- T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews
Thomas Stearns Eliot just won't go away. There are in fact two Eliots still on offer, the good avant-garde early Eliot and the bad reactionary later Eliot. Recently, the good avant-garde early Eliot has also become, thanks to Marjorie Perloff's 21st-century Modernism: The "New" Poetics (2002), a founding member of the twenty-first-century avant-garde. Meanwhile, Eliot the proto-fascist and antisemite has not gone away either, and ongoing debate about this Eliot must now take into account Jason Harding's The "Criterion": Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Inter-War Britain (2002), which puts issues at stake in previously neglected contexts. Debate about Eliot is nothing new. He has always been controversial, has always provoked vehement put-downs, and his critical reputation among the cognoscenti has undergone radical ups and downs. Through it all, in the popular mind Eliot remains the founder of "modern poetry" as much as Picasso does of "modern art," or James Joyce of the modern novel, or Igor Stravinsky of modern music.
Jewel Spears Brooker's new collection enables us to relive battles as they were first fought and to review positions as they were first staked out. One congratulates critics like Conrad Aiken or Edmund Wilson who "got it right" right away. And one can boo the philistines and one-eyed critics who made such fools of themselves. William Carlos Williams, a special case, is a pleasure to read for his downright incorrigible hostility to his fellow poet. Then there are the many conscientious, not merely cautious, critics who in their reviews debate both sides of the case and gain our respect.
Although it can pride itself on being "the most comprehensive collection of contemporary reviews of T. S. Eliot's work as it appeared," thus leaving behind it in its dust Michael Grant's T. S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage (1982), Jewel Spears Brooker's six-hundred-page collection remains a "selected" rather than a "complete" edition. What one does not get one is at any rate told of. The checklist of reviews which did not make the cut for the section on The Waste Land runs to thirty-seven items, rendering the twenty-three reviews which are included at least [End Page 197] numerically a minority report. Similar checklists are provided for each of Eliot's separately published volumes, including the plays and prose, making anyone's task easier who might one day seek to break the record by giving us a "complete" edition of the contemporary reviews. It would have to include critical responses to a few brief pamphlets of Eliot's, to his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and to late collections of previously published works, but above all longer review essays, notably of Four Quartets, which sometimes ran to more than twenty pages. Then there is the thorny problem of the Empire, and of lands and languages beyond its pale. We are informed that "[w]ith rare exceptions" no reviews emanating from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are included, while reviews in languages other than English are entirely ignored. On the other hand, an American bias to the edition may annoy some, as it did Frank Kermode writing on the edition in The New York Review of Books.
The fact that Brooker's collection appears in the American Critical Archive series naturally foreordains an American slant. Thomas Inge puts it this way in his Series Editor's Preface: "When completed, the American Critical Archives should constitute a comprehensive history of critical practice in America, and in some cases the United Kingdom, as the writers' careers were in progress. The volumes open a window on the patterns and forces that have shaped the history of American writing and the reputations of the writers. These are primary documents in the literary and cultural life of the nation." The awkwardly inserted "and in some cases the United Kingdom" is a bit more expansive than "[w]ith rare exceptions" and grants a certain license to include...