- T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews
Not a fashionable volume, T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews displays a title and subtitle conspicuously devoid of terms that appeal to current academic tastes. They utter not a murmur about sexuality, gender, transnationalism, mass culture, technology, multiculturalism, or post-structural-colonial-modern-ism. Sober, almost austere, the hardback comes in a dark blue cover with small, understated gold lettering for the title. Even a dust jacket was evidently deemed a superfluous distraction. A reader confronts the book's solid mass—it runs to six hundred pages and the body of the text is spread out over two columns per page—without the prospect of frivolity. So unadorned, it presents a collection of contemporary reviews that span the gamut of Eliot's long career, from the first publication of Prufrock in 1917 to the swan song of The Elder Statesman in 1959. Wisely, the volume does not aspire to plumb the ocean of ink that eventually came to surround Eliot and his oeuvre; instead it restricts itself to book reviews that appeared as each new volume rolled off the press. As such it dutifully follows the career, title by title.
Strangely, despite a structure that might, at first glance, seem to plod, the volume holds countless surprises. Yes, one had been vaguely aware of the misgivings voiced when Eliot announced his conversion in the preface to For Launcelot Andrewes in late 1928, but to read the contemporary reviews is to gain a richer sense of just how profoundly it disconcerted contemporaries. Likewise, one had a sense that After Strange Gods (1934) had aroused some controversy: but the exact contours of that controversy are far more arresting than one might surmise from recent discussion about Eliot. Still more surprising is the relative neglect (Brooker has been able to identify only six reviews) and general hostility (nearly all are adverse) aroused by Sweeney Agonistes two years earlier in 1932. Page after page in this judiciously edited book offers a richer, more nuanced sense of the dialogue that took place between Eliot and his contemporaries, a dialogue that was much more complicated than our increasingly stereotyped view of Eliot's career would allow. [End Page 834]
Since, plainly, it would be impossible to examine the entire volume in detail, the section devoted to The Waste Land can stand for the whole. The obvious comparison to be drawn is with that old standard (edited by Michael Grant) T. S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1982). Inevitably there are differences in format. Grant frequently assigned titles of his own devising to essays and reviews, and prefaced most reviews with a brief biographical sketch of the author; Brooker, instead, carefully reports the original title in its entirety, but elects not to provide the helpful biographical sketch. But these are merely preliminaries to the more important question of the contents, the selections made by the two editors and their editorial treatment of the texts.
Grant, in his section on The Waste Land, included twenty-two reviews and essays, reporting twenty of them in their entirety and two in excerpts. Brooker includes twenty-three reviews and essays, but she provides only five of them in their entirety, eighteen in excerpted versions. The differences in the two editors' selections are slight. Brooker drops four reviews that Grant had included (Grant's numbers 28, 44, 45, and 48), which consisted of one anonymous notice in the New York Times Book Review, and three reviews by William Rose Benét, Charles Powell, and Gorham Munson (in, respectively, the Yale Review, the Manchester Guardian, and a journal called 1924). In their place she substitutes five other reviews: an early one by Edmund Wilson which hasn't been noticed before (given in excerpts), two short notices by the New York journalist and author Burton Rascoe (again in excerpts), a brief and early review by Allen Tate which appeared in the first issue of the Fugitive (again in excerpts), and an anonymous review published in an early issue of Time magazine (reported in...