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