- Eliot’s Troubled Sexuality
Every other December, my colleague, a specialist in twentieth-century British literature, and I, a specialist in twentieth-century [End Page 120] American, have the same conversation. As we put together our syllabi for our respective survey courses, I ask him, or he asks me, which of us is going to cover "The Waste Land." I have felt relieved when he has claimed it, not because I don't love the poem, but because it is hard to teach in any survey course, and almost impossible to teach in my survey where I stress themes of conformity and resistance. We do not, by the way, have this conversation about Henry James. I teach Daisy Miller which fits in nicely with other texts featuring nonconformist heros and heroines, including Emerson, Huck Finn, and Sister Carrie. With Henry James, the case for his Americanness has always been clear. Not so with Eliot. These issues are surely complicated and I can hear scholars of both Eliot and James clearing their throats in the United Sstates and across the Atlantic. Despite its title, however, Miller's new biography, T. S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet, sheds only the dimmest light on this debate.
I enjoyed James Miller's four-hundred-plus page biography of Eliot in his early years, yet I remain confused by the title, and the mission it outlines for itself. Miller names his study "The Making of an American Poet," and I approached reading it with the misinformed idea that he would resolve the issue of Eliot's nationality, or at least strenuously attempt to. Except for the very first chapter, however, where Miller links Eliot's misogyny to a strident Calvinism that equates sex with sin, and the last chapter (which the author warns is beyond the scope of his book because it is about Eliot's later years), where he cites the poet himself proclaiming his Americanness, the book barely takes up the issue. When in the final line Miller triumphantly declares "This book has been an exploration of Eliot's American sources," I was mystified. I liked the book, but it certainly had not been the book he describes.
Rather, the subject of this book is very clearly Eliot's troubled sexuality. This thesis is stated throughout, but most clearly on page 314 when after a summary of Eliot's misogyny, the biographer asks: "if Eliot was not sexually aroused by women, what about men?" Miller strenuously investigates Eliot's alliance with Uranism, a turn-of-the-century moniker for homosexuality. It is undoubtedly the subject of this book, and it's a fascinating topic. While I am not sure I believe that Eliot had homosexual relations (nor does Miller necessarily), Miller reminds us that Eliot's peculiar sexuality deserves a lot more treatment than it conventionally receives.
Teaching "The Waste Land," as I have for almost twenty years (in my modern poetry classes, not in the survey) and becoming middle-aged [End Page 121] with it, I have lost the ability to see the poem as anything but an extension of Eliot's Prufrockian anxiety, nay terror, about women that by the 1920s had grown into a full-blown phobia that correlates to his impotence. Moreover, I have lost my ability to recite the English professor's party line on it; i.e., that the barrenness of the waste land represents the sterility of culture; that the poet fears cultural impotence as much as physical. I think but only sometimes say that the speaker is just an impotent guy who finds women's bodies deeply offensive. Like Prufrock, the speaker delivers a great dramatic monologue; and like Browning's Duke, he is completely out of his gourd. I can still love the poem and say this: what I have grown to resent is what I was taught about it—what I first taught it as: that Eliot's personal psyche mirrors and refines the devastation of all culture. I am inclined to cite Eliot...