In Exile’s Return, Cowley tells the story of latter-day innocents abroad: of well-educated American naifs, of the Europe they found and the America to which they returned. He accomplishes more than merely describing and explaining an era; he creates its very texture. Although it does not succeed particularly well as “a narrative of ideas” (the subtitle of the original 1934 edition), it does so as an odd hybrid in which literary history and personal memoir combine and become one and in which, as in The Education of Henry Adams (1907), authorial voice and tone play a crucial role. Cowley presents himself as a representative figure, his “I” often slipping effortlessly into “we.” In a book which deals with a literary generation that includes such major figures as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot, such a tactic might appear conceited and arrogant, especially given how small are the parts these giants play in Cowley’s literary chronicle. Yet Exile’s Return is not about their successes but about what Cowley perceives as the larger failure of their era, one to which these writers, too, contributed. It is “a literary odyssey” that ended in failure, including the failure of the first-person singular “I” that disappears two-thirds of the way through the narrative, having merged with the rest of his class. The figure which began as representative and a bit arrogant and assertive becomes anonymous, dependent, even...
(The entire section is 1306 words.)
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