The adventures and attitudes shared by the American writers dubbed "the lost generation", are brought to life in this book of prose works. Feeling alienated in the America of the 1920s, Fitzgerald, Crane, Hemingway, Wilder, Dos Passos, Cowley and others "escaped" to Europe, as exiles.
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Malcolm Cowley (1898–1989) a leadiing literary figure of his time, wrote numerous books of literary criticism, essays, and poetry.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Malcolm Cowley grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and interrupted his undergraduate career at Harvard to drive a camion during World War I. He moved to New York City in 1919 and worked as an editor of The New Republic from 1929 to 1940. He served as president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters from 1956 to 1959 and from 1962 to 1965 and was chancellor of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1966 to 1976. He wrote numerous books of literary criticism, essays, and poetry, and edited many collections and anthologies. Among his many awards and honors were the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the Hubbell Medal of the Modern Language Association for service to the study of American literature.
Donald W. Faulkner is the editor of Malcolm Cowley’s The Flower and the Leaf: A Contemporary Record of American Writing Since 1945 (1985) and The Portable Malcolm Cowley (1990). He has written extensively on Cowley for literary journals, and was a fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Cowley’s papers are housed. Faulkner teaches literature and creative writing at Yale University.
A LITERARY ODYSSEY OF THE 1920S
EDITED AND WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
DONALD W. FAULKNER
Among the chronicles, memoirs, and remembrances of the making of American literature in the 1920s, Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return stands alone. Far from the “we put on boxing gloves and Ernest Hemingway broke my nose” recollections of that shaping period for a national literature, Cowley’s work is “a narrative of ideas,” as he subtitled the original edition of his book, published in 1934. Save for a handful of anecdotes, the book is not an accumulation of silvered memories, but a meditative exploration of the design and goals of literary culture.
It is a book written by a young man about a young time, and its extolling of a young generation’s ability to cast off the baggage of its forebears and forge its own identity has quickened the hearts of generations of readers who have found resonance in its story. It continues to speak. Indeed, Exile’s Return is not so much about Paris in the 1920s as it is about the exemplary revolt of one generation against its predecessors in the effort to establish itself.
Much later in his life—Cowley died in 1989 at age ninety after a distinguished career in American letters, the bulk of it spent shaping our estimations of American literature—he wrote of the preconditions he saw for both generational self-identification and generational revolt. First among them, he said, is “a sense of life, something that might be defined as an intricate web of perceptions, judgments, feelings, and aspirations shared by its members.” Next is the generation’s “thoroughness and even violence in setting aside parental or merely prevailing notions.” Then each generation needs to acknowledge its precursors—“madmen and outlaws,” as Cowley called them (borrowing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase), who “give an intellectual structure to [the generation’s] own rebellion”—and must also witness or participate in “historic events,” which “furnish its members with a common fund of experience.” Finally, Cowley stipulated (once more echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald), the generation needs “its own leaders and spokesmen.” I hasten to add another element that Cowley perhaps took as a given: the group must feel in some fashion betrayed by both prevailing notions and historic events, in order, if only through alienation, to generate both the intricate web and the common fund of experience.
Although Cowley was speaking broadly, his prescriptions match the characterization early in Exile’s Return of his own “lost generation.” Absent a vivid awareness of the generation’s precursors or spokesmen—they were to be identified presently—the preconditions Cowley later nominated were all present. Particularly powerful, as Cowley presents the making of exiles in Exile’s Return, was the sense of betrayal. First, the lost generation was brought to alienation by its education: “It was uprooted,” Cowley writes, “schooled away and almost wrenched away from its attachment to any region or tradition.” This was education as deracination. As a young man, Cowley says, he was not being prepared for “citizenship” or a role in “the common life” of America, but was instead “exhorted to enter that international republic of learning whose traditions are those of Athens, Florence, Paris, Berlin, and Oxford.” The bitterness expressed in these statements is quite different from the hymn to childhood Cowley presents in the opening to his first chapter, as though there he is recalling home ground like Candide, who embarks upon a journey naïvely and with the best of intentions, only to be rudely shocked.
The protagonist of this journey’s story was not only Cowley, but an entire prewar literary generation. Trained for a world that existed largely in books, many of this generation volunteered before America’s entry into World War I for wartime service in a Europe that no longer existed. The slaughters at Chemin des Dames, the morass of Passchendaele, and the rout of the Italian army at Caporetto, among many other battles, profoundly altered this literary generation’s sense of both itself and the world. As Cowley puts it, “The generation belonged to a period of transition from values already fixed to values that had to be created.”
Moreover, upon returning to the States from the war, whose end was declared with the November 11, 1918, armistice, the uprooted found themselves exiles in their own land, spectators of a culture they had no hand in creating, and disenfranchised socially, economically, and politically. Boosterism, a new conformity, was dominant. After Sinclair Lewis’s social satire Babbitt appeared in 1922, “Babbittry” became the moniker for this pecuniary vision of repressive progress. Those whose values didn’t match the norm were suspect. The Ku Klux Klan had begun its northern migration, the Palmer raids had begun rounding up supposed radicals (including the soon-to-be-celebrated Sacco and Vanzetti), labor organizing efforts were trounced in Seattle and in the coal, rail, and steel industries, and the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, instituting Prohibition, had been passed. Progress and power were praised, intellect and ideas were not. Cynically, after disillusioning trips home where challenging work was not to be found, many of Cowley’s ilk migrated to New York, particularly Greenwich Village, where they worked bad jobs, lived in coldwater flats, and generally refound each other. With a shared net of ideas—essentially, down with the hypocrisy of business and up with the sanctity of art—and a common rejection of contemporary values, they forged a bond. Cowley, thinking back to the war, calls it “the long furlough.” Given their bleak prospects, many of this lost generation began to think it might not be a bad idea simply to repack their bags, this time with civilian clothes, and head back to France, where the exchange rate favored the dollar and the culture confirmed the images their educations had fed them.
When in 1921 Harold Stearns, a young intellectual seven years Cowley’s elder, decided to abandon America for Paris, his departure confirmed a vacuum suction of expatriation by American artists and writers to Europe. Stearns had written America and the Young Intellectual, and edited Civilization in the United States, a symposium comprising essays by thirty significant contributors whose findings about the nation echoed a remark of Gertrude Stein’s on Oakland, California: “There is no there there.” (Cowley sums up the symposium’s findings in a sentence: “Life in this country is joyless and colorless, universally standardized, tawdry, uncreative, given over to the worship of wealth and machinery.”) The exodus was self-appointed and far from permanent. The writers and artists who preceded and followed Stearns to Europe were less exiles than sojourners: away for a while, but never fully divesting themselves of their American identities.
As time has proven, the best of them, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, among so many others, became remarkably productive during the decade that followed. Their achievements belied initial assessments of their worth. Reviewing Exile’s Return in 1934, William Soskin said, “Nobody wrote great books in the last decade. Mr. Hemingway is growing dim. So are his colleagues.” Lewis Gannett, an influential reviewer (whose deprecatory remarks helped keep the book’s paltry first-year sales, during the heart of the Depression, at 983 copies), had called the exiles nothing more than “a little group of serious thinking drunkards” who “felt there was something superb in starving for three days while waiting for papa’s next check.” Their legendary intemperance notwithstanding, most of these writers had in fact burned their bridges to home and gotten by on odd jobs, goodwill, and wits.
In postwar Paris they escaped the “hypocrisy and repression” of America and found cheap living, laissez-faire standards of conduct, a sense of community (if at times only among themselves), and equally important, a feeling that they were living, creatively unfettered, at the cutting edge of art in the cultural center of the world. Cowley, whose ticket back to France in 1921 came in the form of an extended American Field Service fellowship earned for his volunteer service during the war, studied classical French literature, Racine in particular, but quickly became a keen observer of living intellectual heroes: a prewar generation of American writers who had expatriated earlier, among them Ezra Pound, who frantically fled his admirers and whose elegant Mauberley poems damned the war and its outcome; Gertrude Stein, who had dubbed herself as the doyenne of exiles; and T. S. Eliot, whose seminal poem The Waste Land, which appeared in 1922, confirmed the anomie of the lost generation. There were also non-American exiles, such as James Joyce, whose serial excerpts from Ulysses, and its full publication in 1922, though broadly heralded, were interdicted in England and America as prurient and scandalous.
Equally important to Cowley were the French writers on the scene: Marcel Proust, Paul Valéry, and the Dadaists. Proust, though he died in 1922, had left a literary legacy composed in bed in a cork-lined room, his Remembrance of Things Past. “The longest novel ever written,” it appeared in seven volumes across the remainder of the decade. The poet and thinker Paul Valéry, who praised form over content and detachment over action, had imposed on himself a twenty-year period of silence, which, Cowley writes, “impressed us even more than the high poems and the noble essays he had printed.” And finally, there were the nihilistic and iconoclastic Dadaists, among them Tristan Tzara and Louis Aragon, who befriended Cowley, and who regarded European culture, the very culture Cowley had left his own to embrace, as a culture imploding. Independently and collectively these artists presented Cowley with a judgment: “Art is separate from life; the artist is independent of the world and superior to the lifelings.”
Cowley was, as he saw it, in the company of the high priests of art. Their ideas were as palpable as their presence in Parisian café society. One could, as Cowley did, attend Gertrude Stein’s salons, meet with Joyce in his apartment, talk of Shakespeare’s historical sources with Pound in the Hôtel Jacob, sit with Valéry on the park benches of the Tuilleries to question his ideas, attend and take part in Dadaist “happenings,” drink with Tzara or with fellow American exiles in Montparnasse cafés such as the Select, the Rotonde, or the Dôme, and even be praised for the “significant gesture” of punching the disreputable proprietor of the Rotonde. In Paris, Cowley inhabited a world that appreciated significant gestures.
In the chapters of Exile’s Return entitled “Paris Pilgrimages” and “The Death of Dada,” Cowley writes of this heady time, but he also plants the seeds of his discontent. Examining ideas rather than personalities, he finds that the idea of a priesthood in “the religion of art” both attracts and repulses him. If, in the interest of making art, the choices are to “shut oneself up in one’s own private world,” as Proust did, or to “leave the twentieth century behind,” as it seemed the exiles were doing—choices put forward by Edmund Wilson in his 1931 critical study, Axel’s Castle (wherein both choices result in artistic impotence—then, Cowley) feels, the frame of the argument is logically wrong, and “the religion of art imperceptibly merges into . . . a state of mind in which the artist deliberately fritters away his talents through contempt for the idiot-public that can never understand.”
Cowley and the other Paris sojourners of whom he wrote, some of whom stayed for weeks or months, others for years, always intended to return to native soil and never believed in their “deracination,” beyond what it taught them they could bring back from their exile: new insight into ways of shaping the ideas of that “idiot-public” of American values. Certainly Cowley thought of them as Americans, not as citizens of some “international republic of learning,” but as shapers of and contributors to an American culture, despite the prevailing belief that their native culture had no identity and was perilously unaware of its own future. Cowley came back earlier than many of his fellows, in 1923, and immediately found an America whose values were as inhospitable as Paris and the rest of Europe’s were welcoming. This was the America of Calvin Coolidge, whose business was business, an America that ignoring worldwide inflation, mortgaged its future on credit, and sang itself songs like “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
The New York to which Cowley returned was “a city of anger,” and the mixture of idealism and cynicism he imported from his exile was sorely taxed by his failed attempts to continue publication of Broom, the little magazine he worked to edit with Matthew Josephson, a fellow expatriate. Although Cowley makes more of such defeats than their place in American literary history might merit, his examples—of post office censorship, of the homophobia of critics—amplify the disparity between the cultural, social, and political awareness of his fellow exiles and the American norm.
Two events finally solidified Cowley’s sense of the returned exiles as writers whose duty was to focus their literary efforts on American cultural subjects, and even further, on American political values. The first was the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two men held with questionable evidence on a murder charge in Massachusetts prisons since 1920. The event not only steeled intellectual opinion, it galvanized it. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, and the returned exiles grieved in solidarity with the rest of the intellectual world, but only until the second event, in October 1929, when the stock market crashed, bringing down with it a whole construct of American values. For Cowley and for other exiles returned, the end of the 1920s in the United States was like the fall of a house of cards, expected, predicted, and confirming the hollowness of American beliefs.
While millions were put out of work by the market crash, Cowley’s luck turned. In the same month as the crash he was hired as literary editor o...
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