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
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