LETTERS & L I TERARY CRITICISM
No posthumous privacy
The middle years of T. S. Eliot
STEFAN COLLINI V a l e r i e E l i o t a n d J o h n
H a f f e n d e n , e d i t o r s T H E L E T T E R S O F T . S . E L I O T
Volume 8: 1936–38 1,100pp. Faber. £50 (US $65).
978 0 571 31638 0
J e r e m y D i a p e r T . S . E L I O T A N D O R G A N I C I S M
218pp. Clemson University Press. £85.
978 1 94 2954 60 6
On February 15, 1938 T. S. Eliot wrote to his friend John Hayward asking him to be his Literary Executor. The functions would be chiefly negative. I have had to write at one time or another a lot of junk in periodicals the greater portion of which ought never to be reprinted ... [Y]ou could take it in general that what I have not published in books by the time of my death I don’t consider worth publishing. F & F [Faber and Faber] might be tempted, and your job would be to say no. And I don’t want any biography written, or any letters printed that I wrote prior to 1933, or any letters at all of any intimacy to anybody. In fact, I have a mania for posthumous privacy. So again, your job would be to discourage any attempt to make books of me or about me, and to suppress everything suppressable. And I would leave instructions with the will, to this effect. The irony of our now being able to read this request, in the eighth of the stately volumes of his letters that have appeared so far, would not have been lost on Eliot. In his fiftieth year, he was evidently well aware that his increasing celebrity was on a collision course with his desire for privacy during his lifetime and might overwhelm the most carefully laid defences after his death. But perhaps even he, though a virtuoso of gloomy prognostication, could not have anticipated the extent to which his wishes have been engulfed and his fame consecrated. Quite apart from the many thousands of critical studies of his work that have appeared as monographs, dissertations and articles, there have been several biographies and a great deal of journalistic speculation about his life. The annotated edition of The Poems runs to 2,000 pages in two fat volumes. The big critical edition of his complete prose is projected to fill eight volumes, seven of which have so far appeared (in electronic form only; a print edition will be forthcoming when the series is complete). And here we have over 1,000 pages of meticulously edited correspondence covering just three years of his life, buttressed by the announcement that further letters omitted from this or any of the seven earlier volumes may be found on a dedicated website. This accumulation of attention might be described in various ways, but “posthumous privacy” it is not.
The stern instructions Eliot gave to Hay-
T. S. Eliot by Patrick Heron, 1949
ward already indicated the presence of one kind of vanity about his literary afterlife, and an endearing ambivalence peeks through when he added as an afterthought: “Possibly a careful selection might be made of the best commentaries: I don’t know”. This now seems a curious misjudgement. The self-consciously senatorial “Commentaries” he wrote for the Criterion, the quarterly periodical he edited from 1922 to 1939, can appear pin-striped and ponderous when set beside the originality and stylish mischief evident in a lot of his early literary journalism. But that contrast then raises a larger question about an author’s authority as a judge of his own oeuvre. By 1938 “Mr Eliot” was a public figure, a sensible man of business, and a committed Anglican. Should we necessarily concur with this grave gentleman’s opinions about things written by his more unbuttoned younger self?
In the event, the unstoppable avalanche of scholarship has swept all his reservations and discriminations before it. After Eliot’s death in 1965, his second wife, Valerie, began to collect his correspondence for publication. The first volume, covering the years up to 1922, appeared in 1988. Further volumes were said to be forthcoming imminently, but they did not come forth: Mrs Eliot, it seems, was struggling to cope with the mass of material she had accumulated. Hugh Haughton acted as her co-editor for a period, and then the project was put on an assured long-term footing by the appointment as General Editor of Professor John Haffenden,
a seasoned editor fresh from his own scholarly triumphs with the letters of William Empson. Volume Two was eventually published in 2009 (along with a revised and expanded Volume One), and since then these sumptuously produced volumes have appeared at regular intervals. Although Mrs Eliot died in 2012, she is still credited as the co-editor of each volume, in recognition of the amount of preliminary research she did for the edition, but presumably the plaudits for the beautifully judged combination of erudition and economy in the annotations must now go to Haffenden.
Readers principally interested in Eliot’s poetry will by this point have grown used to the longueurs of these bulky volumes. The first one aside, they largely chronicle the public life of a man who was not writing much poetry, and who anyway said little directly about it even when he was. It is true that Burnt Norton was finished just as this volume opens, and it was during the years covered here that he made his first visits to the villages of East Coker and Little Gidding, snippets of information that encourage us to speculate about the subterranean movement of his imagination. But on the surface his creative energies are more obviously directed towards verse drama. Following the success of Murder in the Cathedral in 1935, he embarked on writing The Family Reunion, though that was not finally published or produced until 1939. We get some glimpses of the compositional progress of that play, but more revealing are his various responses to enquiries about the interpretation and staging of Murder in the Cathedral, responses that demonstrate his keen interest in matters of performance, as well as his considerable reliance on E. Martin Browne, who was to direct all of his plays. Overwhelmingly, what this volume, like the others covering his middle years, gives us are other Eliots – the hard-working publisher, the hands-on journal editor, the supporter of good causes, the frequent diner-out and weekender (he was a punctilious writer of bread-and-butter letters), as well as Eliot the playful friend, the loyal brother, and the tormented husband.
The year 1936 opens with a long self-justifying letter to his older brother, Henry, who seems to have expressed reservations about various aspects of his sibling’s career, including his celebrated declaration in the preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) to the effect that his general position was “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”. Henry evidently disapproved of his brother, reared in the family Unitarianism, “going Romish”, and seems to have suggested that such a public declaration must have been driven by a desire for notoriety. Eliot responded that he had had no intention of making his reception into the Church of England a public matter:
It was subsequently a few words of Irving Babbitt, when he dined with me in passing through London, that provoked the notorious preface to For Lancelot Andrewes. He said that I ought to
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