- Purchase/rental options available:
Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 137-138
[Access article in PDF]
Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London
Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London. By Alex Zwerdling. New York: Basic Books, 1998. xvi + 383 pp. $35.
In taking his main title--Improvised Europeans--from Henry Adams's sardonic generalization prompted by his reading of Henry James's biography of the expatriate American sculptor William Wetmore Story, and in taking the second half of his subtitle--The Siege of London--from a story by James, Zwerdling telegraphs something of his themes and his focus. However different their motives or the particulars of their personal and competitive efforts, each one of a coterie of ambitious American expatriates--Adams, James, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot--set his sights on literary and social London, with each one of them failing, finally, to achieve the assimilation he desired.
Adams abandoned the effort the soonest, choosing, almost immediately, not to make his home in London after his wife's death and his own mugwumpian desertion of America (though he kept going back to Washington and never did give up the house he had built for himself on Lafayette Square in the mid-1880s). James left America for good in 1875; he returned only for family visits in the 1880s and, in 1904, for a tour designed to provide him with the material for the book he called The American Scene (1907). Having given up graduate study and finding himself with no job, Pound hit London running, very nearly took the literary scene, but quickly outlived his welcome and meddling usefulness. His bolt shot, he moved on to the Continent, once again making himself useful, but to the next wave of expatriates, who turned to Paris instead of London. Eliot gave up philosophy and the certainty of a university teaching career for the uncertain and precarious career of poet and critic. His temporary stay in London shortly after the outbreak of the Great War turned into a permanent expatriation.
With improvisations that, however disguised, were in the service of what William James called the bitch goddess success, these Americans were never able to rest easy [End Page 137] with the success they did manage to achieve in London or Paris or Rapallo. Adams became the high priest of "failure"; James resigned himself to writing for an ever-diminishing readership; Pound found himself, at the end, decrying that all is vanity; and Eliot, having "universalized" his poetry by erasing, in the beginning, all local references from it, returned, in contrition, to the practice of remorsefully naming lost familial places. Mistaking the desire to be Europeans as a way to universalize their art, they aspired to heights that were out of reach, perhaps, of even their large, grasping talents, in pursuit of the nominative, of values that they took to be absolute. Zwerdling's accomplishment is to convey the sense of these far-from-exemplary lives as lived along the course of dramatic careers, marking the moves that turned out right and examining those that resulted in setbacks, as careers were being hammered out and forged.
Although Zwerdling does not ask the question in so many words, it can be formulated: Why do these writers continue to matter when their careers and so much about their lives are now found to be objectionable and genuinely reprehensible? After all, except for Pound, these writers were members in good standing of the patriciate of their times. And Pound, for all his rant and fustian over the privileges of rank and class, clearly "wanted in." Moreover, they were guilty of speaking out, privately and publicly, against Jews and southern and eastern European migrants, whose behavior and appearance confirmed that they were inassimilable or, worse, assimilable but undesirable. Rather than crying out against those past readers who blinked at these facts as if they did not exist or, if recognized, as if they did not matter, Zwerdling accepts the fact that, despite all that can be said against them, these writers...