Expatriate Identity in Literature Analysis

Definitions and Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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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The Nineteenth Century

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

From the beginning of American literature, writers and artists have returned to Europe to renew their art. Except for Native Americans, all American writers have cultural origins somewhere else. The dominant culture of the Atlantic seaboard was British, and colonial writers showed their dependence upon English sources, imitating British literature in form and genre, if not in subject.

Two major American fiction writers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, spent considerable time abroad, Irving for twenty-four years, and Cooper for eight. Irving in fact wrote a number of works in Europe, including a biography of Christopher Columbus, and a romantic travel book on Spain called The Legends of the Alhambra (1832). He is most important as the father of the American short story, and it is significant that of the thirty-two tales collected in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., of 1820, only six (including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”) have American subjects or settings. Cooper was less influenced by European living—although his five Leatherstocking Tales (such as The Last of the Mohicans, 1841) certainly followed the British novel in form. His expatriation resulted in weak novels and the superior nonfiction work Notions of the Americans (1828). His repatriation in 1833 turned Cooper into a social satirist, and he became increasingly critical of his own country.


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The 1920’s

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The major period of American expatriation occurred after World War I. A number of writers—including the poet E. E. Cummings and the novelist John Dos Passos—were in Europe during World War I, and stayed. Part of the reason was that the United States in the 1920’s seemed an alien place; after contact with the artistic riches of the Continent, and the devastation the war had wrought, the narrow, small-town values of the United States seemed parochial and provincial. In addition, a dollar could carry a writer much further in postwar Europe, and a number of writers—most notably Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—made the journey to Europe to live. They became what Gertrude Stein called the lost generation, but they found something of inestimable literary value in their European sojourns.

Stein, like the poet Ezra Pound, had actually been in Europe since before World War I, and the two became the mentors for the many younger writers who began to appear after 1920, encouraging, editing, and publishing their early efforts. Although Hemingway would later disparage Stein’s influence in A Moveable Feast (1964), she had a great effect on the style of the younger writer. His first collection of stories, In Our Time (1925), was published while he was living in Paris, and reflects the early European influence. While some of the stories focus on a young Nick Adams growing up in the Midwest, at least half—including “A Very Short...

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After the Lost Generation

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

American writers have continued to find cultural homes in Europe. Many went abroad in disgust with American cultural policy and practice in their native country. African American writers, like their counterparts in music and art, found Europe a much more comfortable place to establish their artistic identities than their racially troubled homeland. Richard Wright spent many years in France and, while the books he wrote in expatriation never matched his earlier work (the novel Native Son, 1941, and the autobiography Black Boy, 1944), he was an important mo”tl for other African American writers such as James Baldwin, who lived in self-exile in France and Switzerland for many years and whose fiction and nonfiction often reflect Europe. The distance allowed Baldwin to see even more pointedly the limitations of his native land. Other writers found solace elsewhere— Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs in northern African cities such as Tangiers. Katherine Anne Porter lived in Mexico. Maya Angelou spent several years in Ghana during its early years of independence. By the end of the twentieth century, in fact, as technology and travel made the world a smaller place, American writers were choosing to live in many locations, often alternating years at home and abroad. Personal and cultural identity, as writers have demonstrated, does not depend on geography. In fact, expatriation may—as in the cases of James, Hemingway, Baldwin, and Angelou—actually sharpen the artist’s perspective of his or her homeland.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920’s. 1934. Reprint. New York: Viking Press, 1951. The best description of the lost generation, by a writer who participated in the expatriation of the 1920’s.

Dunbar, Ernest, ed. The Black Expatriates: A Study of American Negroes in Exile. London: Gollancz, 1968. A collection of African American expatriate writings, with an introduction by the editor.

Earnest, Ernest. Expatriates and Patriots: American Artists, Scholars, and Writers in Europe. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968. Earnest has chapters on the major writers: Irving, Cooper, Fuller, Hawthorne, James, Frederic, Wharton, and the expatriates of the 1920’s.

Ross, Ishbel. The Expatriates. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1970. A popular survey, from the diplomats of the American Revolution to the hippies of the 1960’s.