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Robert Emmett Cantwell (January 31, 1908 – December 8, 1978), known as Robert Cantwell, was a novelist and critic. His most notable work, The Land of Plenty, focuses on a lumber mill in a thinly disguised version of his hometown in Washington state.[1][2][3][4][5][6]

Robert Cantwell
Robert Emmett Cantwell

January 31, 1908
Little Falls (now Vader), Washington, US
DiedDecember 8, 1978(1978-12-08) (aged 70)
Other namesRobert Simmons (pen name)
Alma materUniversity of Washington
OccupationNovelist, biographer, essayist, editor
Years active1929–1978
EmployerTime, Fortune, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated
Notable work
The Land of Plenty (1934)
Spouse(s)Mary Elizabeth Chambers
Robert Cantwell 1930s.jpg



Crowd gathering at Wall Street and Broad Street after 1929 crash - the Great Depression shaped Cantwell's experience in New York City

Cantwell was born in Little Falls (now Vader), Washington. His parents were Charles James Cantwell, an engineer, and Nina Adelia Hanson.[2]

In 1919, the massacre during a strike in nearby Centralia, Washington, deeply disturbed him and left a lasting impression that appeared in his major writings.[1][3]

He attended the University of Washington (1924−1925) and then spent the next four years working at Harbor Plywood Co., (1925−1929) in Hoquiam, Washington.[2]


Cover of Gorn (Furnace), official organ of Proletkult — that shaped the Labor literature of the 1930s, of which Cantwell's novels were considered some of the best

In 1929, after selling a short story "Hanging by My Thumbs" to The New American Caravan, he moved (with help from childhood friend Calvin Fixx) to New York City, landed a book contract with Farrar and Rinehart, and began work on his first novel, Laugh and Lie Down (1931). From 1930 to 1935 (and during the Great Depression), he wrote a second novel, The Land of Plenty (1934). He published a number of short stories in The Miscellany, American Caravan, Pagany, and The New Republic. In December 1933, he accepted work already passed over by Whittaker Chambers, namely to co-write a biography of Boston's E. A. Filene, in collaboration with Lincoln Steffens. The same month, Steffens suffered a heart-attack and died in 1936; Cantwell handed the manuscript to Filene in 1937.

Throughout the 1930s, Cantwell began to meet New York writers and editors such as Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, John Chamberlain, Erskine Caldwell, Matthew Josephson, and Harry Hansen. Over time, his circle expanded to include James T. Farrell, Meyer Schapiro, John Dos Passos, Newton Arvin, Kenneth Burke, Granville Hicks, Kenneth Fearing, Fred Dupee, Elof Holmlund, and Whittaker Chambers.[1]

In the 1930s, "After he settled in New York, Cantwell was always short of money and therefore generally in a rush to finish a piece and get paid... All the more remarkable, then, that his short stories are of such a generally high aesthetic quality."[1]

Meantime, to support himself while writing, Cantwell took on regular-paying jobs. From November 1932 until its close in 1935, he worked as literary editor of New Outlook magazine.[1][2] He also wrote for the New Masses under pen name "Robert Simmons."[3][7] At some point between 1933 and 1936, he worked as assistant literary editor at The New Republic under Malcolm Cowley, who was literary editor, according to Mary McCarthy in her 1992 posthumous Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936–1938; McCarthy also remembers him in the mid-1930s as "a Communist, a real member."[8]

Time magazineEdit

On April 23, 1935 and through 1936, Cantwell joined the editorial staff of Time as book reviewer. In 1937, he joined Time's sister magazine, Fortune. In 1938, he returned to Time as associate editor (1938−1945). In 1939, he helped his friend Chambers get his old job as book reviewer.[1][2] In 1940, William Saroyan lists Cantwell among "associate editors" at Time in Saroyan's play, Love's Old Sweet Song.[9]

In 1941, Cantwell suffered a nervous breakdown. He took off work and received treatment at the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.[10] He spent three years onresearching and writing the biography, Nathaniel Hawthorne: The American Years (1948).[1][2]

From 1949 to 1954 he worked as the literary editor of Newsweek.

Sports Illustrated magazineEdit

In 1954, he took up freelancing again until 1956 when he began an association with Sports Illustrated.[1][2]

He worked for the magazine from 1956 until his death in 1978. He worked on a number of articles, three of which became books: Alexander Wilson: Naturalist and Pioneer (1961), The Real McCoy (1971), and The Hidden Northwest (1972). Subjects of his articles include chess, ornithology, sports in the movies and literary figures in sports.[1][2]

Personal life and deathEdit

They shall not pass! Republican banner in Madrid during siege, 1936–39 - the Spanish Civil War epitomized the radicalism of Cantwell and his friends

Cantwell married Mary Elizabeth Chambers, known as Betsy, a teacher, on February 2, 1931: she (no relation to Whittaker Chambers) was a cousin of Lyle Saxon, whom Fixx had been serving as secretary.[1] They had three children: Joan[11] McNiece (Mrs. George Stolz, Jr.), Betsy Ann (Mrs. Walter Pusey III), and Mary Elizabeth Emmett (Mrs. Lars-Erik Nelson).[1][2]

He later married Allison Joy, a noted portrait painter, and, briefly, Eva Stolz Gilleran shortly before his death in 1978.

Cantwell dismissed his radical affiliations of youth obliquely in later life, saying "I had no interest in politics" and no (public) political aspirations. Nevertheless, his circles in the 1930s a strong Leftist one that included Schapiro (Marxist), Cowley (Communist Party fellow traveller), Holmlund and Calvin Fixx (Communist Party members), and Chambers (Soviet spy). Further, his correspondence shows a strong interest, for example, in the CPUSA ticket for 1932 elections, which included William Z. Foster for president and James W. Ford for vice president. He also joined the League of Professional Writers for Foster and Ford. (Cantwell noted that he voted for Roosevelt so he would not "throw away" his vote.) Also in the Fall of 1932, he traveled to Washington, DC, with Cowley to cover the National Hunger March for The New Republic. Biographer Per Seyersted concluded, "That Cantwell did not use correct Marxist terminology would seem to indicate that he was no CP member, that however to the left he was and in sympathy with the Party's aims, he was an independent person doing his own thinking."[1]

He died in 1978, aged 70, in St. Luke's hospital in New York City, after suffering a heart attack two weeks earlier.[2][6]

In his obituary, Sports Illustrated wrote:

Bob Cantwell was with us during the last 22 years of his life, in which he wrote dozens of memorable articles, among them a portrayal of Cecil Smith, the Texas cowboy who became perhaps the greatest polo player the world has ever seen. When Cantwell wrote of Banjo Paterson, the virtually unknown author of Waltzing Matilda, he made sure that a colorful footnote to history was not going to be lost, at least not to SI readers. As he once said, "History is a natural resource, just as much as fossil fuel. It's what is there. We should not ignore it." Bob Cantwell was a unique intellectual resource and a friend. We shall miss him.[12]

Cantwell's correspondence includes: James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Van Wyck Brooks, Erskine Caldwell, Malcolm Cowley, Henry Luce, Clare Boothe Luce, Marianne Moore, T. S. Matthews, and Edmund Wilson.

Other members of his family are of note: his great-grandfather was Michael Troutman Simmons, known for establishing the first permanent settlement in what is now Tacoma, Washington, and his nephew, Colin Cantwell, is known for, among other things, designing the Death Star in Star Wars.



Hemingway (center) with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens and German writer Ludwig Renn during Spanish Civil War, 1937 - Hemingway was one of Cantwell's greatest and longest-term admirers

Ernest Hemingway considered Cantwell "his best bet" in American fiction.[1][13]

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Cantwell's first short story, "Hanging by My Thumbs": "Mark it well, for my guess is that he's learned a better lesson from Proust than Thornton Wilder did and has a destiny of no mean star."[1][12]

T. S. Matthews wrote, "Before I met him, I knew that he was reported to be the best book reviewer in New York; after only three book reviews, everybody admitted it."[1]

Time magazineEdit

Cantwell, his close colleagues, and many staff members as of the 1930s helped elevate Time–"interstitial intellectuals," as historian Robert Vanderlan has called them.[14] Colleague John Hersey described them as follows:

Time was in an interesting phase; an editor named Tom Matthews had gathered a brilliant group of writers, including James Agee, Robert Fitzgerald, Whittaker Chambers, Robert Cantwell, Louis Kronenberger, and Calvin Fixx... They were dazzling. Time's style was still very hokey—“backward ran sentences till reeled the mind”—but I could tell, even as a neophyte, who had written each of the pieces in the magazine, because each of these writers had such a distinctive voice.[15]

Hiss CaseEdit

Whittaker Chambers joined Calvin Fixx as close friend of Cantwell's, then became an emblem of his fears

In October 1931, Cantwell attended a dinner party in honor of his first novel, Laugh and Lie Down, where he met Whittaker Chambers, friend Mike Intrator, and Intrator's wife Grace Lumpkin. At the time, Chambers had become an editor at the New Masses magazine; he and Cantwell became "very close friends." Soon after meeting, Cantwell joined the John Reed Club.[1]

When Chambers went into the Soviet underground in mid-1932, Cantwell knew; he declined to let Chambers use his home as a letter drop. In April 1934, Cantwell met Chambers' underground comrade, John Loomis Sherman, whom he knew as "Phillips." For the rest of his life, Cantwell would remain unclear about just how much he knew about or was involved in Chambers' underground activities. In May 1934, when Chambers started working with the Ware Group (according to Cantwell's papers), Cantwell accompanied him; about this time, Chambers let Cantwell know that he was using the alias "Lloyd Cantwell" in Baltimore. Biographer Seyersted notes that in his 1952 memoir Witness, Chambers may have changed dates for his first meetings in Washington for the Ware Group to June and later in order to protect Cantwell.[1]

Cantwell helped get Whittaker Chambers a job at Time magazine, as Chambers recounted in his memoirs:

The morning mail brought a letter from my friend, Robert Cantwell, the author of Laugh and Lie Down, and later, the biographer of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cantwell was then one of the editors of Time magazine ... But his letter ... urged me to go to New York at once. As sometimes happens at Time, several jobs were suddenly open. Cantwell thought that I might get one of them ... Cantwell thought I should try for a book reviewer's job. I wrote several trial reviews. A few days later, Time hired me.[16]

Chambers had used the alias "Lloyd Cantwell" during his time in the Soviet underground, including the formation of the American Feature Writers Syndicate with comrade John Loomis Sherman (using the alias Charles Francis Chase) and literary agent Maxim Lieber.[16] During the Hiss Case, Cantwell's name came up, and he found himself under FBI surveillance. When Chambers published his memoirs, Cantwell wrote a negative review.[1]

Cantwell's mental breakdown in 1941 plus Chambers' use of his surname in the 1930s may well have led the Hiss defense team to conflate the two Cantwells and thus question Chambers' own sanity.[3] ("Is he a man of sanity?" Hiss publicly questioned as early as August 25, 1948.[17])

In later years, Cantwell would express skepticism that Chambers even was in the underground; at others, he would express great fear of Soviet retribution (for Chambers' defection–and Cantwell's role in it?).[1]


Original Works:

  • "Hanging by My Thumbs" in The New American Caravan (1931)[1]
  • Laugh and Lie Down (1931)
  • Land of Plenty (1934, 1971)
  • "The Hills around Centralia" in Proletarian Literature in the United States: An Anthology (1935)[18]
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The American Years (1948, 1971)[19][20]
  • Famous American Men of Letters, illustrated by Gerald McCann (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956)
  • Alexander Wilson: Naturalist and Pioneer: A Biography, decorated by Robert Ball (1961)
  • Real McCoy: The Life and Times of Norman Selby (1971)
  • Hidden Northwest (1972)

Editorial Works:

  • The Humorous Side of Erskine Caldwell anthology edited and introduced by Robert Cantwell (1951)
  • White Rose of Memphis by William C. Falkner, introduced by Robert Cantwell (1953)
  • Charterhouse of Parma, by Marie-Henri Beyle (Stendhal, translated by Lady Mary Loyd, revised by Robert Cantwell, preface by Honoré de Balzac, illustrated by Rafaello Busoni (1955)
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, introduced by Robert Cantwell (1956)
  • Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy, introduced by Robert Cantwell, engraved by Agnes Miller Parker (1958)
  • The History of Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray, introduced by Robert Cantwell (1961)

Unfinished Works:

  • Biography of E. A. Filene with Lincoln Steffens (1934)
  • Autobiography of James B. McNamara, convicted labor dynamiter
  • Small Boston, projected novel from the early 1970s
  • The FBI, privacy, and Cantwell's involvement with politics and Whittaker Chambers
  • Four Novelists on William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, James T. Farrell and Erskine Caldwell[2]


  • "What the Working Class Reads," The New Republic (1935)[21]
  • "The Communists and the CIO," The New Republic (1938)[22]
  • Articles for Sports Illustrated (1956–1978)[23]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Seyersted, Per (2004). Robert Cantwell: An American 1930s Radical Writer and His Apostasy. Oslo: Novus Press. pp. 12 (Centralia). ISBN 978-82-7099-397-0.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Agapito, Aggie; Kihunrwa, Aika-Maria (2004). "Guide to the Robert Cantwell Papers 1926−1978". Archives West - Orbis Cascade Alliance. Retrieved May 24, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d Reed, T.V (2014). Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left: A Northwest Writer Reworks American Fiction. University of Washington. pp. 23 (Centralia), 50 (Robert Simmons). ISBN 9780295805047. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  4. ^ Lewis, Merrill (1985). Robert Cantwell. Boise State University. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  5. ^ "Literary Editor And Writer at 2 Magazines". Washington Post. 10 December 1978. p. B12.
  6. ^ a b "Robert Cantwell: Literary Editor and Writer at 2 Magazines". Washington Post. 10 December 1976. p. B12.
  7. ^ Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan Wald. Maize Books. 2014. doi:10.3998/maize.13545968.0001.001. ISBN 978-1-60785-345-9. Retrieved 27 April 2017.
  8. ^ McCarthy, Mary (1992). Elizabeth Hardwick (ed.). Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936–1938. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 7. ISBN 9780151448203. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
  9. ^ Saroyan, William (1940). Love's Old Sweet Song: A Play in Three Acts. Samuel French. p. 72. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  10. ^ Craig, R. Bruce (2001). "The Hiss-Chambers Controversy: Records of the House Un-American Activities Committee". The Alger Hiss Story: A Search for Truth. Retrieved 11 June 2017.
  11. ^ "Robert E. Cantwell, 70, A Journalist and Author Robert Emmett Cantwell". New York Times. 10 December 1978. p. 44. Retrieved 2014-09-30.
  12. ^ a b Sutton, Kelso F. (18 December 1978). "Letter From The Publisher". Sports Illustrated.
  13. ^ Baker, ed., Carlos (1981). Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917−1961. Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 709. ISBN 978-0-684-16765-7.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Vanderlan, Robert (2011). Intellectuals Incorporated: Politics, Art, and Ideas Inside Henry Luce's Media Empire. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 239. ISBN 978-0812205633. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  15. ^ Dee, Jonathan (1986). "John Hersey, The Art of Fiction No. 92". The Paris Review. Summer-Fall 1986 (100). Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  16. ^ a b Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. New York: Random House. pp. 85–86 (Robert Cantwell), 365–366 (Lloyd Cantwell). LCCN 52005149.
  17. ^ "Hearings regarding Communist espionage in the United States Government". US Government Printing Office (GPO). 22 October 1948. p. 1167. Retrieved 16 December 2016.
  18. ^ Cantwell, Robert. "The Hills around Centralia." In Proletarian Literature in the United States: An Anthology, edited by Granville Hicks, Joseph North, Michael Gold, Paul Peters, Isidore Schneider, and Alan Calmer. New York: International Publishers, 1935.
  19. ^ Cantwell, Robert (1948). "Nathaniel Hawthorne". Rinehart. LCCN 48004681. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  20. ^ "A Real Man's Life". Time. 4 October 1948. Retrieved 26 March 2017.
  21. ^ Cantwell, Robert (17 July 1935). "What the Working Class Reads". The New Republic. Retrieved 11 December 2016.
  22. ^ Cantwell, Robert (23 February 1938). "The Communists and the CIO". The New Republic. Retrieved 11 December 2016.
  23. ^ "Articles by Robert Cantwell". Sport Illustrated. Retrieved 11 December 2016.

External sourcesEdit