- The International Eliot
In the past ten years, the turn towards globalism has been one of the most forceful movements in literary studies. This leaning has expressed itself in the academy in a variety of ways: postcolonialism has superseded comparative literature programs; diasporic studies has further advanced the aims and methods of postcolonial inquiry; and transatlantic studies has become the hottest new currency in American literature programs. By offering eighteen essays that take up Eliot’s influence throughout the world, The International Reception of T. S. Eliot attempts to make the poet relevant to these contemporary schools of critical inquiry. Indeed, what better way to make a case for a writer’s globalism than proving the writer had influence all over the globe? But who, and where, is the audience that wants to know how Eliot’s work fared in such places as Iceland, or Israel, or India?
In the past forty years, the shifting winds of literary politics have not been kind to Eliot’s reputation: the rise of feminism had many critics labeling him a misogynist, while those studying the politics of canon formation have found him to be the most wretched of Tory sympathizers. The heightened interest in ethnic studies also left Eliot in the dust: discussion of alleged anti-Semitism overshadowed meaningful discussions of his poetry. The combination of all three of these movements has perched Eliot on the same literary cliff that Hemingway fell off twenty years ago. I don’t know about you but if I never taught “Hills Like White Elephants” again, I would survive. And yet, perhaps because my favored genre is poetry, I cannot be so glib about Eliot’s future in the canon. I sympathize with the editors of this volume (Elisabeth Däumer, a Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University, and Shyamal Bagchee, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta and the President of the T. S. Eliot Society of America) who would like to restore Eliot’s centrality and importance to this generation of critics and readers. For those educated in the twentieth century, it is virtually impossible—surely not at all desirable—to turn away from Eliot’s greatest poems. Is it possible for scholars of [End Page 494] modern poetry to even imagine the genre without The Waste Land or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—not only for their influence on other writers, but for the sheer pleasure of the texts?
The problem for Eliot’s advocates has been clear: how do they reconcile Eliot’s lack of political correctness with his aesthetically sophisticated and radically innovative poetic vision? While the introduction to this volume (written by Bagchee) does not state that answering this question is central to the editors’ aims, the authors respond to this question in a number of important ways, which I will get to shortly. Bagchee makes much more modest claims for the volume, stating that they have not attempted to answer questions about class and race, or the “importance of questions of Empire” in Eliot studies. They are understandably cautious, inviting others to pick up these lines of inquiry. Nonetheless, by making claims about Eliot’s global impact, many of the essays do help us to contextualize him against larger issues of race, class and empire. Moreover, because they talk about the poet’s reception in places where his politics, and even his criticism, are not the least bit applicable—and because he even has a reception in Japan, China, and Spain—the essays make the strongest possible case for the strength of Eliot’s poetic accomplishments.
For instance, we would not expect the Caribbean to be a place where Eliot’s political views would be of much interest; and yet, according to Matthew Hart in “Tradition and the Postcolonial Talent,” the Caribbean poet Edmund Braithwaite was strongly influenced by Eliot’s poetics and read him as a “master of song”; Hart observes that “Eliot is a jazzman at the heart of the British Empire” thus acknowledging the...