Exile's Return Essay - Critical Context

Malcolm Cowley

Critical Context

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.”