Although there have been several biographies of T. S. Eliot in recent years, these works were undertaken without complete access to this large collection of letters, some of which have become available only since the late 1970’s. Before he died, Eliot gave his consent to such a collection, which claims to include all of his significant extant correspondence up to the age of thirty-four.
In spite of its seeming sanction by Eliot, his widow admits in her introduction that he burned many personal and family letters. Eliot did not wish a biography of himself written, and there are aspects of his life—especially his first marriage—on which he refused to comment at much length, and which still remain a matter for considerable speculation. Yet he also admitted that most letter writers had some hope that their correspondence would survive. Certainly Eliot’s letters are well worth reading for their insights into both the rational and emotional sides of his life and work.
It has always been a matter of enormous importance that Eliot decided to live in England. His native land, the United States, made him uncomfortable. It was rude and unfinished, and he craved a setting that was more sophisticated and refined, though not—he hastened to add in one of his letters—necessarily more profound or intelligent. Rawboned, industrialized America put him off—as did the cruder sort of American visitor, such as the writer Maxwell Bodenheim, “an odd American Jew . . . a vagrant poet,” who thought that he could thrive in London as easily as he had done in the United States. Eliot recognized his intelligence while calling him “pathetic” and “foolish,” and pointed out that the English needed much cultivating. How could Bodenheim, with “only a common school education and no university degree, with no money, no connections, and no social polish or experience,” think that he could succeed?
The comments on Bodenheim are revealing of Eliot as both a man and a poet. Eliot took all manner of care to please his English hosts. He reveled in knowing how to behave as English as the English. He married an Englishwoman, worked in an English bank, and prided himself on having more influence over the English than any American writer, with the possible exception of Henry James. Although Eliot’s letters are full of his complaints about being a foreigner, of never feeling quite at home, he never seriously considered returning to the United States. He loved his mother dearly and sometimes wrote to her at weekly intervals, yet he went through a period of more than six years without visiting her in St. Louis. To be sure, he was strapped for money during this period and fiercely dedicated to his writing and bank job, but it is also the case that he measured his success by English standards.
In the earliest letters in this volume, there are wonderful glimpses of Eliot the student of philosophy, debating whether he should return to the United States to obtain his doctorate. He had written a thesis, but university life (in England and the United States) appalled him. Professors could stimulate him with historical and philosophical questions, but they were of no use to a young man bent on becoming a modern poet, who needed the stimulation of irreverent and revolutionary personalities such as Ezra Pound. Even Bertrand Russell, who had first met Eliot in his student days at Harvard University, admits in a letter included in this volume that he did not see the significance of Eliot’s verse for many years. Eliot’s ambition was to live in London and to be judged by the literary lights of that great city.
Eliot had confidence enough to turn his back on America and to abandon his graduate studies. By 1915, he had written his great poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and many other deft verses that had already assured his place as the premier young poet of his time. Yet he suffered crises of confidence. As a man, he was only half formed, excessively polite and wary of letting down his guard with anyone. Writing from Oxford to Conrad Aiken, his college chum, on December 31, 1914, Eliot expresses the feelings of a man who has not quite found himself:I should not mind being in London, to work at the British Museum. How much more self-conscious one is in a big...
(The entire section is 1745 words.)