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Book Review: Young Eliot

By (March 21, 2015) No Comment

Young Eliot:young eliot cover

From St. Louis to The Waste Land

by Robert Crawford

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015

Back in 2009, Scottish poet and historian Robert Crawford wrote an excellent, highly-detailed biography of Robert Burns that bid fair to be the best thing ever written on that oft-biographied poet. And now Crawford has outdone even himself with his latest book, Young Eliot, a biography of T.S. Eliot from his boyhood to the publication of his masterpiece, The Waste Land, in 1922, when Eliot was in his early 30s.

Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888 to a distaff branch of a well-established Boston family, and he went to Milton Academy, Harvard, and Oxford, the whole while flirting more and more seriously with women, pedagogy, and poetry, in that order. By ending his biography with his subject on the eve of the fullness of his fame, Crawford focuses on the only segment of Eliot’s life in which it’s still completely possible to humanize him. After The Waste Land, he quickly became, as Crawford puts it, “not only the most remarkable immigrant poet in the English language but also the most influential and resounding poetic voice of the twentieth century.” According to Crawford, Eliot’s verse went on to embody “an almost limitless resonance,” and the man himself became a craggy eminence and Nobel laureate.

The tousled-haired young man on the cover of Crawford’s book isn’t yet a craggy eminence; he’s instead far more interested in attaching himself to craggy eminences, to men like Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound, men whom he could act like he wasn’t trying to impress. Crawford stops just shy of being an outright worshipful biographer (almost limitless resonance … even as late as the 1980s, it was still possible to find well-read critics who might have considered that just a touch exaggerated – it may be possible to find some still), but even he can’t absolve his rising young star of all accusations of place-seeking, though he does his best to slip in defensive phrases in between descriptions of ladder-climbing in Lady Ottoline Morrell’s 1915 smart set:

When Tom began gravitating towards this often unconventional, intellectually starry and sometimes fractious company, he was received less as an obscure, struggling schoolteacher than as Bertrand Russell’s smart young friend, the unusually promising American poet. Russell’s contacts would help secure Tom’s welcome also into the Bloomsbury set that included novelists Leonard and Virginia Woolf, though Tom was reluctant to be co-opted by any one artistic grouping. The celebrated Cambridge philosopher’s poet-protege was welcomed into top-drawer English society. Between them, those very different mentors, Russell and Ezra Pound, gave Tom access to several English artistic elites.

1915 was also the year “Bertrand Russell’s smart young friend” published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which more than one critic found (in the happy phrase of the least of their brethren) “dull and dithering” in addition to being, strictly speaking, incomprehensible. It was also the year he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, with whom he mostly shared only hauteur and hypochondria, and Crawford does a wonderfully knowing job sifting through the intricate records of their relationship. The breadth of his reading is amazing, and the polyphony of contemporary voices he summons at every turn gives the book a convincingly conversational flavor. You can see something of the nature of this talent in a single paragraph describing the reaction of Eliot’s friends in 1922 when Vivienne checked herself in to a hospital:

He contacted Pound, who was soon in touch with Scofield Thayer, telling him, ‘Eliot has merely gone to pieces again. Abuleia, simply the physical impossibility of correlating his muscles sufficiently to write a letter or get up and move across a room.’ This was, Pound opined, ‘a pathological state, due to conditions of his endocrines.’ Reflecting on Tom in late February, Katherine Mansfield decided he was ‘attractive’ yet ‘pathetic’: ‘He suffers from his feelings of powerlessness. He knows it. He feels weak. It is all disguise. That slow manner, that hesitation, side long glances and so on are painful. And the pity is that he is too serious about himself, even a little bit absurd. But it’s natural; it’s the fault of London that. He wants kindly laughing at and setting free.’

Reading Young Eliot, one can’t help but think Katherine Mansfield – as shrewd a judge of people as she was of books – was right: here’s a fussy, stuck-up young man, an arrogant, quarrelsome, mean-spirited, humorless fame-zombie who was never pleasant company when he could help it. He’s portrayed here with a good deal more even-handed fairness than many biographers would have been able to maintain over the course of 500 pages (and so winningly that I actually caught myself hoping Crawford writes a follow-up volume, Eliot: The Even More Insufferable Years), but the same sour note keeps cropping up. When Crawford tells us, for instance, that when news reached Eliot that he’d won a $2000 literary prize from the Dial, “he found his pleasure contaminated by tetchiness,” I’m sure many readers of Young Eliot will join me in thinking “Contaminated by Tetchiness” would have made a good title for the book.

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