T.S. Eliot’s American childhood

Even now, if you were to ask readers to name the 20th century’s greatest poem, at least among those written in English, the answer would almost certainly be T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922). “April is the cruellest month” — what college student (or taxpayer) hasn’t, at this time of year, ruefully murmured its opening words? If Eliot’s haunting melange of quotation, lugubrious reflections on life and love, and achingly beautiful word-music has any serious rival for modern poetry’s Number One spot it would probably be his own later, almost liturgical “Four Quartets” (1943). (I myself prefer it.) No doubt a few fans might even opt for the same poet’s youthful masterpiece of erotic dithering, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917): “I have heard the mermaids singing each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me.”

While Eliot’s poems continue to be greatly loved, their author himself is another matter. As Robert Crawford notes in the introductory pages of “Young Eliot” — which tracks in enthralling, exhaustive detail the poet’s life up to the book publication of “The Waste Land” — Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) has since his death become nearly as controversial a figure as his friend Ezra Pound. He’s been labeled anti-Semitic and elitist, as well as a religious nut, an abusive husband, a cuckold and a prig. Some of these accusations are, at least partly, true: “How unpleasant to know Mr. Eliot!” as he himself once wrote. And yet the same man could be wholly admirable — generous, loyal, immensely kind.

Earlier biographies — the best is Lyndall Gordon’s — have somewhat scanted Eliot’s American childhood and youth, which is one reason why this new book is so valuable. It is magisterial in its minutiae. It covers the poet’s family life in St. Louis and his summer holidays in Gloucester, Mass., his early schooling and reading, the years at Harvard and his bittersweet love for Emily Hale, literally the girl he left behind when he moved to England. To humanize a figure often (wrongly) regarded as coldly marmoreal, Crawford calls his subject “Tom” throughout. He also promises a second volume sometime after Hale’s letters become available to scholars in 2020.

While proffering a steady flurry of names, facts and occasional trivialities, Crawford nearly always relates his discoveries to the poetry, at times quite subtly, as when he notes that Eliot’s sister Margaret was sensitive to the sound of thunder (the last section of “The Waste Land,” titled “What the Thunder Said”). In these pages, you will learn that a Mr. Prufrock owned a St. Louis furniture store and a Dr. Sweany advertised tonics to increase male energy and vigor. No possible connection to Eliot’s published work, however faint or distant, goes unnoticed.

But Crawford, who is a professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St. Andrews, also interweaves several ongoing themes. Eliot grew up the scion of a distinguished family of preachers, educators and wealthy businessmen (his father owned a brick factory). As the youngest of six surviving children, Tom was distinctly cosseted, especially by his doting mother (who wrote poetry). The reserved, physically delicate boy — he was born with a double hernia and needed to wear a truss; children mocked his big ears — never played sports and seems to have had almost no close friends. Instead he began to scribble at an early age, producing a family magazine of his own stories and jokes: “Eat Quaker Oats” was reworked into “Eat Quaker Cats,” with a feline sketch. (Crawford expects the reader to remember that Eliot later produced the Edward Learish “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the basis for the musical “Cats.”)

While Eliot always maintained that he had a happy childhood, by adolescence this sheltered Little Lord Fauntleroy existence began to chafe. His social relations — especially with girls — suffered because of his shyness and acute anxiety about his body image. Despite surprisingly mediocre grades, he was nonetheless admitted to Harvard as a kind of legacy student — and nearly flunked out as a freshman. Away from home, he loafed, frequented music halls, joined dining clubs and secret societies. The more polite of his youthful verses appeared in student publications; the ribald and offensive ones — with rhymes ending in “unt” and “ugger” — their virginal author reserved for the private delectation of frat-boy hearties he wished to impress. (All this juvenilia can now be yours in a collection titled “Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917.”)

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