Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Exile’s Return is a work at once personal and historical. As the singular of its title suggests, it tells the story of one man, the author, whose “literary odyssey of the 1920’s” (as the subtitle of the 1951 revised edition puts it) is, however, less individual than representative—as representative in its own way as that of the era’s most famous Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Cowley is, however, neither Bloom nor Ulysses/Odysseus. He is instead one of the “lost generation.” This phrase, coined by a French garage owner and appropriated by Gertrude Stein to describe a generation of chiefly American writers that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Stein herself, Cowley only half accepts. In his view, the writers who were born around 1900 were not so much lost as uprooted, cut off from all that might otherwise have given them a sense of cultural and aesthetic place. Their geographical wanderings served therefore as the physical manifestation of their social and literary uncertainty.

In retrospect, Cowley finds that their odyssey was in a sense far less haphazard and far more orderly in its own odd way than it then appeared to those who, like Cowley, actually participated in this vast transatlantic wandering. It was, as Cowley sees it, an odyssey that followed a general pattern of “alienation and reintegration, or departure and return,” one in which Cowley distinguishes four distinct stages, or movements. In the first, Cowley and those members of the lost generation that he represents begin the process of losing whatever traditions they may have had when they go away to college and come under the heady influence of the humanists and the aesthetes. Flourishing in the university’s “hot-house atmosphere,” humanism and aestheticism instilled in Cowley certain leisure-class values (disguised as cultural and moral universals) as well as the equally appealing and equally harmful belief that society was essentially hostile to both literature and learning. (It is a belief that Cowley’s subsequent career as editor, reviewer, and critic-at-large—which is to say largely outside the university and its “hot-house atmosphere”—has served quietly to disprove.) In the second stage, the process of exile, and therefore of disengagement, became more pronounced. Joining the ambulance service during World War I was not what it seemed. It was, that is, a sign not of political commitment on the part of young American idealists but instead of “abstract patriotism.” As “gentleman volunteers,” they did not so...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bak, Hans. “The Critic and His Generation,” in Dutch Quarterly Review. IX (1979), pp. 261-283.

Simpson, Lewis P. “Cowley’s Odyssey: Literature and Faith in the Thirties,” in The Sewanee Review. LXXXIX (Fall, 1981), pp. 520-539.

Smelstor, Marjorie. “Expatriation and Exploration: The Exiled Artists of the 1920s,” in America: Exploration and Travel, 1979. Edited by Steven E. Kagle.

Young, Philip. “For Malcolm Cowley: Critic, Poet, 1898-,” in The Southern Review. IX (Autumn, 1973), pp. 778-795.

Young, Philip. “In Search of a Lost Generation,” in Kansas Quarterly. VII (1975), pp. 127-134.