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Book Reviews Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land. By Robert Crawford. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. ISBN 978-0374279448. Pp. 512. $35.00. I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid. These famous lines from ‘‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’’ are a curious mix of grandstanding (Prufrock’s ‘‘greatness’’ might ‘‘flicker’’ and fade out, but he nonetheless glimpses it for an all-too-brief moment), bathos (the duties of the ‘‘eternal Footman’’ seem as mundane as those of his regular temporal counterpart), and searing humiliation. While spoken in character, the fear of that ‘‘snicker’’ would haunt the poem’s author throughout his life. Crawford’s attention to such vulnerabilities—from Eliot’s childhood hernia, through his adolescent (and beyond) shyness, up until the sexual difficulties of his first marriage—is one of the great strengths of this new biography spanning the years from its subject’s birth up to, and inclusive of, the publication of ‘‘The Waste Land.’’ Crawford is the first biographer to have been granted permission to quote extensively from archival sources at Harvard and Cambridge while also having Eliot’s correspondence available whether in the original or through the ongoing publication project. It is this behind-the-scenes access that enables him to encircle, enliven, or enrich the dry, urbane persona (what Katherine Mansfield called ‘‘the bluff’’) with which Eliot confronted much of the world. It was his penchant for playing such parts (Crawford also details Eliot’s time treading the boards, while at Harvard, with the Social Dramatic Club) that led the young poet to cast some of his most memorable poems as dramatic monologues spoken by old men or else to dress up ‘‘The Waste Land’’—a poem that Eliot later termed ‘‘a piece of rhythmical grumbling’’—in the academic garb of its accompanying notes. This may sound all too gossipy for some. Indeed, the remit of this biography, signaled by the titular geography, to be the first to address in any detail Eliot’s preHarvard life, could in less assured hands than those of the experienced and esteemed biographer, critic, and poet, Crawford, have lost sight of its subject amidst the wealth of newly accessible information and intrigue. Crawford’s work Christianity & Literature 2016, Vol. 65(2) 257–272 ! The Author(s) 2015 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/ journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0148333115614505 cal.sagepub.com is, however, distinguished not only by detailed archival excavation but also by his firm feeling for the ways in which life is or can be transformed into art. If he casts his net wide for biographical and social detail, it is because he is looking to catch the antecedents of a rhythm, phrase, or cadence stored away within the poet’s mind for safekeeping, only to reappear later in the canonical poetry. For instance, the gift of the Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America upon Eliot’s sixth birthday, Crawford muses, perhaps helped the young boy identify for the first time the song of the hermit thrush—a song that would be heard again 25 years later in ‘‘What the Thunder Said.’’ Crawford’s technique mirrors Eliot’s own account, in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, of the way in which a poet utilizes his or her reading creatively. Eliot notes how certain phrases a poet-reader comes across over the course of a literate life can become saturated with personal value; value that subsequently has bearing on the way in which that phrase, if borrowed, functions in a new poem. Crawford shows that a similar process is at work in the biographer’s art too, although the skill here is identifying the range of saturated material encountered by its subject. The Eliot Crawford presents is not the ossified ‘‘Pope of Russell Square’’ but a familiar and familial ‘‘Tom.’’ ‘‘T.S. Eliot’’—his chosen pen name following an initial flirtation with ‘‘Thomas Stearns Eliot’’—shocked and continues to shock readers with his combination of iconoclasm and respect for order: an oxymoronic approach...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2056-5666
Print ISSN
0148-3331
Pages
pp. 257-259
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-28
Open Access
No
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