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 nostalgic. By initially adopting the “I” and drawing at length from letters and essays he wrote during the 1920’s, Cowley creates a sense of immediacy, but his role as participant is offset, or complemented, by his role as observer/commentator. The past is at once immediately present and rendered at a certain distance. The result is remarkably similar to what Adams achieves in his memoir: acute observations coupled with ironic self-criticism and self-detachment. Some of this self-criticism is overt, much is not, but nearly all of it focuses on the fact that in having become the author and subject of Exile’s Return, Cowley did not become the writer he had hoped to become. The author of the poetry collection Blue Juniata (1929) recognized and eventually accepted “the essential middleclass feeling that I had to support myself.” Cowley’s personal failure, his failure to become, or remain, a poet, may be read as either the most personal and most representative instance of that larger failure that, in Cowley’s view, characterizes the entire age, or as the personal animus that causes Cowley to perceive the age as he does.
“The writers of our generation were humble in the sense that they did not hope to alter the course of events or even to build themselves an honored place in society.” Cowley’s remarks on those writers who have achieved an honored place in literary history if not in society suggest that for Cowley his humility came at too high a price. It entailed either a retreat into the past (as in Eliot and Ezra Pound) or a retreat into mere aesthetics (as in Joyce and Eliot), in which form achieves a dubious triumph over matter, art over life. Cowley is particularly critical of Joyce,...
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In his indispensable study, The Twenties: American Writing in the Postwar Decade (1955, revised 1962), Frederick J. Hoffman describes Exile’s Return as “the best, the most lively, in many ways the wisest estimate of the decade.” Significantly, Hoffman’s laudatory assessment remains true even in a literary age which has witnessed the rise of semiotics and deconstruction, attacks on naive biographism, and the undermining of that faith in literature and its relation to life upon which Cowley bases his study. The discussions of Cowley’s book in virtually all studies of the period and of its major figures attests the validity of Hoffman’s assessment as well as the fact that Exile’s Return has largely been read and remembered as a work solely or chiefly of literary history, a view that its publisher, Viking Penguin, has fostered by printing photographs of nine of the period’s best-known writers on the front cover of the American paperback edition, all of whom are noticeable in this memoir largely by virtue of their relative absence from its pages. Thus assessments of Exile’s Return have focused on the era’s most important literary figures and the exile phase of their literary odyssey, rather than the equally important return phase. Finally, Exile’s Return has worn well, despite its largely subjective approach, because it is not marred by the high degree of overt ideological bias that characterizes so many of the critical studies written during the same period. There are no Freudian readings, and the Marxist political opinions that had seemed so apropos at the time Cowley initially composed his study—the time, that is, of the Great Depression—he chose to edit out while preparing the revised edition for publication in 1951, long after the Depression was over and the author had become more comfortable in his own “middle-classness.”