- Writing The Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism
“One of the drawbacks to living in Paris is that people often refer to you as an expatriate, occasionally shortening the word to an even more irritating ‘ex-pat.’ It is implied that anything might take you to London or Saint Kitts, but if you live in Paris, it must be because you hate the United States” (211). The complaint of David Sedaris, dark ironist and twisted celebrant of American culture, testifies to the exceptional tenacity of the image of the American resident in Paris as a cultural refugee, one whose exile is a repudiation of provincialism, philistinism, or whatever else is held to be wrong with American life. It is an image that took shape in the decades between [End Page 236] the two World Wars, and in Writing the Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism Craig Monk returns to the scene of its origin, looking at how the expatriate experience was constructed, and contested, through numerous autobiographical writings. Not surprisingly, attitudes toward both the adopted city and the nation left behind turn out to be more various and ambivalent than the stereotype allows.
Motivations for leaving the United States and, in most cases, for eventually returning, are just one aspect of interwar expatriation examined by Monk. The book as a whole aims to map the relationship between the vast numbers of Americans in Paris, the autobiographical writings they produced, and American literary modernism. Monk presents these phenomena as reciprocally fostering each other: a handful of American writers settle in Paris; a literary scene emerges, attracting more Americans; autobiography becomes a way of staking a personal place within (or against) that scene; the scene in turn becomes partly defined through the autobiographical writings.
The number and range of texts Monk brings together is impressive: by his own count, he examines seventeen autobiographical works in detail and draws on more than a dozen more. Along with well-known works such as Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast appear those of minor hangers-on, such as Bravig Imbs, and of slight but curious figures such as Jimmie Charters, a Montparnasse bartender whose ghostwritten memoir This Must Be the Place appeared in 1934. Monk shows that the popular image of the expatriate in the twenties and thirties was not defined primarily by eminences such as Stein or Hemingway but by writers now obscure. For Malcolm Cowley, it was the wealthy Bostonian-turned-Bohemian poet Harry Crosby; Monk suggests that a more truly representative figure was the journalist and cultural critic Harold Stearns, author of titles such as America and the Young Intellectual (1921), who “challenged the best and brightest of his contemporaries to follow his example and go abroad” (69).
Monk defines the collective significance and value of this array of autobiographical works in two principle ways. First, that they can be read “as criticism”: autobiography, he proposes, “came to represent for modern writers a formidable framing gesture, a critical act” (12). But given the era’s many far more defining and influential critical acts, including the essays, reviews, anthologies, and editorial activities of Pound, Eliot, and Woolf, the claim does not carry much force, and indeed for stretches of the book it slips out of sight, as Monk follows other threads in the writings. Second, and more persuasive, is the argument that autobiographical writing helps [End Page 237] us reconnect modernism to mass culture. As a relatively accessible form, it played a significant role in disseminating modernism, which it “tantalizingly promised to elucidate” (12). Furthermore, the number of autobiographical works written by journalists reminds us how the media business supported so many of the Americans who took their literary interests and ambitions to Paris and how features such as Wembley Bald’s “La Vie de Bohème” and Janet Flanner’s “Paris Letter” offered running commentaries on expatriate life and literature.
Monk also argues that autobiographical writing “proved itself receptive to the kind of aesthetic innovation that came to...