Young Eliot marks both a milestone and a turning point. First, it coincides with the 50th anniversary of his death. Old Possum still dominates Parnassus as the greatest English or American poet of the last century, an achievement that adds to the impossible grandeur of Eliot’s artistic posterity. The maintenance of this reputation has been the self-motivated duty of the poet’s estate, represented by his second wife, Valerie, a heady cocktail of Ophelia and Mistress Quickly with a splash of White Witch, the archetype of the literary widow.
Which brings us to the turning point. Since Valerie Eliot’s death in November 2012, there has been a great thaw in Narnia. Once upon a time, there could never be an authorised life, not even by the late Richard Ellmann. Now the estate has bestowed its blessing on his protege, Robert Crawford, a seasoned Eliot scholar.
This passport to Eldorado offers less of a bonanza than expected. Eliot’s suppression of his own biography was ruthless. Between 1905, for instance, and the winter of 1910, just one postcard survives. Letters to his parents and almost all his correspondence with his first wife were also destroyed. Crawford has not been cowed by this Great Repression. Indeed, he rebukes Eliot’s ghost. Biography, he challenges, makes “an artistic narrative that averts caricature and illuminates both poet and poetry”.
Previous unauthorised biographers, frozen out by the estate, were forced to cover these crucial first 21 years in about 21 pages. Crawford, by contrast, has dug deep, excavating Eliot’s life, from childhood in the ragtime city of St Louis, to The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, to the 1922 publication of The Waste Land.
The estate, having taken a chance on a poet known for his life of Burns, will be delighted with its experiment. Despite misguidedly naming its subject “Tom” throughout, Young Eliot is judicious, sympathetic, meticulous and sometimes plodding, but it can hardly fail. The story it tells of a great poet’s early life is enthralling.
Crawford’s portrait of the midwesterner who left home at the first opportunity, defied his parents, and committed himself to an English exile during the great war, reveals a shy, brilliant and deeply wounded young man, tormented by a prolonged struggle to reconcile his public and private face. The upshot was a kind of premature senescence, in which he became “Old Possum”, the “pope of Russell Square”, and (for Ted Hughes) “the Guru-in-Chief”.
“I grow old, I grow old…” From Prufrock’s first appearance, Eliot was always putting his youth behind him. He was, as Crawford says, “never young” but disguised a mischievous youthfulness, the “Tom” that Valerie championed. Born in 1888, the same year as Raymond Chandler, his childhood was shaped by three handicaps: elderly parents, a posh pedigree, and a truss.
Henry (Hal) and Charlotte (Lottie) Eliot, both 45 at their son’s birth, were minor American aristocracy with family connections to Melville, Hawthorne and president John Adams. Lottie was a frustrated poet and antisemite with, in her own words, “an instinctive antipathy to Jews”. Hal was a high-minded, cold and repressive businessman for whom syphilis was “God’s punishment” and sex a “nastiness”.
Adored by his parents, and embarrassed by his sticking-out ears, young Eliot had another reason to feel singular. Born with a congenital double hernia, he wore a truss from childhood. With his masculinity cosseted and his natural shyness nurtured by Lottie’s “mother-love”, but blessed with an extraordinary ear for the music of words, the boy took refuge in books and writers, with a special fondness for Conan Doyle. Throughout this early life, there are also some covert intimations of homosexuality which Crawford grapples with sporadically. He also cordons off that other, notorious parental legacy – Eliot’s antisemitism – as part of his “early conditioning”.
With such antecedents, it’s no surprise that, consciously or not, the boy should rebel and then break loose. Adolescent transgression came in the form of his bawdy King Bolo and Columbo poems. Once his Harvard career was over, Eliot was crossing to Paris, Germany and England.
Eliot’s “Oxford year” (1914-15) is decisive. It’s now that he encounters Ezra Pound. Soon after, perhaps betrayed by his “genius for dancing”, he met and married his first wife, Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood. This self-inflicted wound, by Crawford’s account, holds the key to The Waste Land and also to the ageing of TS Eliot. “All I wanted of Vivien,” he later wrote, cruelly, “was a flirtation.” He persuaded himself he was in love, “because I wanted to burn my boats” and stay in England with Pound.
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