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Reviewed by:
  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot
  • Jeffrey M. Perl (bio)
The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, vol. 1 (1898–1922), rev. ed., 871 pp., and vol. 2 (1923–1925), 878 pp. (London: Faber and Faber, 2009).

“No child daydreams about becoming an editor”—“a writer, perhaps,” but never an editor. So Edmund White, a writer, asks us to believe. Yet it was fresh from writing The Waste Land and receiving kudos (“I am wracked by the seven jealousies,” Pound congratulated him) that T. S. Eliot invested all the time and energy he could muster, not in writing poetry, but in starting a journal whose stunted circulation could not dissuade him from tending it, unpaid, for seventeen years. His day job at Faber was also editorial. The letters of volume 1, representing the years up to 1922, in which he did little editing (he briefly assisted Harriet Weaver at the Egoist), are written in conspicuously different voices to each of his varied correspondents. Some of his voices are geared to keep correspondents at bay, others to placate or jolly them up, imply allegiance, or beg for cash. In volume 2, we find the application of these crucial editorial skills to shaping the Criterion community. Comparing volumes 1 and 2 of Eliot’s Letters—the dividing line between them being the Criterion’s inaugural issue—makes it seem probable he daydreamed as a child about editing.

Among the letters of volume 1, expressions of anti-Semitism (“Jew publishers” and the like) are found in correspondence with the plainspoken racists who were paying Eliot’s bills—his mother (a believer in eugenics who, in a reflective note, blames herself for disliking Jews intuitively) and his patron John Quinn. To Pound, Eliot speaks bluffly in Pound’s own voice (“I have been invited by female VANDERVELDE to contribute to a reading of pOETS: big wigs, OSWALD and EDITH Shitwell”), while to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley, a playwright, he sends dramaticules on themes of their correspondence. (At the announcement that the Rev. Frederick Eliot, another cousin, was engaged, he sent Hinkley a playlet ending with the stage direction, “Kisses her decorously in exact centre of left cheek.”) The disparity among these voices is wide, and not one of them seems to be Eliot’s own.

The only letters in which is heard the voice of authority to which readers [End Page 150] of his essays are accustomed are the few in which he is cornered into addressing philosophical questions. In one of these, written to the mathematician Norbert Wiener, he describes his own viewpoint as skeptical, relativist, materialist, and antiphilosophical: “The only reason why relativism does not do away with philosophy altogether . . . is that there is no such thing to abolish! There is art, and there is science. And there are works of art, and perhaps of science, which would never have occurred had not many people been under the impression that there was philosophy.” We may infer from a letter that Eliot’s mother wrote to Bertrand Russell (“I have absolute faith in his Philosophy but not in the vers libre”) that Tom explained his philosophical work to his family in terms wholly different from, even contrary to, those in which he discussed it with Wiener. Pound’s naming Eliot “Old Possum,” then, was clearly off the mark: playing dead was just one ploy he had among many. “Old Chameleon” seems an apter alias. He was nothing, moreover, like the courtier whom Edmund White imagines when speculating that “editors are people who admire writers.” Rather, an editor of Eliot’s type—belonging taxonomically with ambitious species of curator, conductor, filmmaker, and impresario—is untrustful of writers. Editors in general think of writers as in need of saving from themselves. For where an author sees the nimbus of perfection, the editor finds bad taste, tone deafness, illogic, imprecision, banality, disproportion, triviality, clutter, self-replication, and credulity.

Still, the job that Eliot took on was less to edit writing than to edit civilization. “[I have] sunk the whole of my strength and all my time gratuitously into the Criterion for eighteen months, and put the whole of my...


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