Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1306

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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, of “his pride, his contempt for others, his ambition.” Cowley evidences considerably greater interest in and sympathy for a group of writers and artists about whom Americans especially knew little if anything at the time Exile’s Return was published. Led by Tristan Tzara, the Dadaists had none of Joyce’s monumental ambition, and they gain a large measure of Cowley’s approval for being merely “young and adventurous, and human.” Dada took the modernist belief in art for art’s sake to the very frontiers of intelligibility, making virtues of obscurantism, of the purity of poetry, of individualism, of amorality, and of art as exploration rather than as message. In freeing art so completely from the limitations of reality (and realism), Dada succeeded in producing gestures only. These gestures greatly impressed and influenced Cowley “then”; but “now” (1934 and again in 1951), he sees them in a different and far less favorable light as evidence of that general frittering away of one’s talent in gestures that, whether great (Joyce’s novels) or small (Dadaist happenings) produced no significant effect on the life and society from which art had chosen to divorce itself.

Cowley is so hard on his literary generation because he believes that art matters, and it matters so much not because it is, as for Joyce, all, but because it is not. Art, Cowley insists, exists—or should exist—only in its relation to life. The exiles (including the Cowley of the 1920’s) mistakenly adhered to “a theory of art which held that the creative artist is absolutely independent of all localities, nations or classes.” The Cowley of Exile’s Return is particularly critical of the wisdom and validity of this theory. The modernist transformation of art into religion did profoundly revolutionize the writing of poetry and fiction, as Cowley himself admits, but he also believes that it failed in two important respects: one, because it “led into blind alleys” and two, because it had “tried to become a system of ethics, a way of life.” Insofar as modernism helped to open art to the present, Cowley applauds it (the efforts of the Transatlantic Review’s editors to encourage colloquial American writing, for example). He also recognizes that exile from American life played a vital role in enabling American writers to discover their own Americanness. In fact, in this regard Cowley goes so far as to compare the American expatriates of the 1920’s with the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski, who came to discover his native Russia as well as the most national and the most personal elements in his own character only by leaving his homeland and sojourning abroad. While the experience and the effect were virtually the same in both these cases, Cowley calls attention to one most important difference. In Cowley’s judgment, none of the expatriates—and this includes the greatest of them, the American Eliot and the Irishman Joyce—wrote anything to rival the greatness of Dostoevski’s novels of the post-European period. Just as his most terrifying creation, Stavrogin in The Possessed, was “destroyed by his own undirected power,” so too did the exiles of Exile’s Return meet a similar fate a half-century later. They overcame their sense of American (or Irish) inferiority only to succumb to the equally incapacitating myth of “the lost generation,” a defeat that characterizes the entire generation and that Cowley finds epitomized in the career of a relatively minor, even peripheral figure, Harry Crosby. Crosby literally embodies all that the lost generation represents: the wealth, the good education, the assured career in the commercial world (banking), the shattering war experiences, the turning to art as salvation. Above all, the fact that Crosby committed suicide in December, 1929, leaving no note or even a suspicion as to why he had taken his own life and that of a companion, makes him stand, in Cowley’s telling, for that void of unfulfilled promise that Cowley discerns at the heart of the age. The period that had begun with the promise of “social and moral reaction” degenerated into what Fitzgerald called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history.” Crosby’s promising but ultimately wasted life, his grand but utterly unproductive final gesture, sums up not only his age but more important the literature of his age, and one suspects that it is for this reason that Cowley bestows upon Crosby that measure of sympathy that he withholds in his assessments of those far more “major” writers in whose works he finds evidence of the same dissipation, of the same rejection of the belief that Cowley maintains so strenuously: that to live, art must engage life, not retreat from it.

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