Definitions and Background
The issues raised by the history of American literary expatriation must begin with the question of how closely writers can be associated with their country’s cultural experience. Some literature seems indelibly linked to its national origin—for example, the novels of Thomas Hardy (such as The Return of the Native, 1878) to southwestern England, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957) to Russia, or William Faulkner to his imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Conversely, some literature seems absolutely untethered to national roots—the novels of Joseph Conrad, for example, a Polish émigré writing in English of experiences gained in sailing voyages around the world.
The question then becomes, how important is it for writers to be living in their native countries in order to produce their best work? Exiles (people who have been forced from their countries for political reasons) and expatriates (self-exiles, or those who have voluntarily left) have often produced great literature while living away from their countries of birth: The nineteenth century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev lived much of his career in France. Isak Dinesen, the Danish short-story writer, lived from 1914 to 1931 in Kenya, Africa, although she published all of her fiction after that period. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived the last years of his life in Africa, while the Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson died on his beloved island of Samoa.
Expatriation or self-exile can be undertaken for political reasons (for example, a disagreement with a country’s government), or it can be caused by perceived cultural lacks in the native country. The artists who fled Nazi Germany to come to California, for example, were clearly...
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