Letters give us the life as lived — day-to-day, shapeless, haphazard, contingent, imperfect, authentic.
Letters give us the life as lived — day-to-day, shapeless, haphazard, contingent, imperfect, authentic. That is their value. Life-writing, biography, is plotted, shaped by an argument and is summary, selective and often tendentious. There is a lovely moment in these letters when the shivering Eliot, trapped on the top of a French mountain, a long mule ride from civilisation, is writing to Richard Aldington on a defective typewriter. It sticks and repeats. ‘I’m writing there fore the r therefore more briefly than I intended and shall do when I get to Nice again and hie h ire hire a typewriter merde.’ Half of each letter is missing. ‘This type looks just like Hebrew.’ For a brief existential moment, the amused irritation of a complicated, deeply troubled man, at the end of his tether, whose dangerously loopy wife is in a nursing home, ‘recovering’ but actually on the edge. The typewriter is part of unedited, impure, actual life. It wouldn’t make it into the Life.
We read the letters of writers for high reasons — to illuminate their art. And for low reasons — to discover, as it were, what they were like in bed. We would like to catch them unbuttoned, if possible with their trousers down. Curiosity is a powerful, ineradicable human instinct. In T. S. Eliot’s case, hostile critics are eager for shameful revelations of anti-Semitism and misogyny.
Volume Two covers the inception of the Criterion, usefully outlines the magazine’s Tory, classicist, reactionary stance and reproduces much repetitive editorial boiler-plate. The drab commendably elided by biography. Eliot’s editorial persona is in place, except to Ezra Pound: ‘It doan matter a toad’s fart,’ writes Eliot, emulating Ezra’s forthright, backwoods manner. There isn’t much here to compel the ordinary reader, except for unsurprising moments of venial hypocrisy. To Middleton Murry, on the death of Katherine Mansfield, Eliot condoles and promises an assessment of her work in the Criterion. It never appeared. Eliot’s verdict (to Pound) on Katherine Mansfield in Volume One:
Simply one of the most persistent and thickskinned toadies and one of the vulgarest women Lady R [Rothermere] has ever met and is also a sentimental crank.
Faber have re-issued Volume One with approximately 200 new letters. Many of these new letters, perhaps half, are not by Eliot, but by his wife Vivien, his mother, his father (‘I hope that a cure for syphilis will never be discovered. It is God’s punishment for nastiness’), his brother and his patron John Quinn. Eliot’s own new letters are mostly brief, businesslike and boring. But there is one fragment of a letter to his brother, consoling Henry over a disappointed love affair and adding that he (Eliot) lives ‘among a set of people some of whom would probably shock your friends (all of them) terribly by varieties of “immorality” with no pretense.’ (Clive Bell’s relationship with Mary Hutchinson, Bertrand Russell’s relationship with Ottoline Morrell, and Bloomsbury homosexuality passim.)
In Earl Griggs’s magisterial six-volume edition of Coleridge’s letters, there is, in the final volume, an appendix containing newly discovered letters. These late finds are inevitable. There will be further Eliot letters — little caches like those to Edgar Jepson incorporated here. Normally, the Griggs method is the only sensible one. But Eliot’s letters are a special case. When Volume One originally appeared, there were accusations of suppression when ill-disposed critics failed to find evidence of careerism and rabid anti-Semitism. The record has to be as complete as it can be — now. The distortion of editorial method, the extra expense to the reader, is inevitable in the mistrustful critical climate created by Anthony Julius’s study of Eliot’s alleged anti-Semitism.
Actually, in two volumes of about 1700 pages, there are perhaps two (maybe three) questionable moments, none of them conclusive. Length less than a page in all. There is open anti-Semitism in these letters, expressed by John Quinn (flagrantly) and Eliot’s mother (regretfully). Eliot has been found guilty by association, by the company he keeps. Eliot’s mother is uneasy with her prejudice:
Have I previously answered your letter? It seems as if I had previously referred to the Jew, Bodenheim. It is very bad in me, but I have an instinctive antipathy to Jews, just as I have to certain animals. Of course there are Jews and Jews, and I must not be so much narrow-minded, as narrow in my sympathies. There must be something in them which to me is antipathetic. Father never liked to have business dealings with them, and they took advantage of Henry in the Publisher’s Press.
In castigating herself, Mrs Eliot seems to be referring to a previous letter of Eliot’s — perhaps complaining about the reference to Bodenheim? She is certainly responding to something already raised, something more likely to be a demurral from her favourite son than an endorsement. She is explaining, backing down.
Quinn is an unapologetic anti-Semite. But we should mark the continence of Eliot, when compared to Quinn: ‘the streets and sidewalks are infested … with swarms of horrible looking Jews, low, squat, animal-like.’ Eliot is more concerned that Horace Liveright, his Jewish publisher, should pay up monies owed. He upbraids Liveright directly in the end. To Quinn, who is his proxy in dealing with Eliot’s New York business affairs, Eliot writes:
I am very annoyed about this, although it is the sort of behaviour which I have been led to expect from Liveright [my italics]. I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to; I have not the time nor can I at this distance keep my eye on him incessantly and I hate to bother you with these affairs. I wish I could find a decent Christian publisher in New York who could be trusted …
The prejudice is initially against Liveright. It then engrosses the Jewish sector of American publishing — but isn’t hopeful that a decent Christian publisher can be found either. Eliot endorses a prejudice about Jewish publishers and their methods but includes Christian publishers in his disillusionment.
Later (16 February 1925) Eliot writes to Herbert Read:
I have the same racial prejudice myself; and I am always inclined to suspect the racial envy and jealousy which makes that people [the Jews] inclined to Bolshevism in some form (not always political) though I suspect something of this destructive instinct in Disraeli; in spite of the conventional Tory exaltation of him.
Read’s letter is missing. The racial prejudice so openly admitted isn’t, read carefully, an admission of anti-Semitism, but an admission of a prejudice that Jews are inclined to ‘Bolshevism’, in this case, a generalised iconoclasm. Not such a damaging charge, you might think. And, as in the case of his mother, Eliot is prepared to set this down as prejudice. Contrast Quinn, contrast any anti-Semite. They don’t describe themselves as prejudiced.
This augmented Volume One includes one new, dangerously flirtatious letter from Vivien to Scofield Thayer, who owned the Dial. You get a pretty good idea of how Vivien vamped. She boasts about Bertrand Russell: ‘He is all over me, is Bertie, and I simply love him.’ Tom is in America: ‘Rather unwise perhaps to leave so attractive a wife alone and to her own devices.’ She vaunts her initiated marital status: ‘Grass widows do seem, I find, to be so very, very attractive, much more than spinsters! Now WHY is that?’ Dangerous, yet harmless — play-acting, with the Post Office as pimp and the Atlantic as chaperone. The editors think that Vivien may have had an affair with Russell in the summer of 1915, shortly after her marriage to Eliot. In Volume Two, they quote a letter of Russell’s to Ottoline Morrell (September 1915): Vivien, wrote Russell, had ‘a great deal of mental passion & no physical passion, a universal vanity, that makes her desire every man’s devotion, & a fastidiousness that makes any expression of their devotion disgusting to her.’ This is taken as evidence of an affair: ‘It is possible he was briefly her lover in the course of that summer.’ It seems obvious that Russell is a disgruntled and disappointed lover in a state of sexual frustration. Vivien wasn’t having it off with him. She was having him on.
After endless Criterion palaver, Volume Two suddenly ignites. In ‘What Dante Means to Me’, Eliot said his early poetry aimed to ‘establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life’. Geoffrey Faber tells Eliot his letter detailing his personal travails is ‘combusted’. No matter. At the end of the second volume we are given glimpses of Eliot’s personal inferno. Vivien writes to their maid threatening suicide. Eliot expresses his (groundless) guilt: ‘And the fact that living with me has done her so much damage does not help me come to any decision.’ Eliot behaves impeccably. He copes with the Criterion and continues to care for Vivien who is being harrowed in her own unreachable hell — the hapless contrivance of a multitude of incompetent doctors. It is heart-breaking.