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Eliot Among the Typists: Writing The Waste Land

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 12, Number 1, January 2005
pp. 27-84 | 10.1353/mod.2005.0049

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Modernism/modernity 12.1 (2005) 27-84

Writing The Waste Land

Lawrence Rainey

In Memory of Donald Gallup (1913-2000),
Bibliographer of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound

To students of twentieth-century modernism, 1971 was the year when Valerie Eliot published a facsimile edition of The Waste Land's pre-publication manuscripts. The event invited new accounts of the poem's genetics and fresh assessments of how those might bear on our understanding of the poem. One year later Hugh Kenner and Grover Smith published two essays which, while differing sharply in premises and procedures, reached a consensus that Part III, "The Fire Sermon," was the earliest portion of the poem to have been written, probably around midsummer 1921, followed first by Parts I and II, then by IV and V, the latter completed in December 1921. Their efforts were followed in 1977 by Lyndall Gordon's attempt at "Dating The Waste Land Fragments," a wide-ranging survey which addressed both the principal parts of The Waste Land and the various drafts and ancillary poems. In the end, however, Gordon remained divided over the claims of two sharply incompatible hypotheses for dating the principal parts of The Waste Land, and concluded that the question was, at least for the present, "unresolved" ("DTWLF," 146). In 1979 there was still another consideration of the dating by Peter Barry. Barry urged a complicated chronology which assigned priority to the first leaf in the typescript for Part I, a passage recounting a rowdy night on the town in Boston (assigned to April-May 1921), followed by all of Part III (September-October), then the rest of Part I and all of Part II (early November), and finally Parts IV and V (November-December). Finally, in 1984, Ronald Bush offered a reading of the poem which echoed Smith's and Kenner's thesis assigning priority to Part III, and relied on Gordon's conjecture that a specific fragment, the one beginning "London, the swarming life," might date from as far back as 1918.

By 1985, however, debate had come to a standstill, and since then a lack of new evidence or argumentation has effectively put a halt to discussion. What had once seemed a new dawn has turned into a lunar landscape, with critics condemned to retracing the dusty tracks left by Kenner, Smith, Gordon, and Barry. At the same time, as Christine Froula has lately noted, more recent criticism has increasingly drawn upon the pre-publication manuscripts to offer "readings that cross easily between the 1921 and 1922 texts," despite lingering uncertainty about the date or status of virtually all the pre-publication manuscripts. Indeed, as Froula's repeated references to "the 1921 manuscript" and "the 1921 text" indicate, the specificity of the pre-publication materials—their heft, their material and historical density—has been levelled by a process of abstraction into "text," or even "the 1921 text," that definite article urging a monolithic entity which jars against the experience of pondering the undated, disordered scraps that jostle one another in the facsimile edition. That experience inevitably raises a host of questions. Did one passage or fragment antedate the others and preserve the trace of an original program which had later dissolved? Were specific passages composed all at once or in discrete and discontinuous moments? Were the ancillary poems conceived as independent works or meant to form part of the poem's texture? Was the poem's composition a straightforward progress or did it entail more entangled loopings? If we are to address these, if we are to restore the specificity of the pre-publication materials and assess their bearing on critical understanding of The Waste Land, we must first return to the manuscripts themselves, revisiting the debates which ground to a halt in the mid-1980s. More concretely, we must resolve the vexing question concerning the priority of Parts I-II and Part III, a question that hinged on the identity of a mysteriously missing typewriter. Then, we must establish a chronology for the entire corpus of pre-publication materials to furnish a coherent account of the poem's production, assaying its significance for longstanding debates about the plan or program which...