Diann Blakely's Reviews > The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922, Revised Edition

The Letters of T. S. Eliot by T.S. Eliot
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Aug 26, 13

Read in July, 2012

Of course Eliot would have opined that most letters should be burnt rather than slid into a postal bin, but those who love his work will glory in Yale’s recent publication of both volumes. While I found William Logan’s review in the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/boo...) rather sniffy--Logan suggested I substitute the word “spiffy,” but that’s for readers to decide--we agree that the frighteningly erudite but amusing Eliot would have been welcome at our dinner tables anytime. Though the letters themselves are a delicious success, I find particularly enticing his early predilection for green face powder and mascara; and I offer my thanks to Ivan C. Lett at Yale University Press for sending me Harold Bloom’s THE SHADOW OF A GREAT ROCK and these two volumes. Lett understands as few do the imperiled state of serious book reviewing in this country as how those who pursue the thankless task with integrity are increasingly being forced online or onto such venues as the NBCC-Goodreads.

Consider also Denis Donoghue’s NEW CRITERION essay, which begins with the full quotation from Eliot about destroying correspondence (http://www.newcriterion.com/articles....): Donoghue agrees about two or three of Eliot’s own. One he finds particularly offensive is addressed to Marianne Moore in particular, but what the critic views as petulance, the poet sees as an example of husbandly protectiveness; furthermore, “Moore had the good grace not to press the issue, and their association was soon restored. Eliot forgave himself, and contributed an appreciative Introduction to Moore’s SELECTED POEMS (1935).” But would Donoghue, whose WORDS ALONE: THE POET T.S. ELIOT (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) remains among the most penetrating and superb in the last two decades, truly prefer not to have the letter to Moore? If so, why did he quote it? Moreover, can’t mere scraps left behind by our favorite writers provide comfort and tutelage in the habit of art? What will we do once the epistolary age has vanished? NBA and NBCC nominee Bruce Smith, the author of this piece’s benediction, calls these questions essential, recalling where he was when he read the letters of Flaubert, Chekhov, Woolf, Faulkner, O’Connor, Sexton, and Plath; also where he heard authors read for the first time, e.g. Bishop and Lowell at the 92nd St. Y, in that famous appearance just before his death. So argue with Smith.

Or argue with Louis Menand, whose NEW YORKER essay (http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2011...) about Eliot’s letters, actually a biographical overview emphasizing Eliot as master manipulator, and although how, in his later years, he sought to hide permanently behind a mask of far-right conservatism in politics and religion, it was too late: Ol’ Possum’s cat was already out of the bag. What even Menand neglects to quote is the most salient part of Eliot’s famous remark on the necessity of poetic “impersonality”: “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.” An immersion in these letters makes clear just how much Eliot needed some passage out of domestic chaos. If his abandonment of her was undeniably cruel, and his later politics seem deplorable to us now, think about some of Mary Gaitskill’s words on Nat Turner (http://www.diannblakely.com/newupdate...) before you judge THE WASTE LAND’s author too harshly. Or read the poem again: in his own PARIS REVIEW interview, Eliot indicates that the slender amount of work he’d accomplished hadn’t been worth the pain that provoked it, but how many of us would trade what he left behind for a biography full of crumpets and tea by comfortable hearths, even “evening[s] with the photograph album?”

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message 1: by Ivan (new)

Ivan Lett Always happy to support great writers!


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