Exiles Return quotes

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The following quotes are from Malcolm Cowley’s 1934 book Exile’s Return. Page numbers correspond to the revised Viking Press edition.


“The young writers couldn’t buy luxuries even on the installment plan. They didn’t want to advertise or sell them or write stories in which salesmen were the romantic heroes. Feeling like aliens in the commercial world, they sailed for Europe as soon as they had money enough to pay for their steamer tickets.” – Page 6

“It was lost, first of all, because it was uprooted, schooled away and almost wretched away from its attachment to any region or tradition. It was lost because its training had prepared it for another world that existed after the war (and because the war prepared it only for travel and excitement). It was lost because it tried to live in exile. It was lost because it accepted no older guides to conduct because it had formed a false picture of society and the writer’s place in it. The generation that belonged to a period of transition from values already fixed to values that had to be created.” – Page 9

“Moreover, there is this to say about the foolishness of writers in the 1920s that even the worst of it caused no suffering except to the perpetrators of the foolishness and their immediate families. It wasn’t like the statesman’s high-principled foolishness of later years, in all countries, which had left them in office while bringing the rest of us to the brink of something we aren’t prepared to face.” – Page 12

SECTION 1 – Mansions

“The country of our childhood survives, if only in our minds, and retains our loyalty even when casting us into exile; we carry its image from city to city as our most essential baggage.” – Page 14

“We were not conscious of having anything special to say; we wanted merely to live in ourselves and be writers.” – Page 21

“School and college had uprooted us in spirit; now we were physically uprooted, hundreds of us, millions, plucked from our own soil as if by a clamshell bucket and dumped, scattered among strange people. All our roots were dead now, even the Anglo-Saxon tradition of our literary ancestors, even the habits of slow thrift that characterized our social class.” – Page 46

SECTION 2 – War in Bohemia

“The Village in 1919 was like a conquered country. Its inhabitants were discouraged and drank joylessly. “We” came among them with an unexpected store of energy: we had left our youth at home, and for two years it had been accumulating at compound interest; now we were eager to lavish it even on trivial objects.” – Page 71

“And we ourselves, the newcomers to the Village, were leaving it if we could. The long process of deracination had reached its climax. School and college had uprooted us in spirit; the war had physically uprooted us, carried us into strange countries and left us finally in the metropolis of the uprooted. Now even New York seemed too American, too close to home.” – Page 80 (on the young generation flocking to Paris in the early 20s)

SECTION 3 – Travellers Cheque

“The exiles of 1921 came to Europe seeking one thing and found another. They came to recover the good life and the traditions of art, to free themselves from organized stupidity, to win their deserved place in the hierarchy of the intellect. Having come in search of values, they found valuta.” – Page 81

“There sprang into being a new race of tourists, the Valutaschweine, the parasites of the exchange, who wandered from France to Rumania, from Italy to Poland, in quest of the vilest prices and the most admirable gangrenes of society.” – Page 82

“As an organized body of opinion, the youngest generation in American letters does not exist. There is no group, but there are individuals. There is no solidarity, but there are prevailing habits of thought. Certain characteristics held in common unify the work of the youngest writers, the generation that has just turned twenty.” – Page 97 (from his 1921 essay This Youngest Generation)

“I have said that ours was a humble generation, but the truth is that all writers are ambitious: if they were really humble they would choose a craft that involved less risk of failure and milder penalties for the crime of being average. All writers thirst to excel.” – Page 100-1

“Though their lives might be dingy and cluttered, they had one privilege: to write a poem in which all was but order and beauty, a poem rising like a clean tower above the tin cans and broken dishes of their days. In the world of “form,” their failures, our failures, would be avenged.” – Page 101-2

SECTION 4 – Paris Pilgrimages

“We were new men, without inherited traditions, and we were entering a new world of art that did not impress us as being a spiritual desert.” – Page 115

“Paris was a great machine for stimulating the nerves and shaping the senses. Paintings and music, street noises, shops, flower markets, modes, fabrics, poems, ideas, everything seemed to lead toward a half-sensual, half-intellectual swoon” – Page 135

SECTION 5 – Death of Dada

“If carried beyond a certain point, the religion of art imperceptibly merges into the irreligion of art, into a state of mind in which the artist deliberately fritters away his talents through contempt for the idiot-public that can never understand.” – Page 147

“In the decade before 1930 more writers and painters than ever before, and especially more Americans, had the leisure to meditate the problems of art and the self, to express themselves, to be creative. And the artists were now surrounded by a cultured mob of dilettantes, people without convictions of their own who fed upon them emotionally, adopted their beliefs and encouraged their vices. In a world where everybody felt lost and directionless, the artists were forced often in spite of themselves to become priests.” – Page 157

“In a country as hypocritical as the United States, merely to enumerate the number of laws one has broken would be a significant gesture.” – Page 162

SECTION 6 – The City of Anger

“When one’s writing ceases to have a functional relationship to one’s life, when it becomes a way of spending otherwise idle evenings, it loses a part of its substance. At best it has an unreality that can usually be recognized, and after-hours atmosphere of rhetoric, fantasy and melodrama to be explained by the situation that produced it: the writer is seeking compensation for the qualities missing in his business career. More often there are no idle evenings; writing disappears from his life, giving way to the unhealthy feeling that he is better than his vocation, by which he is frustrated, from which he must violently escape to write a novel, a drama, and epic. But the fear persists that his great work will be a failure: isn’t it better to be paid each Saturday and talk drunkenly each Saturday night about the unwritten novel?” – Page 174

“You must confine yourself to essentials: thinking, reading, conversation, writing, livelihood, in about the order named. At this moment you must strip yourself of everything inessential to these aims; and especially of the functions of editor, free lance, drinking companion and literary polemist. You must arrange your life against interruptions; you must sleep, exercise, earn your living and pass the other moments beneath a lamp or talking. Too many excitements: at this moment you are tired and discouraged…You have left the stage and you did not even bow.” – Page 201

“When the exiles returned from Europe, their normal instinct was to remake the environment, to substitute moral for mechanical values, to create a background that would render their own lives more exciting or rewarding. Having failed in this attempt, they sought to adjust themselves to the existing environment as best they could.” – Page 202

“Let us estimate that I can think of for a maximum of two hours per day. Every day the topic changes, my interests change, I am less downhearted, or more, I plan different futures. To read seriously. To construct an aesthetic. To write a novel. To be financially independent. One aim conflicts with another, and our lives are held together only by the calendar, the daily papers, the chain of Saturdays, the Sundays like empty brackets.” – Page 202

SECTION 7 – The Age of Islands

“We were all about twenty-six, a good age, and looked no older; we were interested only in writing and in keeping alive while we wrote, and we had the feeling of being invulnerable – we didn’t see how anything in the world could ever touch us, certainly not the crazy desire to earn and spend more money and be pointed out as prominent people.” – Page 222

“The late 1920s were an age of islands, real and metaphorical. They were an age when Americans by the thousands and tens of thousands were scheming to take the next boat for the South Seas or the West Indies, or better still for Paris, from which they could scatter to Majorca, Corsica, Capri or the isles of Greece. Paris itself was a modern city that seemed islanded in the past, and there were island countries, like Mexico, where Americans could feel that they had escaped from everything that oppressed them in a business civilization. Or without leaving home they could build themselves private islands of art or philosophy.” – Page 235

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