In Exile's Return, Malcolm Cowley noted that before the United States entered World War I, many American writers volunteered for noncombatant service with Allied forces. Motivated by a sense of adventure more than by patriotic commitment, such service “instilled into us what might be called a spectatorial attitude.” Current literary history relies on Cowley's thesis to characterize much American writing of the postwar decade. But however one defines such “spectatorial” attitudes, can they be distinguished from the detached stances cultivated by European writers whose wartime experience involved more patriotic and political commitment? Many English, French, German, Italian, and Russian authors who saw combat cultivated observers' poses perhaps even more assiduously. Among their motives were speculations about perception, a deeper appreciation of the visual arts and their relation to literature, a sense of theatricality, experience with trench warfare, and the tendency of men in close combat to distance themselves psychologically from the brutal realities of their position. A comparatist perspective suggests that it is unsound literary history to invoke national exceptionalism like American volunteers' greater aloofness in combat as the chief explanation for whatever tendencies to detached spectatorial observation American writers of the 1920s shared with their European counterparts.

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