The Dr. Johnson of the Jazz Age

The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. I, 1898-1922, edited by Valerie Eliot. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 639 pp. $29.95. THE voice of the first volume of T.S. Eliot's letters is not Possum or the Aged Eagle - his later masks - but young, conscientious Thomas (Tom) Stearns Eliot of St. Louis.

Grandson of William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister whose widely acclaimed devotion to good works included tireless but prudent opposition to slavery, young Eliot studies philosophy in Cambridge, Mass.; Paris; and Oxford, but decides not to pursue it; his Harvard thesis is accepted in June 1916; his compatriot in exile Ezra Pound influences him toward literature. Eliot's marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915 is as sudden as his emergence as a modern poet with ``The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock''; Vivien is often ill with nervous disorders. He toils as a foreign loans clerk at Lloyds Bank during the day and often complains in his letters about having no time and less energy for literature. Pound helps him write ``The Waste Land.'' His book of criticism, ``The Sacred Wood,'' receives mixed reviews. He has a breakdown in 1921, as both ``The Waste Land'' and his magazine, The Criterion, take shape.

Most of his early letters are to his mother, whom he misses dreadfully. Charlotte C. Eliot was a formidable woman. A writer (though she recognized early that her son had more talent), she exchanged volumes with Bertrand Russell, an older friend of Tom's. In return for her biography of her father-in-law, Russell sent a copy of his ``Philosophical Essays,'' ``though I fear most of them are rather uninteresting.''

By Dec. 31, 1922 - the date of the last letter included in this volume and five years before his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism - Eliot had begun to establish himself as the literary dictator for the Anglo-Saxon world, the Dr. Johnson of the Jazz Age. In his critical prose, Eliot became the editorial ``we'' of a generation. He stressed the impersonal nature of art. In his seminal criticism, he managed, for a time, to balance the claims of originality and tradition. He could be both squeamish and eloquent, as when he said that ``the creation of a work of art is like some other forms of creation, a painful and unpleasant business; it is a sacrifice of the man to the work, it is a kind of death.''

The letters reveal the ``I'' behind the ``we.'' Elegantly modest, luxuriously austere, and suavely imprecise as a public man, in the privacy of his correspondence Eliot is vulnerable, direct, proud. He writes that James Joyce, whom he admired greatly, ``is a quiet but rather dogmatic man, and has (as I am convinced most superior persons have) a sense of his own importance.'' Attacked in print, Eliot would strike back: He writes to his mother that one reviewer is ``an utter nonentity; his own literary criticism is wholly worthless;...'' Eliot reflects his own ambition when he writes about another American abroad: ``getting recognised in English letters is like breaking open a safe - for an American,... only about three [have] ever done it.''

In his 20s and 30s Eliot was preoccupied with making a living and keeping his wife comfortable. On Sept. 13, 1920, he wrote to his brother: ``I do not think I shall ever have time to write a letter worth anyone's keeping. As the world becomes worse to live in, every month, so the minutiae of existence seem to consume more time and energy; so many of the processes that were formerly almost automatic now demand the thought of a Field-Marshal planning a campaign.''

Eliot's second wife has suggested that Eliot never loved his first wife. Never is a hard word. Vivien had a history of depression and mood swings; he cared for her deeply and long. He wrote to a friend, ``Have you ever been in such incessant and extreme pain that you felt your sanity going, and that you no longer knew reality from delusion? That's the way she is.'' His marriage to her schooled him in the stoic virtues.

Concluding her brief ``Introduction'' to this volume, Valerie Eliot quotes her husband on his first marriage: ``To her the marriage brought no happiness ... to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came `The Waste Land.''' Whatever its genesis, ``The Waste Land'' struck like lightning over the darkened, Dickensian, apathetic city. Its sudden illumination proved blinding to many poets who thereafter tried to catch the effect in their own words. Its babble of voices and shrieks (sometimes said to echo his wife's agonies) created a new sound that gave identity to an age of anxiety.

Eliot would live another 43 years, but at age 34 he had accomplished most of what he would be remembered by. He left the bank and for 30 years helped Faber become a leading publisher of modern writers. He was an original. Perhaps, as C.H. Sisson says, his great achievement was in ``the razor-cut of the verse, in its wit and rhythm.'' These jazzy, fragmented rhythms depended on Eliot's skeptical cast of mind; the rhythms of the later champion of orthodoxy are limp and rather vague. The early, immense success of ``The Waste Land'' seemed to say to younger poets that to write truly about this confused age one must confuse one's readers.

Great letters turn on great friendships. Eliot hadn't any really close friends in his early years. The intimate note that makes one heart out of two is missing.

The pleasures afforded by these letters are of a special sort, as when he writes to his mother in February of 1920: ``It is beautiful weather again, we have no winter yet, all the bushes and shrubs are out in bud, and will probably be nipped later. I think I shall consult a specialist about my nose.'' In cartoon and photograph, Eliot's aquiline nose would become world famous; it stood for his fastidious, discriminating, somewhat supercilious nature. Perhaps it belied his humanity.

Eliot's humanity is a big, complex subject, as the recent queries about his view of Jews suggests. In the letters, one finds prickly phrasing about just about everybody. Returning to the early verse, one still smarts at the ``razor-cut'' of the rhythms. Reading his early critical prose, one still pauses where he pauses.

Not satisfied with the image of him to be gotten from the wildly successful stage version of ``Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats,'' the reader can find the real Eliot in these letters. It's always best to start with the real, as young Eliot so fully demonstrated in art and life.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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