The Stories of 10 Famous Literary Exiles

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“J’Accuse!” Writer Émile Zola fled France today 114 years ago to escape imprisonment after being convicted for libel. He defended the innocence of a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus. The L’Assommoir author directed his letter — published in newspaper L’Aurore — at France’s President Félix Faure and the government, citing anti-Semitism and judicial corruption in the unlawful jailing of Dreyfus for espionage. Zola quickly took off to London and later returned to see Dreyfus pardoned.

History has proven that honest, intellectual, and creative freethinkers can be deemed dangerous — demonized and ostracized by their own societies. Many have been banished, but some have left their native countries of their own accord. Oddly enough, the experience has been a catalyst for some of literature’s finest work. See what famous figures made our list of literary exiles below.

Dante Alighieri

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita.”

Poet-politician Dante was exiled from Florence for supporting the Holy Roman Emperor (White Guelphs) over the Papacy (Black Guelphs). The banishment lasted Dante’s entire life, but influenced his masterpiece The Divine Comedy, which clearly expresses a parallel to his real-life experiences of wandering through “hell” seeking protection. Also see: lots of eternal damnation directed at the big bad.

Ovid

“It’s a kindness that the mind can go where it wishes.”

Scholars have argued about the banishment of beloved Roman poet Ovid for centuries. He was cast out and sent to a desolate Romanian city on the Black Sea, where barbaric tribes and a frigid climate were his only company. The reasons are unclear, but several have argued that his series Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) was too didactic and obscene for the time. Others have suggested Ovid committed or witnessed an act that may have implicated Emperor Augustus. The Metamorphoses and Fasti author wrote that the reason was “carmen et error” — meaning, “a poem and a mistake.” He wrote Ibis, Tristia, and Epistulae ex Ponto while in exile and died in the “town located in a war-stricken cultural wasteland on the remotest margins of the empire” almost a decade later.

Voltaire

François-Marie Arouet didn’t adopt the name Voltaire until his second imprisonment in France’s famous fortress, the Bastille. He’d already had a history of attacking the royals and writing controversial critiques against the French church (religious fanaticism especially irked him), but after arguing with a nobleman his fate was sealed. He left for London in exile and returned home three years later having penned Letters Concerning the English Nation — his views on the British monarch, literature, and religion. English ways seemed more tolerant and liberal to him, which caused another controversy, and he went into seclusion. He never retracted his criticisms and was later refused a Christian burial, but friends actually smuggled his corpse into the Abbey of Scellières in Champagne for a proper funeral.

Lord Byron

Poet playboy Lord Byron was already an esteemed writer by the time he ventured on a self-imposed exile from England. A scandalous and incestuous relationship with his half-sister, an accumulation of debt, and the obsessed lovers of his past are usually blamed for his voluntary displacement. Others say that England’s intolerance for and severe conviction against suspected homosexuals was the reason. Byron’s sexual exploits would have certainly put him at risk for punishment — which included death. He settled in Geneva for a while where he befriended Percy and Mary Shelley — a deeply personal and famous literary relationship.

Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris author Victor Hugo entered his exile by force after a political wrangle with everyone from Napoleon to Queen Victoria. He was later pardoned, but remained in British territory out of pride, where he completed some of his greatest works. This included his abandoned, 1200-page novel Les Misérables, which deal with themes of social injustice — something the writer had rallied against during the most political points of his life before his banishment.

Oscar Wilde

“Youth! There is nothing like youth. The middle-aged are mortgaged to Life. The old are in Life’s lumber-room. But youth is the Lord of Life. Youth has a kingdom waiting for it. Every one is born a king, and most people die in exile.”

The story of Wilde’s exile is heartbreaking. The Irish writer and poet was imprisoned for sodomy and gross indecency, and his health rapidly declined. Upon his release, he left England broke and in exile, changing his name to Sebastian Melmoth — after the Christian martyr and saint, and a character in his great-uncle’s gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer. While in Paris, he briefly returned to work, even publishing his play The Importance of Being Earnest, but quickly gave up. “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing,” he remarked before dying five years later.

T.S. Eliot

“Every country is home to one man, and exile to another.”

Born in the States, a 20-something Eliot left his New England home for the UK in 1914. It was a decision that often left him feeling estranged and torn. (Just reread The Wasteland, and you’ll see what we mean.) He tried to balance his sense of obligation and intellectual curiosity for the U.S. and a religious, political, and literary commitment to the English community. The move proved crucial for his career, as his friendship with fellow poet and expatriate Ezra Pound helped introduce him to the British literary scene and inspired his work.

D.H. Lawrence

“We make a mistake forsaking England and moving out into the periphery of life. After all, Taormina, Ceylon, Africa, America — as far as we go, they are only the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are: and we’re rather like Jonahs running away from the place we belong.”

Lawrence was never shy about his anti-war views and found himself harassed by authorities, forced to leave his home, destitute, and unable to publish his newly completed novel Women in Love. “It has been a savage enough pilgrimage these last four years,” he said of the experience. He left England and spent the remainder of his life traveling across Australia, Italy, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), the United States, Mexico, and the South of France. The controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his last famous work, was published in private editions in Florence and Paris before it would become the subject of a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s.

Ernest Hemingway

Feeling disenchanted after sustaining a serious injury while enlisted in the military as an ambulance driver in Italy, Hemingway found work as a journalist. He later moved to Paris to work as a foreign correspondent. There, he became enthralled by the expatriate community and the Lost Generation (a term popularized by fellow expatriate Gertrude Stein), settling into a self-imposed exile to explore the city’s freedoms. The setting inspired his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, in which this playful exchange happens between the story’s protagonist Jake and friend Bill:

“‘You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.'”

Salman Rushdie

“Such is the miraculous nature of the future of exiles: what is first uttered in the impotence of an overheated apartment becomes the fate of nations.”

Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses in 1988. The magical realist work was considered blasphemous by conservative Muslims for its perceived negative allusions against Muhammad. It was banned and burned at demonstrations, bookstores were bombed, riots ensued, and several of the book’s translators were murdered while others suffered attempts on their lives. Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him. The writer later came out of exile after a court battle and seems to be enjoying his recent days in New York City.