Commentary Magazine


T.S. Eliot’s Importance

To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein’s learned article about the literary and intellectual excellence of T.S. Eliot leaves me wondering what it would take to persuade the author that Eliot was profoundly anti-Semitic [“T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture,” November]. Not Eliot’s “Jew [who] squats on the window sill,” nor Rachel Rabinowitch “with murderous paws,” nor “Bleistein with a cigar,” nor the Jew with “money in furs” who is “underneath the rats” and “underneath the piles,” taken singly or together, do it for Epstein.

Eliot’s critical essays about the culturally polluting presence of “any large number of free-thinking Jews” don’t tip the scales either. Epstein mentions that a few of Eliot’s good friends were Jews. I think I have heard that joke before.

To my knowledge, and seemingly to the author’s, Eliot never ever had an unkind word to say about the ascendance of Nazi Kultur or the once-unthinkableness of the Holocaust. But then neither did Heidegger or Konrad Lorenz or many another European intellectual of the time. That he was apparently a devout Anglican of some sort hardly absolves Eliot from his multiple public examples of anti-Semitism. There is little reason to suppose that Eliot’s loyal wife, in charge of his private papers, has or ever will permit any further anti-Semitic disclosures to see the light of day.

Eliot had from the 1920s (especially in the years after 1933) until his death in 1965 to say or do something at least partly exculpatory regarding his publicly anti-Semitic persona. It seems he never did. Epstein never discloses what, if anything, Eliot ever said or did to display the least sense of dismay, disapproval, or even compassion for the contemporary crimes against the Jews that marked his time, crimes that stain forever the Western Christian civilization that alone committed them. But Epstein assures us that Eliot was a towering figure in the annals of that civilization whose example and achievements are sadly fading away.

It would seem that, as Epstein argues, Eliot was a towering figure. He certainly impressed me in my undergraduate years in the 1930s. Alas.

John H. Rubel

Santa Fe, New Mexico

_____________

To the Editor:

Glorification of Eliot is out of date and taste, partly because there is certainly some truth in the judgment that it takes a good man to write a good poem, and Eliot was not a good man. The first of Epstein’s errors is his dismissal of Vivien Haigh-Wood when he describes her as one “who, most inconveniently, happened to be insane.” It is certainly beyond debate now that she was not at all insane. Eliot’s treatment of her was cruel in the extreme and should not be dismissed as a function of the times. I believe it is true that when Eliot appeared at Harvard in later years for a reading, he was greeted by the students with a tray of dead rats. There is no doubt that parts of Four Quartets should and will survive his character, but Wallace Stevens is much more deserving of being considered one of America’s central figures, along with Emerson and Thoreau, in keeping our cultural heritage alive and well. Let England keep Eliot.

Richard Geldard

New York City

_____________

To the Editor:

Many thanks to Joseph Epstein for this wonderful essay. He and John Simon represent twin pillars of true intellectual authority, which is dying daily in today’s swamp of bloggers. “Memorable” is a very insightful word to apply to Eliot. I suspect that Tennyson was as memorable, and as memorized, in his day; but for our time, Eliot is surely the most memorable.

Authority such as Eliot’s can speak to us long after his death. Witness this from the essay itself, which is very instructive: “Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards, and in his day, he claimed, ‘there is no common agreement.’ If an arguable proposition about Eliot’s day, it is unarguable in our own. Eliot held that ‘moral judgments of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation.’” Note well the misplacement of “only” in the first sentence, followed by Eliot’s elegant and instinctual correct usage in the last. One can forgive Epstein his slip; it is impossible, breathing the plague air of demotic construction as we continually do, not to cough on occasion. Still, we can be grateful for the immutable patterns left to us by giants.

Patrick Griffins

Address withheld

_____________

To the Editor:

Joseph Epstein has written a lovely article. Thank you so much for such a down-to-earth summary of a man who was anything but. Literary culture might not be suffering the demise the author so correctly and boldly identifies if its acolytes wrote as clearly, concisely, and unpretentiously as he. Ironically enough, I imagine Eliot is likely to blame. He must be the tipping point for the drivel now dominating critical and academic discourse. It seems every pedant competing for tenure strives, in vain, to sound as sophisticated and erudite as he did. Eliot remains the high bar for literary smarts, a distant target at which bookish types continue unashamedly to hurl their prose. Epstein’s article sets a much better example. May more editors and tenure committees follow it.

Donald Summers

Seattle, Washington

_____________

Joseph Epstein writes:

I wish Messrs. Rubel and Geldard had provided more in the way of argument to make their cases. Mr. Rubel, for example, opines that Eliot never said a word about the rise of Nazi Kultur, when all Eliot’s writing about education is about warding off the simple-minded materialist base of most modern education that led—inevitably, in his view—to such political systems as fascism and Communism. Mr. Geldard, on no evidence whatsoever, opines that Eliot’s wife was not insane and that “Eliot’s treatment of his wife was cruel in the extreme,” when he lived with her violent mood swings for 13 years, devoting much of his time and nearly all his income to searching for a cure for her mental problems, and then spent the better part of the remainder of his life suffering from guilt for his inability to help her. T. S. Eliot was not a perfect husband, and his politics may not have been Mr. Rubel’s nor Mr. Geldard’s nor mine, but I don’t think he deserves the crucifixion that their letters demand for him.

_____________

I WISH to point out a mistake in my essay. I incorrectly describe Emanuel Litvinoff as “an Eastern European Jew who survived Treblinka.” An English writer born in 1915, a fighter for human rights, and hence a lifelong opponent of anti-Semitism, Mr. Litvinoff was never a prisoner in Treblinka or in any other Nazi death camp. I apologize for my error.




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