Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land

  • By Robert Crawford
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 512 pp.
  • Reviewed by David Kaufmann
  • April 20, 2015

This biography fails to capture the power of the great poet’s work.

T.S. Eliot was the most important English-speaking poet of the last century. He published his masterwork, “The Waste Land,” in 1922 and his stock did not begin to fall for more than five decades. In fact, that poem inspired and ruined more poets in the Anglophone world than any other single work of the past 150 years. Ulysses — a book Eliot championed — had the same effect on novelists.

Eliot was notoriously private. As a critic, he valued “impersonality” over effusion; as a poet, he favored masks, allusions, and oracular distance. In person, he was reserved, precise. When Virginia Woolf first met him in London in 1918, she described him as “a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have a special finish allotted it.”

Not surprisingly, given his reticence, Eliot never wanted to be the subject of a biography. He made things miserably difficult for anyone who ventured to write an account of his life. This included ensuring many of his letters were destroyed. (No letters survive from his childhood. Very little of the correspondence from his disastrous first marriage remains.) He also put his papers under lock and key. His estate, under the ferocious vigilance of his second wife, was famous for protecting the poet’s reputation and for its grindingly parsimonious approach to granting access and permission.

But readers hate a vacuum, and all that secrecy has made generations of readers wonder what the great man needed to hide. Eliot never had any problem expressing his withering dislike for Jews, so his anti-Semitism could not have been the issue. Could it have been homosexuality? After all, Eliot’s first book was dedicated to the memory of Jean Verdenal, a friend from his student days in Paris who was killed in the First World War.

Then there is that section in “The Waste Land” in which the poet appears as Tiresias, the hermaphroditic seer of Greek mythology. And, yes, there’s that other moment in the poem where a Mr. Eugenides, “the Smyrna merchant,” propositions the poet. A handful of recent critics have wondered if Eliot’s apparently sexually catastrophic first marriage indicated that he was indeed a closet case.

Robert Crawford, a Scottish poet and biographer, does not set any store by these theories. In this, the first volume of a planned two-volume biography, he chronicles Eliot’s life from birth in 1888 to that moment in December 1922 when the poet first held in his hands the American edition of “The Waste Land.”

Drawing on his unprecedented access to Eliot’s papers, Crawford finds no proof of the poet’s homosexuality. He does acknowledge there is something tormented in Eliot’s view of sex. But that is nothing new: This torment was clear from his poems and was evident to his friends and contemporaries. After a drunken night with the poet Ezra Pound, Eliot’s friend and confidante, a young John Peale Bishop wrote back to a friend in America that “Thomas’s sexual troubles are undoubtedly extreme.”

We might never know the precise nature of those troubles. Crawford’s Eliot is more or less heterosexual and very unhappy in love. The child of wealthy, progressive Republican parents, Eliot was brought up in a rather thick atmosphere of Victorian rectitude. (Crawford is good at reminding us that, back in the day, Unitarians were not Universalists and served as the leading edge of liberal Protestantism.)

After his rather pampered undergraduate career at Harvard, Eliot embarked on graduate studies in philosophy. He also fell in love with a young woman named Emily Hale. Just before he embarked on a fellowship to Oxford, Eliot declared his feelings to her. Inexperienced with women and inordinately shy, Eliot misconstrued her response. He thought she didn’t care for him. (She did.) Eliot left for England in 1914, his heart broken.

Once at Oxford, Eliot found himself torn between his proposed career as a philosophy professor at his alma mater and his love of poetry. He had already written “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and thus had a good sense of his own literary potential. Although he was most influenced by French poetry, Eliot understood London was the place to be.

He took as his model Henry James, who had demonstrated that you could be remarkably successful at being a not-quite-American writer in Britain. On the rebound from Emily Hale and wanting a reason to remain in England, Eliot suddenly eloped with Vivien Haigh-Wood, the vivacious and stunningly unstable daughter of an English painter, in the summer of 1915.

The marriage was a mess from the start. Eliot might have lost his virginity, but only just. The second half of Crawford’s book — a full 220 pages — is devoted to the couple’s marital woes. It is not clear exactly what was wrong with Vivien Eliot, but she was constantly ill, complaining of a series of aliments and undergoing any number of quack treatments and “cures.”

She was also unfaithful. She had an affair with the briskly promiscuous philosopher Bertrand Russell, even while Russell was trying to act as her husband’s protector. Eliot does not appear to have answered in kind — his flirtations never amounted to much — but he too seems constantly to have been ill.

Eliot’s bad health is understandable. He was plagued by constant worries about money, even after he got a good job analyzing debt and foreign exchange for Lloyd’s Bank. Vivien’s doctor’s bills were substantial. In order to make ends meet, he gave lecture courses all over England and released a steady stream of reviews and articles for papers and magazines. What is more, as Crawford points out, like Vivien, he used ill health as a weapon and a tool.

Crawford wants to humanize the poet and rather than call him by his surname, he calls him “Tom.” Nonetheless, as you work your way through the thicket of details that make up Crawford’s book, it is hard to ignore just how ambitious, ruthless, and manipulative a man Eliot actually was — all while he was playing for people’s pity and help.

The writer Katherine Mansfield, who never really liked Eliot to begin with, wrote in 1922 that he “feels weak. It is all disguise.” At the same time, Virginia Woolf, who was his friend and publisher, described him as “sardonic, precise, & slightly malevolent, as usual.” So, even though Crawford tries to make us like Eliot, I am not sure he has succeeded

Beyond the question of Eliot’s congeniality, though, it is hard to know what to make of Crawford’s big and baggy work. The book is overwhelmed by facts, some of them interesting, many of them not. It is not so much that Crawford leaves no stone unturned, as that he leaves none untouched.

We are given potted histories of every place the poet visited and one-sentence summaries of many of the books he read. But, strangely enough, the books need more than a quick outline. Eliot was, after all, a man who dwelt in thought. Ideas were for him the very stuff of life. They served as both a beacon and a refuge.

The Eliot estate is still jealous of the poet’s reputation, so it isn’t surprising the biographer treads far too lightly over Eliot’s unpleasant political identifications. Eliot consistently echoed the rousingly right-wing, violently anti-democratic, and virulently anti-Semitic ideas of the French monarchist Charles Maurras. These beliefs should have been addressed. Furthermore, Crawford is wrong to write off Eliot’s hatred for Jews to an inherited family tic. Eliot’s prejudices are too important a feature of his writing to be so easily dismissed.

What is most odd is that although Crawford is himself a good poet, he pays scant attention to the aesthetic power of Eliot’s verse. While he is keen to find biographical traces in the poems, only on rare occasion does he look for the poetry in them. This is an opportunity lost.

Eliot’s words captivated generations of readers, but our world is no longer attuned to the poet’s particular force. This book will not change that, unfortunately. For all the good gossip in Crawford’s book, Young Eliot falls short. It will serve as an important resource, to be sure, but Eliot’s flawed genius deserves more.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

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