by Beth Arnold
I happen to be reading Malcolm Cowley's book Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920's. This book was first published in the U.S. in 1934, then revised and expanded in 1951, and has been republished regularly since then. What is the allure? Why do generations of Americans keep reading it? For one, Mr. Cowley has taken his own personal journey as a member of The Lost Generation, who Americans fell in love with nearly 100 years ago, and explains the forces that drove them to Paris and then sent some of them back home. He writes about his and others' individual motivations, social influences, and the culture, both in the United States and in France, that culminated in the marvelous poetry and prose that came from this period, as well as mediocre work that hasn't survived.
One fact remains constant: Our love affair with The Lost Generation continues. We Americans see these writers and artists as courageous and curious, artistic, open-minded, passionate, undisciplined, and rowdy--even a bit bohemian for taking a walk on the wild side by dropping out of the New World to experience and explore the Old World, which seemed much less inhibited and exotic than the Puritanical United States. World War I had literally blown their world apart, and the end of it gave these young people a window of time and opportunity to step though. They were used to a level of adrenalin and excitement that they intended to funnel into new literary explosions.