The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Malcolm Cowley's 1934 memoir of the Lost Generation, EXILE'S RETURN, is one of those unavoidable books for those (like me) teaching or reading about the social context of modernism. Like AXEL'S CASTLE by Edmund Wilson, the book ends with an entirely anachronistic (and later withdrawn) call for a Marxist/socialist-realist art, but unlike Wilson's book, which is largely a study of literary technique, EXILE'S RETURN is mostly a collection of anecdotes about being young and artistic in America and Paris in the 1920s. With the possible exception of Kay Boyle and Robert McAlmon's strange, asynchronously coauthored BEING GENIUSES TOGETHER, there's no more vivid portrait of this group of people and the world around them. It's actually a fun read, too; haphazardly organized, full of unsupported generalizations, the book is nonetheless completely believable and persuasive and propelled by Cowley's clear-eyed evaluation of a period that, by 1934, was already viewed in a dewy lens. Cowley, like his buddy and fellow critic Kenneth Burke, was a student at Pittsburgh's Peabody High School, thus providing me with even more evidence that Pittsburgh, not Paris or New York, really is the cradle of modernism.


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