Writing Back: American Expatriates’ Narratives of Return by Susan Winnett (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan Winnett. Writing Back: American Expatriates’ Narratives of Return. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012. xi + 285 pp. $63.00. (Hardback).

Writing Back is very easy to admire. It’s only a bit little less easy to like.

Writing Back is easy to admire for Susan Winnett’s thinking about and writing on four narratives of return, in which Winnett locates the “‘great difference’ that both separates and mutually constitutes America and the returning expatriate” (3). The four narratives are: Henry James’s The American Scene, in which Winnett shows that “[h]omecoming … foils the neat ratio between distance and perspective, on the one hand, and familiarity and affection, on the other” (3); Harold E. Stearns’s [End Page E-4] The Street I Know, which “opens up the possibility of a critical commentary on not only the canonical version of the expatriate experience of the 1920s but also the American coming-of-age that is often taken to be its direct result” (114); Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, in which Cowley, establishing a standard for other authors of lost-generation memoirs, “paint[ed] a portrait of literary America that would resemble the face that Cowley saw when he looked in the mirror” (169); and Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, in which Stein “narrates her return to America as a self-described ‘celebrity’ such that the ‘singular,’ ‘queer’ American becomes the representative American” (205). A concluding chapter, “Postscript,” reiterates key points made earlier and works to pull together the book’s four main chapters.

Winnett’s chapter on Henry James and The American Scene is one of the two best in the book. Virtually each part of the chapter offers fresh insight and thus ways for reading not only The American Scene but James’s representational strategy overall, as well as James’s way of thinking about himself. Key to Winnett’s strategy is her extending the study of The American Scene to other James narratives of return, such as The Europeans, “The Jolly Corner,” and passages from reviews, letters, and James’s notebooks and journals. But it’s not the incorporation of these texts that distinguishes the chapter the most. After all, one could comb through James’s writings and select passages that should appear in a book on the narratives of return. But what distinguishes the chapter on The American Scene most is the reading/interpretive strategy Winnett develops and employs. Winnett’s strategy is surprising and rich in the ways it can/could be used and produces readings in this chapter that are deeply engaging, even if one reads the texts/passages analyzed another way. Winnett’s reading strategy is captured in these words on The American Scene:

Yet The American Scene is consummately a record of his [James’s] attempts—and failures—to see, and more particularly, to transcribe the American he confronts and of the corresponding difficulty of making the definitive statement that critics seem to be seeking. I’ll even go so far as to claim that James’s attitude toward anything in America is first and foremost a matter of its representability, or rather, of his ability or inability to represent it. This representability, in turn, depends upon his ability to frame the phenomena he encounters, that is, to place them within a context that renders intelligible what would otherwise seem random or arbitrary. … Translated into The American Scene’s discourse of representation: instead of the frame determining the term of coherence of the painting, the contents determine the frame; instead of the force of the past determining the present, the present determines the extent to which the past is permitted to have any force at all.

(48–49, 58)

The resistance of the United States to Jamesian representation whenever American forms do not lend themselves to James’s narrative logic does not come without a cost. And that cost is significant:

While James is able to infuse drama into his encounter with America, his attempt to penetrate “behind and beyond” its self-satisfied surface in order to discern and represent what “it would mean to be as you are” [End Page E-5] remains frustrated. This failure...