T. S. Eliot is often considered one of the most important – and also one of the most emblematic – literary figures of the twentieth century. As a leading proponent and practitioner of literary “modernism,” which represented a radical break with the kind of writing that had preceded it, Eliot was an enormously influential author, both as a poet and as a critic. Many other poets (such as Allen Tate, to mention just one example) tried to imitate Eliot, and even poets who deliberately rejected Eliot’s example (such as William Carlos Williams) were nevertheless reacting against Eliot and thus showed the impact of his writings.
Thus, if modern literature is an important part of “modern life,” then not to know Eliot is to fail to comprehend a crucial figure in the culture of the twentieth century.
Another way in which Eliot is emblematic of the modern period lies in the fact that he was an American writer. Although he lived in Britain for much of his life and became a British citizen, he was born and raised in the United States and came from a prominent American family. Eliot thus represents the impact that the United States was beginning to have on the culture of the rest of the world, especially in Europe, during the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century and earlier, few Europeans had taken much serious interest in American writers. Eliot’s importance, however, was such that he symbolized the new prominence of the United States on the world stage. No one could by then deny the economic and even military importance of the United States, but in Eliot the U. S. had also produced one of the most influential figures of the so-called “American century.”
Yet another way in which Eliot can be considered a key figure of the modern era derives from the subject matter of some of his most famous poems, especially The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In works such as these, Eliot depicts modern life in dark, gloomy, and even depressing ways. He thus gives voice to a kind of alienation and disenchantment that many people felt as they faced the less appealing aspects of life in the industrialized, urbanized twentieth century. Thus, in the famous opening lines of “The Love Song,” Eliot depicts life in a modern, impersonal, grimy city by referring to how
. . . the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table (2-3)
Similarly, in The Waste Land he describes how
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many. (61-63)
One rarely reads an Eliot poem for cheer or good humor, and yet by the middle of the twentieth century Eliot was regarded as perhaps the most important poet in the English-speaking world, if not beyond. He was a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature; one of his poetry readings was held in a football stadium; he appeared on the cover of Time magazine; and anyone who was entirely ignorant of Eliot’s work and influence thus truly could indeed be said to be ignorant of a very important aspect of modern life.