Improvised Europeans, American Literary Expatriates, and the Siege of London

Taking his title from a letter by Henry Adams, and his subtitle in part from a short story by Henry James, Zwerdling (Orwell and the Left; Virginia Woolf and the Real World) examines the expatriate experience of four American writers: Adams, James, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Tracing these writers' conflicted attitudes toward their own country, Zwerdling examines how, while forging their individual careers abroad, they altered America's literary landscape. All four shared a moral high-mindedness, familial pride and a rage for order that made them temperamentally unsuited to the chaotic experiment of American democracy. Common scorn of native provincialism, alarm at the influx of non-English-speaking immigrants, loathing of the new plutocracy and (except for James) blatant anti-Semitism were matched with a corresponding conviction (except for Pound) of "Anglo-Saxon" cultural superiority. Expatriation may have offered "a way of achieving abroad what no longer seems possible at home," but as Zwerdling observed of James, "being a citizen of the world might only be a glamorous name for homelessness." A foreign capital like London offered immense opportunities and fed the peculiarly "American capacity to remake oneself," but long absences from home tended to mean that expatriates didn't keep up with the American evolution. Zwerdling offers many nuanced and thought-provoking insights without ever lapsing into theoretical jargon. This is a masterful synthesis of biography with literary, social and political history, an eloquent and compelling account of the creative freedom that expatriation allows and the high price it exacts. 

 Alex Zwerdling
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