I am an anarchist in politics and an impressionist in art as well as a symbolist in literature. Not that I understand what these terms mean, but I take them to be all merely synonyms of pessimist… Henry Adams


Zwerdling may have, without realizing it, hit the proverbial nail on the head. The four writers that he discusses we not American in terms of sensibility. The most American of the lot, Henry Adams, was a relic. Henry James and T. S. Eliot were to effete and too fragile to meet the needs of a new land and although the latter had some real genius it is was not sympathetic to his place or age. While James would fit in as a romance writer – a sort of  Barbara Cartland on steroids – it was Pound who was the most European of them all fitting into the new continental milieu that was one step short of nihilism and would take that step and plunge into that abyss during his lifetime.

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Improvised Europeans: American literary expatriates and the siege of London New York, NY, U.S.A.: Basic Books, 1998 Alex Zwerdling Americans England London Intellectual life Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. xvi, 383 p.: ill.; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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At the turn of the century the United States seemed poised to overtake its European rivals on all fronts; its many strengths were finally being recognized—the wealth of resources, the profusion of ideas and innovation, and the artistic talent of its citizens. American power was expanding and American writers — including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Whitman — were acclaimed at home and abroad.

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The Hay-Adams Hotel, on Lafayette Square across from the White House, Washington, D.C. The hotel was built by Washington developer Henry Wardman. It is named for two residents who once lived on the site before the hotel was built: author Henry Adams and John Hay, assistant to Abraham Lincoln and later U.S. Secretary of State. Hosting the newly married FDR and his cousin Eleanor at lunch while their other cousin, Theodore, occupied the White House he reportedly told them that the occupant of the house “across the street” would never make any impression on the world…

England’s condescending air toward America had already become inappropriate. The United States had reached a new level of respectability in the world. In light of this favorable international climate, why then did some of America’s most talented young writers travel to London to become, as Henry Adams put it, “improvised Europeans”?

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Few writers have been studied and analyzed as much as the quartet at the heart of this book. But Alex Zwerdling was perplexed by this shared and often overlooked aspect of their background: Why, at the dawn of the American century, did these writers choose to go ”back” to what was called ”the Old World”? And why would these brilliant thinkers include in some of their most acclaimed work material that is today reviled as offensive — anti-Semitic, racist, anti-feminist? What was happening in the United States that repelled them?

T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot

In striving to answer these questions, Alex Zwerdling illuminates the lives and careers of Henry Adams, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound as never before. These men chose to live their lives abroad at a crucial point in American history, both domestically and internationally. The massive influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe began to whittle away the Anglo-Saxon majority. The end of slavery created a renewal of efforts to destroy the last vestiges of Republicanism at the altar of the false god of universal equality. Women’s confidence and political power grew as they fought for independence and their own rights.

Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound

These developments, Zwerdling argues, were large factors in why these four writers fled. He examines their works and their lives in the context of the American scene they left, and also in the context of the British scene they left for. His brilliant cultural history uses personal correspondence, unprinted articles, and other previously unknown sources to unravel the historical forces that shaped these literary lions. Depicting their careers as a roller-coaster ride through alien territory, the book shows that they produced extraordinary work in the midst of perpetual friction, indifference, and even active hostility.

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