Tara Stubbs

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Tara Stubbs

T. S. Eliot, 1922 and transat­lantic cul­ture

In his re­cent book, Con­stel­la­tion of Ge­nius – 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jack­son de­scribes the in­deli­ble impression that 1922 left on the cul­tural land­scape, claim­ing that it marked the emer­gence of ‘the most in­flu­en­tial English-lan­guage novel’ (James Joyce’s Ulysses) and ‘the most in­flu­en­tial English-lan­guage poem of the cen­tury’ (Eliot’s The Waste Land). Jack­son adds, with some­what grand­stand­ing lan­guage, that ‘these two works re­main the twin tow­ers at the be­gin­ning of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture; some would say of moder­nity it­self’: a com­ment not far re­moved from Ezra Pound’s view of 1922 as ‘Year One of a new era’. Nev­er­the­less, 1922 was a re­mark­able year: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was pub­lished first in the in­au­gu­ral is­sue of his jour­nal The Cri­te­rion (in Oc­to­ber), then in the Novem­ber is­sue of the New York-based lit­er­ary mag­a­zine The Dial. In fact the pub­li­ca­tion dates were closer still; as Lawrence Rainey points out in The An­no­tated Waste Land, while the Cri­te­rion was pub­lished on 16 Oc­to­ber, the Novem­ber is­sue of The Dial came out around 20 Oc­to­ber. The poem ap­peared in book form in the US in De­cem­ber – the first edi­tion to pub­lish the poem ac­com­pa­nied by Eliot’s now in­fa­mous notes – and then in the UK in Septem­ber 1923. This fol­lowed hot on the heels of the first pub­li­ca­tion of Ulysses in its en­tirety – by Sylvia Beach, in Paris, in Fe­bru­ary – with the two to­gether gen­er­at­ing a flurry of re­views and ar­ti­cles.

Yet 1922, less fa­mously, was also the year in which Eliot pub­lished his es­say ‘The Three Provin­cial­i­ties’, in the sec­ond (and fi­nal) edi­tion of Wyn­d­ham Lewis’s short-lived jour­nal Tyro in the spring. Even in his far-reach­ing study of 1922, Kevin Jack­son does not men­tion ‘The Three Provin­cial­i­ties’. This is an in­ter­est­ing omis­sion, as the es­say gives a sense of the transat­lantic bent of Eliot’s crit­i­cal think­ing at the time and helps il­lu­mi­nate The Waste Land as a text that like­wise strad­dles na­tion­al­i­ties and crosses con­texts.

In ‘The Three Provin­cial­i­ties’, Eliot char­ac­terises Amer­i­can lit­er­ary cul­ture as dom­i­nated by ‘able sec­ond or­der writ­ers’; com­plains that there has been a ‘com­plete col­lapse of lit­er­ary ef­fort’ in Eng­land; and de­spairs of the na­tional as­ser­tions of Ir­ish writ­ers, while com­mend­ing the self-be­lief of the ‘Ir­ish rad­i­cals’. At the same time, how­ever, he claims that ‘lit­er­a­ture is not pri­mar­ily a mat­ter of na­tion­al­ity, but of lan­guage’. Thus while Eliot is iden­ti­fy­ing the ‘three provin­cial­i­ties’ of English-lan­guage po­etry (Ire­land, Eng­land, and Amer­ica), he is si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­nounc­ing their de­sire for in­di­vid­u­al­ity. It is no ac­ci­dent that in ‘The Three Provin­cial­i­ties’ Eliot as­sumes his right to com­ment on Amer­i­can, English and Ir­ish cul­ture from his unique stand­point – as an Amer­i­can poet and ed­i­tor, writ­ing in Lon­don.

1922, then, can be seen not only as a ful­crum for lit­er­ary modernism, but also as a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment when Eliot’s transat­lantic in­flu­ence as ed­i­tor and poet al­lows him to dom­i­nate and shape the worlds of po­etry and pub­lish­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, the transat­lantic per­spec­tives of his work en­able him to su­per­sede the same re­straints that he iden­ti­fies within Bri­tish and Amer­ica lit­er­a­ture in par­tic­u­lar, while al­low­ing him to ben­e­fit from the op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by an ex­pand­ing and shift­ing in­tel­lec­tual An­gloAmer­i­can mar­ket.

At the same time that Eliot was pre­par­ing The Waste Land for pub­li­ca­tion, he was also pre­par­ing to re­view Ulysses for The Dial – which would ap­pear as ‘Ulysses, Or­der and Myth’ in the Novem­ber 1923 is­sue – and was writ­ing the reg­u­lar ‘Lon­don Let­ter’ for the same mag­a­zine: four of which ap­peared over the course of 1922. The Dial also an­nounced Eliot as the re­cip­i­ent of its pres­ti­gious an­nual po­etry award for 1922, in the De­cem­ber is­sue. (This, of course, was in ad­di­tion to the first Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tion of The Waste Land, in Novem­ber.) These pres­sure points are help­ful for con­tex­tu­al­is­ing The Waste Land as part of a transat­lantic net­work. As Eliot was edit­ing a Lon­don-based jour­nal, The Cri­te­rion, whose first is­sue fea­tured the first pub­li­ca­tion of The Waste Land, he also ex­erted some con­trol over that same net­work. There­fore, his con­tri­bu­tions to The Dial dur­ing 1922 make for

in­ter­est­ing read­ing.

Of course The Dial also fea­tured com­men­tary, by Eliot and oth­ers, on an­other lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­non of 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Fa­mously, Pound’s ex­ten­sive ‘Paris Let­ter’ of May 1922 – pub­lished in The Dial in June – ex­claimed boldly in favour of the novel, ar­gu­ing that ‘All men should “Unite to give praise to Ulysses”; those who will not, may con­tent them­selves with a place in the lower or­ders’. More hes­i­tantly, Eliot vows in his ‘Lon­don Let­ter’ of April 1922 to re­serve judge­ment, ar­gu­ing that it must be ‘dis­cussed apart’, and that there is ‘time enough to in­clude it here when we are able to mark its ef­fect upon Lon­don’.

The po­ten­tial im­pact of The Waste Land fol­low­ing pub­li­ca­tion later that year must have been play­ing on Eliot’s mind. This is ev­i­dent in a more ex­tended com­men­tary that he makes on Ulysses in a ‘Lon­don Let­ter’ dated Au­gust 1922, where he re­marks that: ‘Cer­tainly, great works of art do in some way mark or mod­ify an epoch, but less of­ten by the new things which they make pos­si­ble, than by the old things to which they put an end.’ He adds, ‘[s]o the in­tel­li­gent lit­er­ary as­pi­rant, study­ing Ulysses, will find it more an en­cy­clopae­dia of what he is to avoid at­tempt­ing, than of the things he may try for him­self. It is at once the ex­po­sure and the bur­lesque of that which is the per­fec­tion’. These claims re­call im­me­di­ately the en­cy­clopaedic na­ture of The Waste Land, and the sense it gives that it is per­form­ing a bal­anc­ing act be­tween irony and de­spair, con­stantly within grasp of its own demise. Clev­erly, Eliot also paves the way for his own poem by claim­ing that ‘ Ulysses is not a work which can be com­pared with any “novel”’ – there­fore im­ply­ing that his own work might do the same, but within the genre of po­etry.

It is Eliot’s ‘Lon­don Let­ters’ for The Dial from 1922, which al­low him to flex his crit­i­cal mus­cles re­gard­ing the state of English cul­ture – and to model the kinds of de­bates that his own poem would raise. These let­ters see Eliot, as an Amer­i­can-born poet an ed­i­tor liv­ing in Lon­don, com­men­tat­ing os­ten­si­bly on Lon­don cul­tural life but veer­ing off-topic fre­quently to dis­cuss Dublin, Amer­ica, Paris and else­where. In the same let­ter of 20 Jan­uary 1922

in which Eliot dis­cussed with Scofield Thayer, then Ed­i­tor of The Dial, the pos­si­bil­ity of pub­lish­ing his new poem – ‘of about 450 lines, in four parts’ – he also agreed to re­sume act­ing as Lon­don cor­re­spon­dent for the mag­a­zine. He had writ­ten four ‘Lon­don Let­ters’ in 1921, but had not been keen to con­tinue due to mount­ing work pres­sures. As Kevin Jack­son points out, Eliot’s re­place­ment as Lon­don cor­re­spon­dent, Sir John Hutchin­son, had not been suc­cess­ful; how­ever Eliot only agreed to re­sume the post if the for­mat could be changed from a book re­view or lit­er­ary impression piece to ‘a more gen­eral ru­mi­na­tion on Lon­don’. Eliot in­ter­preted ‘Lon­don’ rather loosely from then on.

The tone of Eliot’s four ‘Lon­don Let­ters’ from 1922 moves from de­s­pair­ing to disin­gen­u­ous: for ex­am­ple on re­sum­ing his role for the April let­ter, and on com­ing back to Lon­don for the first time in three months, he notes ‘the par­tic­u­lar tor­por or dead­ness which strikes a denizen of Lon­don on his re­turn’; while in the Novem­ber let­ter he claims that ‘I am quite in­ca­pable of tak­ing any in­ter­est in any lit­er­ary events in Eng­land in the last two months, if any have taken place’ ( The Waste Land had just been pub­lished in The Cri­te­rion). Mean­while, he is not be­yond sub­tle self-pro­mo­tion: in­deed in his April 1922 ‘Lon­don Let­ter’ he notes, ap­par­ently off-hand, that ‘Wyn­d­ham Lewis’s art re­view, The Tyro, has only just now ap­peared’. ‘The Three Provin­cial­i­ties’ was the open­ing es­say to that is­sue.

But at other times we see a more com­plex and crafty tone emerg­ing. For ex­am­ple the April 1922 let­ter, which builds upon a re­view of two re­cent books of po­etry from Eng­land and Amer­ica, al­lows for Eliot to pro­nounce on the state of lit­er­a­ture on both sides of the At­lantic – where ‘Both ap­pear to me con­ven­tional and timid, but in dif­fer­ent ways’. In this same let­ter Eliot ex­tends his crit­i­cism of English cul­ture to Lon­don specif­i­cally to sug­gest that while a new ‘democ­racy’ of text and thought has led uni­ver­sally to a ‘mo­ral cow­ardice’, in Lon­don ‘these poi­sons are ei­ther more per­ni­cious, or their ef­fects more man­i­fest, than else­where’. ‘Other cities’, Eliot con­tin­ues, ‘ex­tend a rich odour of pu­tre­fac­tion; Lon­don merely shriv­els, like a lit­tle book­keeper grown old’. We can­not help but think of Tire­sias, the ‘old man with wrin­kled dugs’, who ‘per­ceived the scene’ of the dispir­it­ing en­counter

be­tween the agent’s clerk (‘the young man car­bun­cu­lar’) and the typ­ist in The Waste Land.

The trou­bling pol­i­tics of such scenes are par­al­leled in Eliot’s Novem­ber let­ter, where he im­plies that a lack of en­nobling cul­tural icons for the ‘lower classes’ will lead to fur­ther mo­ral degra­da­tion. In this let­ter, con­cerned os­ten­si­bly with the re­cent death of mu­sic-hall icon Marie Lloyd (1870–1922), Eliot de­spairs that the ‘lower classes’ have lost their idol, and in­stead will turn to the cinema for com­fort (Eliot notes that Lloyd ‘never de­scended to this form of money-mak­ing’ in or­der to make a liv­ing). Eliot de­ploys eu­geni­cist (mixed) metaphor to make his point, to the largely mid­dle-class, cos­mopoli­tan au­di­ence of The Dial:

The lower classes still ex­ist; but per­haps they will not ex­ist for long. In the mu­sic-hall co­me­di­ans they find the artis­tic ex­pres­sion and dig­nity of their own lives; and this is not found for any life in the most elab­o­rate and ex­pen­sive re­vue. In Eng­land, at any rate, the re­vue ex­presses al­most noth­ing. With the dwin­dling of the mu­sichall, by the en­cour­age­ment of the cheap and rapid-breed­ing cinema, the lower classes will tend to drop into the same state of amor­phous pro­to­plasm as the bour­geoisie.

Eliot’s dis­taste for the cinema is in­ter­est­ing within the con­text of 1922. As Kevin Jack­son points out through­out Con­stel­la­tion of Ge­nius, 1922 was ‘a re­mark­able year for the cinema’, as many films were made on both sides of the At­lantic, Char­lie Chap­lin grad­u­ated from short films to di­rect his first fea­ture, and Hol­ly­wood was be­set by scan­dals. For Eliot, how­ever, the lazi­ness that cinema en­cour­ages – where­upon the ‘mind’ of the cin­ema­goer ‘is lulled by con­tin­u­ous sense­less mu­sic and con­tin­u­ous ac­tion too rapid for his brain to act upon’– will en­cour­age only ‘list­less ap­a­thy’. By the end of this par­tic­u­lar let­ter, in­deed, he claims that he is quite ‘in­ca­pable’ of com­ment­ing fur­ther on English cul­tural events.

Eliot must have found the strength some­where, though. At the same time as he was com­pos­ing this fi­nal ‘Lon­don Let­ter’ for The Dial (the last that he would write for the mag­a­zine), he man­aged to put to­gether the first vol­ume of The Cri­te­rion. Yet it is in­dica­tive of his present mood that the first num­ber of his own jour­nal (Oc­to­ber 1922) – the num­ber that con­tains the first pub­li­ca­tion of The Waste Land – opens with an es­say on ‘Dull­ness’ by Ge­orge Saints­bury. In ‘Dull­ness’ Saints­bury an­nounces his in­ten­tion from the be­gin­ning ‘to say a lit­tle of the qual­ity, or qual­i­ties, real or imag­i­nary’, which may ‘pro­voke’ ‘the ver­dict “Dull” on works of lit­er­a­ture’. The writer de­fends his de­ci­sion to ap­ply this ‘de­grad­ing ep­i­thet’ to ‘the present time’ in par­tic­u­lar, thanks not nec­es­sar­ily to the qual­ity of ma­te­rial be­ing pro­duced, but to the ‘mod­ern’ mind’s in­abil­ity to en­joy any­thing at more than a lazy level. As dull­ness begets dull­ness, it is ren­dered in­ca­pable of recog­nis­ing any­thing else. What, then, for The Waste Land, fit­ting snugly in the mid­dle of this is­sue, with its ex­tra­or­di­nary aes­theti­ciz­ing – and per­haps even fetishiz­ing – of the ‘dull­ness’ that Saints­bury iden­ti­fies?

The piece that con­cludes this num­ber of The Cri­te­rion – ‘The “Ulysses” of James Joyce’ by the French writer Valéry Lar­baud – again im­plies a kind of hi­er­ar­chy of read­ers:

The reader who ap­proaches this book with­out the Odyssey clearly in mind will be thrown into dis­may. I re­fer, of course, to the cul­ti­vated reader who can fully ap­pre­ci­ate such au­thors as Ra­belais, Mon­taigne, and Descartes; for the un­cul­ti­vated or half-cul­ti­vated reader will throw Ulysses aside af­ter the first three pages.

Dur­ing a lengthy pas­sage dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the ‘un­cul­ti­vated’ reader of Ulysses and the ‘cul­ti­vated’ one – in which it all be­comes ‘too dif­fi­cult’ for the lat­ter – Lar­baud con­cludes even­tu­ally that these read­ers’ rel­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences of dull­ness ren­der them not dis­sim­i­lar:

The only dis­tinc­tion be­tween him and the cul­ti­vated reader is that for him the Odyssey is not ma­jes­tic and pompous, but sim­ply

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.