of journalism rather than to that of scholarship.

Few nonparticipants and nonspecialists, even those living in the Northwest, will remember events in the state of Washington in the late 1940s, however much these events were big headliners in their day. So it seems sensible to establish several contexts for the attempted blocking of Cowley’s appointment as a visiting professor at the University of Washington.

The national context: The postwar fear of Russia was great; the House Un-American Activities Committee was feeding on this fear and no doubt increasing it; this double process was to reach extremes a little later in the prosecutorial style of the McCarthy committee in the Senate.

The state context: The Canwell committee, a state predecessor of the McCarthy committee at the national level, had been on a Communist hunt for several years and had unearthed several former or supposed members of the Communist Party on the University of Washington faculty. University hearings in 1948 had led to the dismissal of several faculty members and the placing of several others on probation.

1. Jane Sanders, Cold War on the Campus: Academic Freedom at the University of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Malcolm Cowley, “Gammon for Dinner,” in The Flower and the Leaf, ed. Donald W. Faulkner (New York: Viking, 1985).

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