T.S. Eliot, American
Whether they read him in college or never heard of him, millions of Americans quote T.S. Eliot at least once a year: “April is the cruellest month.” Inspired by the April 15 income tax deadline, this might be the most rarefied popular joke in American life, given its source. The line opens T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and if you did study the poem in college, you might recall that the poet is here offering a dark rejoinder to the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, whose famous prologue also begins with a line about April, only Chaucer is celebrating the springtime return of hope to the world.
Reading Eliot as a great poet responding to another great poet across centuries of literature and historical experience, all of it signalled by a provocatively despairing five-word opening line: what’s gone wrong, to make someone regard the beginning of a fresh season of new life as the cruellest possible time of the year? This kind of question has been a staple of studying Eliot for decades. And it keeps with a generally held sense of Thomas Stearns Eliot as an arch, reedy-voiced Anglophile writer much given to dry, brilliant lamentations, in verse and prose both, about the wreck of Western civilization and the poet’s all-but-religious responsibility to bear the burden of tradition and higher truths through the godless technocratic darkness of the modern age.
In other words, this is not someone who would seem much given to jokes about death and taxes, never mind jokes about these inevitabilities made by way of the opening line from the most important poem he ever wrote. Yet one of the great advantages of reading Robert Crawford’s accomplished first entry in his new two-part biography of Eliot is that you can actually imagine him getting a kick out of this unexpected connection of his grand poem to ordinary grousing about the IRS. After all, this was someone who shocked and entertained his Harvard classmates in the early 1900s by writing dirty ditties about sex, poop, and European monarchs, all set to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and later in life would maintain a wry affection for what he liked to describe as “Amurrican culchur,” even as he moved about elite literary and intellectual circles in London and Paris, mixing it up with Ezra Pound and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and the like.
About that Amurrican culchur: Eliot was born in 1888 into a well-to-do St. Louis family. Unitarians, they had deep American roots reaching back to the Puritans. New England played a strong part in Eliot’s own early days, as the family vacationed in seaside Gloucester, Massachusetts, whose stark granitic grandeur figures throughout Eliot’s verse, as Crawford details, and most famously in his late masterpiece of religious conversion, “Four Quartets.” But Eliot’s American origins matter as far more than mere childhood memories turned into place-markers in his poetry. While other Eliot biographers and scholars have gone over this material to worthy effect, Crawford particularly emphasizes the special importance of St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century as a crucible of pluralist American experience that Eliot experienced firsthand:
With a population of around 600,000, by 1900 St. Louis was its nation’s fourth largest urban settlement: ‘too far north to be a Southern city, and too southern in its social characteristics to be a Northern city; with all the polish and finish of an Eastern center, and yet toned by all the warmth and spirited verve of a Western metropolis.’ Its French past was still discernible in local street names … but by the late nineteenth century German and Irish influences mixed with African American and Jewish culture.
Growing up in a city like this, privileged to move around it as he did, Eliot could just as easily hear ragtime as he could hear Wagner, Crawford observes. That he likely heard both and took in much else during his time in St. Louis, as he did during his many summers in New England and later during his semi-maturation in the hothouse culture of wealthy Harvard College life, matters to our sense of Eliot not as a great poet but as an American great poet.
For the longest time we’ve celebrated the democratic American sensibilities of Walt Whitman and Saul Bellow, not least because they themselves celebrated these sensibilities through paeans to their wildly pluralist visions of national life. Eliot was never so brash in his American-ness, or really in anything else. Unlike the gregarious, sprawling and brawling Whitman and Bellow, Eliot was a shy and cerebral man more prone to melancholy and rumination. He was intellectually and aesthetically attracted to the force and shape of ideas, particularly about knowledge and perception, while autobiographically he was drawn to considering the possibility of meaningful human relationships between uncertain, even psychically damaged people. First and last, he was motivated by his firm belief that poetry had a special capacity to explore and reflect on the difficult realities of belief, knowledge, and action for ordinary people living in a modern era that was moving ahead, ambivalently, amid much ruin and rubble from civilizations past.
This motivation to make sense of modern life through poetry is the bright line threading throughout Crawford’s effort, from Eliot’s boyhood through his undergraduate time at Harvard, where Eliot participated in high- and low-minded hijinks and read with great intensity a series of fin-de-siècle French poets, whose penchant for shady Parisian settings and strange lyricism inspired him to try for something along these lines in his own early verse, even as he evoked areas around Harvard: “Setting out to write about the lower-class area of North Cambridge, but taking motifs and rhymes from Laforgue, Verlaine and others, in his notebook he would deploy seedy urban images with conviction for the first time,” Crawford observes, before declaring, “Tom was writing French American poetry. Practising for Paris, he was finding his style.” As much is evident in important earlier work like “Preludes,” which begins, “The winter evening settles down / With smell of steaks in passageways. / Six o’clock. / The burnt-out ends of smoky days.”
This discovery of a dark, starkly evocative style took greater shape while Eliot pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard, with a particular interest in the work of British idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley. In turn he felt torn between the sturdy life of an academic—Harvard wanted him to teach there, and his family was keen for this as well—and the riskier, ultimately more meaningful life of a writer, to which Eliot was always more drawn. As a working writer, however, he was, inevitably, always worried about money and about the effects of having to make money on his capacity to make poetry.
By comparison, he was more resolutely drawn to life in England, which began as a fellowship year at Oxford, 1914-1915, by which point he’d already written his first major poem, the brilliantly affecting crabwise romantic monologue “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with the protagonist’s mundane name taken from a St. Louis furniture company. Keen to write more, and sensing, not least from the example of Henry James, that life as an American writer transplanted in England was the best way to make this happen, Eliot remained there, at first only incidentally—because of the treacheries of transatlantic transit during World War I—and then because of a hasty marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, an unstable woman who was far more faithful to his literary career than to their marital vows.
Shortly after marrying Eliot, and even while ardently encouraging his literary ambitions, she began a barely concealed affair with the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Crawford points out that while it’s unclear how much Eliot knew, or when, the poetry that he wrote during his early married life is suffused with evocations of betrayal and shabby intimacies, while later Eliot himself would write of his marriage, “it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” Poor Eliot the husband, and fortunate Eliot the poet. Indeed, the back half of this biography is almost entirely concerned with exploring the personal elements that figured in Eliot’s coming into that very state of mind and thereby composing “The Waste Land,” set against his parallel emerging professional life as a noted young man of letters—essayist, critic, editor, and of course poet of great promise. Meantime, to make ends meet and have some assuring regularity to life, he worked as a London banking clerk, where his exposure to polyglot European clients also contributed to “The Waste Land”’s multilingual textures. Indeed, Crawford’s primary point in this book, which culminates with the publication of “The Waste Land,” is that everything important in Eliot’s life led up to and made possible that work, very much including his American formation but most especially his marriage.
On this latter point, Crawford devotes a great deal of time to tracking Eliot and Vivienne’s matching capacities for vague but overpowering illnesses, related bouts of exhaustion, and accompanying episodes of sullenness and competing passive aggression. Sometimes, in fact, Crawford appears comparatively less interested in advancing readings of Eliot’s verse, which, when these happen, are very fine, both directly in literary terms and in biographical terms. (Crawford is himself a poet, biographer of Robert Burns, and noted scholar of Scottish poetry.) But these are relatively brief compared to how much he attends to Eliot’s congenital bleakness in the period that produced “The Waste Land,” right down to the proportionate heaviness of Vivienne’s menstruations, which Crawford effectively correlates to her state of mind, and in turn to Eliot’s.
After a great deal of this, Eliot and his wife begin to feel like characters out of a bad Victorian melodrama, if not monstrously mopey graduate students. But Crawford is never so critical; really, he’s nothing but focused—like Eliot himself, as Crawford represents him—on all and everything that mattered to Eliot the great-poet-in-the-making.
And for all of the originality on display in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the later religio-intellectual power and lyrical beauty of “Four Quartets,” “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s major accomplishment. A five-part sequence, it substantially benefited from extensive and thoughtful editing by Eliot’s great encourager, Ezra Pound, who among other things deleted an opening set in New England. With Eliot’s entire personal and intellectual formation making this work possible, in Crawford’s framing of it, the poem draws together literary references and cultural experiences both high and low, ideas from Eastern and Western traditions, figures of pagan myth and Christian motifs, personal laments and philosophical problems. All of this, in Eliot’s sure and keenly felt handling, simultaneously articulates and explores the universal modern condition circa 1922: alienated, despairing, exhausted, fragmented, but more—the poem’s speaker voices a frustrated but persistent longing for some means of deliverance, transcendence, connection. In the meantime, this is the best he can do, by poem’s end: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
In the years following the publication of “The Waste Land,” Eliot would separate from his wife, renounce his American citizenship for British citizenship, undergo a religious conversion and become an Anglo-Catholic, and also become the dominant figure in 20th-century English literature, a Nobel laureate, and a conservative-minded critic of Western civilization’s post-religious decline. In other words, even if that ole Amurrican culchur doesn’t matter so much to the second major phase of T.S. Eliot’s life, its significance, as evidenced in this book, certainly made it possible for him to move in those directions, where there is a great abundance of life, ideas, and poetry for Crawford to make sense of in his biography’s concluding volume.
Randy Boyagoda, a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University, is a novelist, critic and the author, most recently, of Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.