Remembering T. S. Eliot
To the Editor:
It is one thing to point out that T. S. Eliot was best as a literary influence, another to say, as Joseph Frank does in his review of To Criticize the Critic [September 1966], that “his relation to other [than literary] aspects of modern culture has always been purely and totally negative.” I was reminded of three moments in my own experience. (1) Mid-40′s: I’m seated at a long table at the Ministry of Food as a minor member of a deputation from “Save Europe Now.” On my left is T. S. Eliot. It is true he is not happy. In fact he has under the table the new Thurber that I slipped him. But he is there. (2) Late 50′s; scene: the Governor’s conference room at Broadcasting House, where a deputation from the Sound Broadcasting Society is pleading for the Third Program. What gets everyone is not so much Olivier (for drama) or Tippett (for music) but T. S. Eliot gravely reading his prepared statement. (3) Early 60′s; scene: T. S. Eliot’s office in Russell Square: Eliot is putting some steam into a couple of us, about what to do next through the Viewers and Listeners Association that was trying to get the Third Channel for Public Service Television. He was still its pretty active president when he died. I am no apologist for Eliot’s early touch of anti-Semitism. But—purely and totally negative . . .?
Mr. Frank writes:
I am grateful to Mr. Roy Walker both for putting down on paper the fleeting but evocative glimpses of T. S. Eliot that his letter contains, and also for giving me the opportunity to clarify a point in my review of To Criticize the Critic.
In stating that Eliot’s relation to the modern world, except for its literature, was completely negative, I certainly did not intend to imply that, as a man and a citizen, Eliot had taken no part in the affairs of his time. Indeed, Eliot himself mentions wryly in the book that, like other members of his family, “I have felt, ever since I passed beyond my early irresponsible years, an uncomfortable and very inconvenient obligation to serve upon committees.”
All this, however, was always in defense of those traditions that he still found alive in English and European culture, and which he felt it essential to help in preserving. My point was simply that he never expressed himself favorably about any new socio-cultural development in the modern world since the Renaissance, with the single and temporary exception, I believe, of Italian and British Fascism in the 1930′s.