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December 14, 1984 - Image 38

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-12-14

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38

Friday, December 14, 1984 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

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BOOKS

The poet as apologist

BY JOSEPH COHEN
Special to The Jewish News

Twenty years have passed since
T.S. Eliot went, presumably, to
his heavenly reward. During his
lifetime, and since, he has often
been recognized as the greatest
poet writing in English in the
20th Century. About his poetic
accomplishment he had his own
doubts, calling poetry later in his
career "a mug's game."
Better than being a poet, he saw
himself playing an extraordinar-
ily important role as a Christian
apologist. Though Modernism,
the literary movement he domi-
nated and epitomized, is now re-
legated to literary history, and his
once monolithic criticism has pro-
ved vulnerable to time, it is easy
for us to go on thinking of him less
as the intellectual spokesman of
conservative Christianity or as
the sage of literary critics than as
the preeminent poetic voice of
Western civilization in extremis
in The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock, The Wasteland, and The
Hollow Men.
These poems, and, later, The
held us
Four Quartets,
spellbound. They still do.
Moreover, the attractiveness of
Eliot's early poetry is no less
startling and captivating for col-
lege students today than it was
when first I encountered it in
1947. I had returned from the
army to complete my interrupted
college education. I was late com-
ing to Eliot, but I still remember
vividly my sense of wonder, awe
and delight the first time a friend
read Prufrock to me; and I have
seen the same wonder, awe and
delight reproduced on the faces of
countless numbers of students
ever since.
For Jews attracted to Eliot's
rhythmic, world-weary, sophisti-
cated verses, the charges of anti-
Semitism lodged against him
have always been hard to assimi-
late. I, myself, was long skeptial of
them, not knowing, or, perhaps,
not wanting to know, whether the
passages in Gerontion and Bur-
bank with a Baedeker: Bleistein
with a Cigar was merely Eliot's
studied aping of a widespread
pre-Holocaust British intellectual
bias or a central, though warped,
tenet of his beliefs. Watching the
Broadway production of Cats last
year, I still found it difficult to
accept Eliot's fondness for cats but
not Katz.
However reluctant to accept it, I
had known for a long time that
anti-Semitism was ingrained in
Eliot's beliefs. Conversations in
London in 1959-1960 with
Emanuel Litvinoff, who had
achieved notoriety in 1951 read-
ing a poem charging Eliot to his
face with a bias against the Jews,
were convincing; even more con-
vincing was Hyam Maccoby's
"The Anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot"
in the May 1973 issue of
Midstream.
Still, what was missing was the
biographical confirmation. What
few facts were known tended to
mollify the charges. There were
several Jews Eliot was closse to
all his life. These included
Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf's
husband, and Sidney Schiff (who
wrote romantic novels under the
pseudonym Stephen Hudson). To
be sure they were nominal Jews

but they certainly were not anti-
Semitic. Eliot also knew the East
End artist, Mark Gertler; and
John Rodker, another East End
contemporary of Joseph Leftwich,
David Bomberg and Isaac Rosen-
berg, actually published Eliot's
second book Ara Vus Prec.
The absence of biographies in
Eliot's case has, up to now, been
intentional. It has little to do with
his bigotry. His first marriage
was a disaster, and the prolonged
trauma both he and his wife ex-
perienced from 1915 until he left
her in 1934 (she was committed in
an institution shortly thereafter!)
coupled with his secretive and de-
fensive nature made his life such
an embarrassment to him that he
vigorously put off would-be biog-
raphers. Since his death, his sec-
ond wife, Valerie, has assiduusly
protected his reputation. Many of
his papers and letters have been
sequestered well into the 21st
Century.
In spite of Valerie Eliot's efforts
to forestall biographers by, among
other ploys, forbidding them to
quote from Eliot's published and
unpublished works, Peter Ac-
kroyd has still managed to pro-
duce in T.S. Eliot A Life (Simon
and Schuster) a first-rate biog-
raphy. It comes at a time when
interest in Eliot has been re-
newed, partly because of the suc-
cess of Cats, based on his Old Pos-
sum's Book of Practical Cats, and
partly because of a fascinating,
prolonged controversy over
Michael Hasting's play Tom and
Viv (about Eliot's first marriage)
which played to packed houses in
London recently and will open in
New York early in 1985.

A nti-Semitism was
ingrained in Eliot's
beliefs

With Ackroyd's biography is-
sued, a number of long straying
hens are homing home to roost.
One of them is the confirming evi-
dence of Eliot's anti-Semitism.
Ackroyd calls attention to addi-
tional pejorative references to
Jews in Eliot's works. One notable
example is in his unpublished
pornographic epic King Bolo and
His Great Black Queen. In a
speech at the University of Vir-
ginia in 1933 he also argued that
one of the shortcomings of
America was that it was "adulter-
ated" by foreign races, going on to
deprecate the presence of too
many "free-thinking Jews."
In a letter to Herbert Read he
admitted to not being immune
from "a racial prejudice," naming
Disraeli as "an example of what
he meant." In another letter to
Bonamy Dobree, he made "a
number of supercilious remarks
about the Jews." Other negative
references occur in letters to John
Quinn and Ezra Pound. Only on
one occasion in his entire profes-
sional life did he formally deny
the charges of anti-Semitism, and
that was in 1951 in response to
Litvinoff, when he said merely
that the charges weren't true. It

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