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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060

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...

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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 much participate in the war as develop “a spectatorial attitude” and “a thirst for abstract danger.” The upshot was that their beliefs and even their capacity, as well as their willingness, to believe continued to wither away. When the war was over, they found themselves having nowhere and nothing to which to return, nowhere and nothing to which to attach themselves. They took up residence in New York City’s Greenwich Village not as the prewar generation had, to work for political change, but instead for purely pragmatic reasons: cheap housing and proximity to the largest concentration of editorial offices for magazines and book publishers in the nation.

“Their real exile,” Cowley came to realize, “was from society itself, from any society to which they could honestly contribute and from which they could draw the strength that lies in shared convictions.” One conviction they did share was that fact of their being romantically “lost,” and not merely lost but, as the university aesthetes had told them, beleaguered by a hostile society. The attacks on the Village and its bohemian values by The Saturday Evening Post and other organs of middle-class conservatism were, however, misguided, because the exiles’ values were neither as bohemian nor as radical as they seemed. They were instead those of the middle class—a point that would become especially noticeable during the fourth stage of their odyssey. Before that could happen, the lost generation had to pay its homage to the romantic notion of “salvation by exile.” Fueled by the essays edited by Harold Stearns and collected under the title Civilization in the United States, the exiles left the Village, convinced that America had no civilization; it was, they believed, a spiritual and artistic wasteland. They arrived once again in Europe prepared to absorb all the art and tradition that America lacked. Instead of aesthetic and cultural values, however, they found only valuta, for postwar Europe had nothing to offer other than its rates of exchange, which varied so wildly from country to country that many of the exiles found themselves wandering Europe in that most middle class of all preoccupations, chasing down the best buys. In Europe, they lived cheaply but erratically and, more important, aimlessly: Quite literally they lived without purpose and without effect. Consequently, when Cowley returned to the United States in 1923, it was to face the inevitable: how to earn a living, especially in a country where all efforts to reproduce European social and literary (especially Dadaist) conditions and values proved fruitless. On the other hand, the fact that “the literary business was booming” in the States made the return easier. Rather than attempt the impossible, the Europeanization of America, the exiles found themselves merging with the mainstream by joining the commercial world, working in public relations, advertising, and publishing as copy writers, designers, and stylists, all the while maintaining the dream of exile in its most attenuated form: a house in the Connecticut countryside. They could believe in the dream but not in their work, their nation, or themselves. They gave themselves, or part of themselves, to doomed causes (such as Sacco-Vanzetti) or escaped to various real or metaphorical islands: Majorca, art, philosophy, primitivism, and their Connecticut farms. Those who had been exiles in space became exiles in spirit, no longer searching for but merely escaping from. Despite a fairly upbeat “Epilogue” added to the 1951 revised edition, Exile’s Return ends rather gloomily, with a sense of, if not quite desolation, then waste. It ends neither with Odysseus’ homecoming nor with Molly Bloom’s “yes” at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses but instead with the deaths of Harry Crosby and later Hart Crane, with the year of the Crash and the onset of the Great Depression, with the end of a decade that was also the end of an age that had promised so much and delivered so little.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85

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.

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