Exile's Return is so insightful (and entertaining) that one needn't even be particularly interested in the American literary scene of the 20s (or the Dadaists, who Cowley hung out with in Paris), though it's essential reading for anyone into the "Lost Generation" (sorry, but the name has pretty much stuck by now) or any other subculture since.
This is a book of essays, anecdotes, and observations. They are primarily concerned with the 'Lost Generation' of American writers who spent time in Paris between 1918 and 1930. Donald W. Faulkner provides the Introduction and Cowley, who made some revisions to the 1934 publication in 1951, writes a note on the text.
I imagine that many of the 'senior citizens', such as myself, will have some sense of familiarity with the subject matter. A few may have read the book in the days of their youth. Unless they are experts on the subject they will find Cowley's intimate perspective interesting, and they will enjoy the easy accessible style of the writing.
For younger generations it may not be the best introduction to the period. The names Hart Crane, Harry Crosby, and Edmund Wilson should have some resonance, as well those more familiar ones such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Appendices include A Selective Chronology of Events from 1915 to 1934, and A Tabular History of the Literary Life, 1924-1949.
Many detailed works on the authors and the period have been written since. Cowley's perceptions do not date, as they are more of less contemporary rather than historical. But it must be said that they do not provide a suitably informative introduction for those readers not already familiar with the territory.
I got this book to read for a class in 20th century fiction. The book was actually very interesting in the way the author illustrates the life of the time from the perspective of the exiles. I learned a lot of history from the book and would read again.
This is a duplicate of the review I put over on the "Exile's Return: A Narrative of Ideas" page and is not really to give a review as there is too much to say about this book and Malcolm Cowley, rather this is just to clarify that there are two versions of this book, the original 1934 edition ("Exile's Return: A Narrative of Ideas") and the revision published in 1951 ("Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s").
Now Cowley discusses this revision aspect in detail in his 1951 book however I don't think I realized the extent to which he changed his original work, eliminating most of his Marxist commentary and changing his overall perspective. For discussion of this, John Downton Hazlett provides interesting insight in his book My Generation or in his article "Conversion, Revisionism, and Revision in Malcolm Cowley's 'Exile's Return'" in South Atlantic Quarterly 1983.
Both versions of Cowley's are interesting and how his views change, and what he decides to delete or revise 15 years later and why, is very interesting. It's not that one is more important or better than the other, in fact the revision is illuminating in itself and reflective overall of the philosophical journey his generation went through. But for those who want to know his perspective in the 1930s as opposed to his revisionist perspective later should be aware that the 1951 version has been greatly edited. Most people probably do not care, either one will give interesting insight to the Lost Generation but if one is doing some research, it is useful to understand that they are different in very significant ways.
Malcolm Cowley was a witness to perhaps the greatest explosion of literary creativity in human history and records his observations here with great precision and wit. Like one of the other reviewers, I also sensed he exaggerated his own importance around the modernist era in Paris. However, his observations (not unbiased by any stretch) about the Dadaists and Harry Crosby will provide valuable background for those interested in this time and place and seeking to understand the modernist works. I would recommend reading it in tandem with "Shakespeare and Company" or "Sylvia Beach" to improve one's understanding as an historian, or with some of the great works Cowley lists in appendix B.
Cowley was many things: author, poet, editor, reviewer, American expatriate in Paris. He was aware of his diverse past and constantly strove to contextualize himself within what was going on around him. Exile's Return was his first such attempt. In it Cowley recounts his experiences in such notable hot-spots as pre-war Greenwich Village and inter-war Paris. Moreover, he examines the movements of which he was a part within larger historical/literary/artistic trends.
There are some things to bear in mind with this work, however. Cowley returned to his past often, and often his return would bring re-evaluation. While there is some evidence of this habit across the various editions of Exile's Return, the trail of revision is more apparent by comparing this work against other retrospectives (Dream of the Golden Mountains, View From 80, etc.).
Another issue with Cowley is that he (as most, especially Modernist, writers) tends to favor his own position. That is, he perhaps exaggerates his own part and importance. This tendency becomes controversial within the context of his chapter on Harry Crosby. While they were clearly acquainted, Caresse Crosby (Harry's wife), among others, thought that Cowley didn't know Harry well enough to write what they considered a spurious account of Crosby's last days.
However, even with these negatives the book is highly recommended. In it, one gets a concise introduction to Modernism, important figures in the expatriate movement and inter-war Paris, and pre-war New York. Further, one receives a context of how these movements and people fit together. Among Cowley's works, this is one of his finest.