T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism is back in the news. Over recent months there has been a spate of articles, first in Britain and then in the United States, prompted by the appearance of a new book, Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form.1 Some of these articles—for such are the ways of journalism—have presented the subject as though it were a revelation; but for many of Eliot’s readers it is, of course, an old story, one they have been living with for a long time. Reading Julius and his reviewers, I found my own thoughts turning inescapably personal, reflection giving way to recollection.

I first discovered Eliot in 1950, when I was fifteen. Not a particularly daring discovery, it might be said—after all, he had already won the Nobel Prize, and the great works on which his reputation still rests, from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) to Four Quartets (1943), had long since achieved their positions of renown. But the school I attended in London had an old-fashioned approach to literature, and he was not yet on the curriculum. In addition to his other charms he had the attraction of being an “unofficial” author, someone you had to explore under your own steam.

Fascinated by the poems I had already come across in anthologies, I moved on to his collected works. When I did, the anti-Semitic streak was one of the first things that struck me: the (lower-case) “jew” squatting on the window sill (“Gerontion”); the (lower-case) “jew” who was “underneath the lot” (“Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar”); Rachel, “née Rabinovich,” tearing at grapes “with murderous paws” (“Sweeney Among the Nightingales”)—how could one fail to notice such things? That they were anti-Semitic, and nasty, I never doubted. But I was also content to think of them as no more than blemishes. They did not deflect me from my admiration for Eliot as a whole, or indeed from my general admiration for the poems in which they appeared. And if I am to be honest, I was as much intrigued as affronted. Here was something different—anti-Semitism with a smart new twist.

Or perhaps I was more shaken than I was willing to admit, since soon afterward I felt impelled to mention the subject to my father. I am not sure whether he had ever heard of Eliot. Having come to England from Poland at the age of fourteen, he had had little opportunity to develop a taste for English poetry; as a hard-working doctor in a poor neighborhood, he devoted most of his limited reading time to his Jewish interests and to current politics. But he greatly respected the idea of literature, and it seemed entirely natural that I should tell him about my new enthusiasm. What was less predictable was that I should also feel it necessary to let him know about the anti-Semitism.

When I had had my say, either quoting or paraphrasing some offending lines, my father’s only comment was: “T.S. Eliot may be a great poet, but he isn’t greater than the Jewish people.” I was very struck by this—not so much by the sentiment as by the manner in which it was expressed, very different from his normally easygoing, non-rhetorical style. He was perfectly calm, but it was obvious he had been upset.

We let the subject drop. But I felt bad about it, and a couple of weeks later, as a tacit peace-offering, I read him W.H. Auden’s philo-Semitic poem from the 30’s, “Refugee Blues.” His first reaction was rather tetchy. Why were German Jews the only ones Auden mentions? What about other Jews? What about (by implication) Jews from Eastern Europe? When, however, I explained that the poem had been written before the war, he agreed that this was an unreasonable objection. Yes, Auden was clearly a good thing, and meanwhile I had established my general point that there was no necessary connection between modern poetry and obnoxious opinions.

The incident, or so it seemed, was closed. A few more weeks went by. And then one day he suddenly remarked, with nothing in particular to prompt him, “You know, T.S. Eliot would be very interested in a man like Abramsky.”

This was serious. Yehezkel Abramsky was the most renowned talmudic scholar in London—the only one (as far as I know) for whom my father felt the kind of unreserved respect he would have felt for the great masters back in Eastern Europe. Abramsky was the standard by which others were judged.

My response was a mild sense of helplessness. I found the idea of Eliot’s getting to know Abramsky so improbable that I wanted to smile; I found it hard to believe that he would have taken much interest in him if he had. That was not the way things worked. At the same time, the remark suggested that my father had been more disturbed than I realized—and that he still was.

In terms of the culture in which he had grown up, Abramsky represented Authority; now, looking back, I think he had intuited that for me Eliot represented Authority, too. In putting forward Abramsky’s name, he was not necessarily trying to pit one Authority against another: he no doubt hoped that somehow, somewhere, the two could be reconciled. But the anti-Semitism which he might have regarded as a routine hazard in another writer was much more troubling in an author whom I gave the impression of looking up to as a lawgiver, a permanent point of reference.

_____________

 

I cannot recall our ever speaking about Eliot again, and possibly my father forgot the whole business. He was not notably thin-skinned about such matters: he had enjoyed reading G.K. Chesterton, for instance, and certainly did not need to be told about his anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, though, my own fascination with Eliot continued, to be reinforced in college during the very years—the mid-50’s—when Eliot’s influence was at its most pervasive.

Naturally I did not forget about the anti-Semitism—on the contrary, I tried to find out more about it—but once again, if I am to be honest, any indignation I felt was tempered by curiosity and the pleasures of detective work. I can still remember the thrill I felt walking through a street not far from the church of St. Magnus Martyr (so memorably invoked in The Waste Land) and noticing an old office nameplate bearing an unusual name—“Bleistein.” My one original contribution to Eliot scholarship; like a lot of the minor research he has attracted, what it primarily offered was the satisfaction of picking up a clue in a literary game.

The main reason I was not deeply bothered by the anti-Semitic passages is that there was so much else in Eliot. Vivid and unignorable though the references were, they represented a relatively small aspect of his work. It helped, too, that I was never particularly drawn to Eliot as a social thinker, a side of him that was mostly revealed in his prose rather than in poetry. In the first flush of schoolboy enthusiasm, I had read Notes Toward a Definition of Culture, which had appeared only a couple of years before, and it had struck me as pretty dull: if I wanted expositions of conservative philosophy or disquisitions on cultural decline, I could find more exciting examples elsewhere. No, the authority which he exercised was essentially literary. And even here, while his work may have colored my picture of the world in ways I did not altogether realize, the note to which I responded most strongly had very little to do with ideology or doctrine. That note, despite Eliot’s own notorious insistence on poetic impersonality, was the note of romantic longing—the note of the hyacinth girl in The Waste Land (1922), of the drowning Prufrock, of “the waste sad time” in Four Quartets, “stretching before and after.”

But I do not want to suggest that my attitude toward the offending passages was simply one of resignation. Every so often a feeling of anger would flare up; every so often I would look at them as though for the first time, and be aghast. I can even recall suddenly becoming annoyed with, of all things, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: here was a work first published in 1939, on the eve of Hitler’s war, and it was all so . . . cozy. On another occasion I was rereading “Burbank with a Baedeker”—

The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs . . .

—when it occurred to me (I had never made the connection before) that many of my mother’s family happened to be furriers. What was I doing with this miserable stuff?

It would have been much easier if there had been some public discussion of the issue, some acknowledgment of a problem. Instead, there was silence. When I began looking for guidance, the first extended accounts of Eliot’s work I read—there was not much else available—were EO. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T.S. Eliot (1935), and the relevant chapters in Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle (1921) and F.R. Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry (1932). I made allowances for the fact that all three books had been published before World War II, two of them before 1933; even so, I was surprised at what I found. Matthiessen and Leavis discuss the offending poems but have nothing to say about their anti-Semitic aspect. Wilson, discussing “Burbank with a Baedeker,” mentions that one of the protagonists is “a vulgar Austrian Jew,” but that hardly seems an adequate way to sum up the ferocities visited upon Bleistein (an American Jew, by the way—“Chicago Semite Viennese”—as well as an Austrian one), or the extent to which the poem seems to be aimed at Jews in general, or indeed the presence in it of a second undesirable Jew, Sir Ferdinand Klein.

An exhaustive trawl through the first 20 or 30 years of Eliot criticism would no doubt reveal scattered objections to his anti-Semitism, but I do not believe the books I read were unrepresentative. Another book available in 1950, but which I did not know of at the time, was T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique, edited by Leonard Ungar. First published in 1948, it consists of over 30 essays or extracts from longer studies by distinguished writers ranging from Cleanth Brooks to Mario Praz, from E.M. Forster to Harold Laski. Here, too, comment on the anti-Semitic passages is (to modern eyes) conspicuous by its absence.

I can understand—up to a point—why early writers on Eliot avoided the subject. They were still engaged in fighting the battles of modernism; their minds were on other things. But after World War II, the silence began to seem positively eerie, and although a number of writers touched on the problem toward the end of the 1940’s, most notably in the columns of COMMENTARY,2 there-was very little follow-up. During the 5 0’s, mainstream commentators on Eliot still had virtually nothing to say—or on occasion, less than nothing. In one influential study, TS. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays (1956), Grover Smith remarks jauntily that “the question whether ‘Burbank with a Baedeker’ [is] anti-Semitic is obviously not a pressing one”; it suffices, Smith adds, that the poem is “in execrable taste.”

_____________

 

In the 1960’s all this began to change. As critics turned their attention (mostly unfavorable) to Eliot’s highly conservative politics, the question of anti-Semitism inevitably came under the spotlight—and there it has remained. During the past 30 years, articles and sections of books have been devoted to it; it has been aired in the press; passing references to it in literary and historical works have become commonplace.

The treatment Eliot has received in this respect is hardly unique: we live in an age in which the work of any writer is liable to be closely scrutinized for traces of racism, sexism, or other alleged derelictions. In many cases, such scrutiny is excessive and misplaced; but in Eliot’s case, given both his stature and the intensity of the “traces,” it is well justified.

Since 1971, moreover, the record has looked somewhat darker than it did before. In that year the poet’s widow Valerie published the original draft of The Waste Land, together with a number of drafts of previously unpublished shorter poems. One of them, “Dirge” (probably written in 1921), reintroduces the character of Bleistein. Here he has been drowned; he lies “lower than the wharf rats dive”; he is once again identified as a (lower-case) “jew”; and his face has been horribly mutilated by sea creatures. It is a vile poem, even worse than one might have guessed from the worst things Eliot chose to publish.

Still, in view of all that has been written about the subject, is an entire book on it really called for? How much more can be said about an issue which ultimately revolves around a half-dozen brief passages of verse and a few fairly obscure passages of prose? The answer that emerges from Anthony Julius’s book is: a great deal. Those passages have far-reaching implications; they can only be fully understood in their historical context; the whole topic bristles with complexities; and Julius needs every inch of his space to do them justice.

Julius is a lawyer—his book has attracted a good deal of fortuitous publicity on account of the fact that he also happens to have represented Princess Diana in her divorce—and he bears the unmistakable stamp of his trade. Occasionally you feel that his approach is a bit too forensic: a point is rammed home too hard, an argument is couched in excessively cut-and-dried terms, the jury is bombarded with more evidence than it needs. At the same time, however, he shows the instincts of a critic no less than those of a lawyer, and he is never in serious danger of confusing a literary verdict with a legal one. At the heart of his case, indeed, are a recognition that the works in which the anti-Semitic passages occur have their poetic power (how much simpler life would be if they did not), and an insistence that Eliot’s anti-Semitic imaginings cannot be cordoned off from his work as a whole. The verdict he finally asks for is “Guilty as charged, alas.”

_____________

 

There are many instances of anti-Semitism in literature that seem to me best forgotten, and many others that do not warrant more than a footnote. If, in Eliot’s case, a guilty verdict still seems called for, it is largely on account of his failure to make amends—and here Julius is at his strongest.

The anti-Semitic passages in the poetry were written in the years 1913-21, when Eliot was in his early thirties. It was a period in which the excesses to which anti-Semitism could lead were perfectly apparent; anyone with eyes to see had only to read a decent newspaper to learn about the terrible atrocities then being committed in the Ukraine. Nor is it possible to dismiss the passages as examples of mere “drawing-room” anti-Semitism: they are far too ferocious and extreme for that.

Still, we can concede that 1913-21 was not 1933-45. Those years marked a decisive turning point, when what might previously have been shrugged off suddenly took on a far more sinister look. It is instructive to compare Eliot at this point with a gifted lesser writer, John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and other classic modern thrillers. At around the time Eliot was dreaming up Bleistein, Buchan was also putting a number of sharply anti-Semitic references into his books; but after the Nazis came to power, he was quick to denounce their persecutions of Jews. In the spring of 1934, for example, he addressed a mass rally in London’s East End at which he spoke of the “centuries of cruelty and wrong” which Jews had endured. This may not entirely have put paid to the problem raised by his earlier utterances, but it is bound to modify our feelings about them; and we would surely take a much more lenient view of Eliot’s earlier offenses if he had later spoken out in the same spirit.

What happened was very different. In 1933, Eliot delivered a series of lectures at the University of Virginia, published the following year under the title After Strange Gods. In the course of them, he dwelled on the virtues of a homogeneous, stable, highly traditional social order, and added that for those who sought to realize such an ideal, “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

The most that can be said in mitigation of this remark (it is not very much) is that at the time, Eliot may not have registered the full scale of what was happening in Germany. Possibly he began to regret his words soon after they were published, and possibly this was one of the reasons he allowed After Strange Gods to go out of print. But the remark was still part of the record, and as the 193 O’s wore on, it stood more in need of redress than ever. So did the anti-Semitic passages in the poems.

If Eliot had wanted to let the world know his feelings had changed, he had a platform ready to hand in the Criterion, the periodical he had edited since 1922. Instead, he maintained a discreet reserve, with one significant exception. In July 1936, the Criterion carried a hostile review of The Yellow Spot, a survey of the persecution of German Jews. The work itself was thorough and well-documented: much of the sickening detail it contained was drawn from the Nazis’ own publications. But the Criterion review, which was unsigned, was a little horror: in Julius’s words, it “crawls with impatient distaste, willfully refusing to do its subject justice.” Christopher Ricks, whose TS. Eliot and Prejudice (1988) is far and away the most subtle and closely-reasoned attempt to defend him where he is defensible, sums it up in a word as “shameful.”

Like previous commentators, Julius was at first inclined to believe that the anonymous reviewer was Eliot himself. Recently, however, Valerie Eliot has revealed that according to the financial files of the Criterion, the piece was the work of a minor contributor to the magazine, Montgomery Belgion. That Eliot did not write it affords a certain relief. But as editor—and the magazine was very much his bailiwick—he must still bear responsibility for publishing it.

There is one aspect of the story which Julius ignores: the extent to which Eliot’s attitudes put him at odds with his own Church. The point seems to me all the more worth stressing in the light of some of the responses Julius’s book has received. In a lengthy review in the New Republic (July 15), for example, the critic James Wood, while far from denying that Eliot was an anti-Semite, argues that the central fact about him—the central fact from the late 192 O’s, at least—was his religion. Once he had become a believing Christian, anything he wrote or failed to write about the Jews, like everything else he wrote or failed to write, was (according to Wood) shaped by his belief that “whatever was outside the Christian Church was heretical and, literally, deadly.”

Eliot was received into the Church of England in 1928. Five years later, that church found itself facing the challenge of fascism and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The record of its response, which has been studied by the historian Andrew Chandler,3 is inevitably rather complicated. There was a good deal of fumbling and uncertainty; some Church leaders were unduly cautious, or not very good at getting their point across. But there can be no question that most of them were appalled by what they learned. The Archbishop of Canterbury denounced Nazi oppression in the House of Lords and in the columns of the Times; the church’s general assembly passed a celebrated motion of condemnation; there were many other protests and attempts to influence public opinion. Indeed, one of the most vigorous champions of the persecuted German Jews was Hensley Henson, the Bishop of Durham, who wrote a preface to The Yellow Spot (to be duly rewarded in Belgion’s review by a sneer about the book’s appearing “with a cathedratic blessing”).

Against this background, Eliot stands out as an extremist, almost an eccentric. A few Anglicans no doubt agreed with him, but they were as out of tune as he was with the predominant traditions and convictions of the English church. I do not know whether Bishop Henson ever saw the review of The Yellow Spot; if he did, I feel sure he would have found it profoundly un-Christian.

Julius’s final chapter is a scrupulous examination of the occasions in Eliot’s later years when he was either asked to explain his earlier attitudes or felt moved to revise them. On the whole it makes for dispiriting reading. A certain mellowing can be discerned, and there are some conciliatory gestures, but the chief impression is one of embarrassment. Sometimes you even wonder whether Eliot understood quite what was at stake, though his defensiveness suggests that he probably did. One section of the final chapter is entitled “Denials and Evasions,” another “Insensitivities.” Julius refuses to allow us the satisfaction of a happy ending.

_____________

 

The reception accorded TS. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form would make a small study in itself. A number of responses have been understandably pained or hostile, although none of the rejoinders I have seen has succeeded in tackling the issues head-on. But Julius has also been widely praised, and sometimes by writers with their own axes to grind. In Britain, the left-wing poet and critic Tom Paulin used the book to launch a general campaign against Eliot, and the poet James Fenton took up the cry with a much-publicized lecture at Oxford in which he asked why we should not describe Eliot as a “scoundrel.” A writer in the Guardian newspaper expressed his pleasure at seeing Eliot get “a real duffing-up.”

Reactions of this kind are to be expected in 1996, and there is almost certainly more to come: the lesser brigades of political correctness are lying in wait. It is hard not to feel exasperated by them, especially when one knows how one-sided the rules are: it must be a long time since anyone on the Guardian recommended a real duffing-up of Bertolt Brecht. Still, two wrongs do not make a right, and the Eliot problem remains.

Is it, in the end, as large a problem as Julius makes out? For all his determination to maintain a balance, there are a number of points at which he is led to overstate his case. When he writes, for example, that “Eliot had the imagination of an anti-Semite to the highest degree,” I do not altogether demur; but I think it important to add that it was a form of imagination which he did not exercise very often, and that he by no means possessed it to the most prolonged degree, or to the most obsessive. Again, when Julius proceeds to argue, in the same passage, that “anti-Semitism did not disfigure Eliot’s work, it animated it,” I know what he means, but I still feel moved to ask, how much of it did it animate, and to what extent? Here, as at other places in the book, Julius’s readers could easily be left with the impression that anti-Semitism played a more central—more animating—role in Eliot’s work than it did.

_____________

 

Eliot had many other preoccupations, and displayed many other forms of imagination. After prolonged exposure to the worst side of him, it is worth standing back for a moment to remind ourselves that “Prufrock” initiated a revolution in sensibility as great as any in English poetry since the era of the Romantics, and that The Waste Land and Four Quartets come as close to being undisputed classics as the 20th century can show. As for his critical essays, especially on 17th-century poetry, they effectively redrew the map of literary history. And none of this work contains a single expression of anti-Semitic sentiment. If it were all we knew of him, the question would never arise.

For a poet for whom anti-Semitism really was a central concern, one has only to turn to Ezra Pound—who, incidentally, was dissatisfied even with After Strange Gods: he wrote of it that “Eliot had not come through uncontaminated by the Jewish poison.” Reading Julius, I was reminded more than once, and mainly by way of contrast, of Robert Casillo’s admirable study of Pound’s fascism and anti-Semitism, The Genealogy of Demons (1988). There seems almost no limit to the ghastly stuff Casillo dredges up. Julius, on the other hand, is forced to work his relevant texts hard. He makes them yield a great deal, but you feel he needs more of them.

None of this renders his book any the less valuable. Future writers on Eliot, if they are to do their job properly, will have to absorb its lessons; future readers will be grateful that it illumines a murky but important area with so much skill. It is just that its subject-matter should not be allowed to overshadow everything else Eliot wrote.

1 Cambridge, 308 pp., $49.95.

2 See, for example, Milton Hindus, “F. Scott Fitzgerald and Literary Anti-Semitism” (June 1947); Leslie Fiedler, “What Can We Do About Fagin?” (May 1949); and some of the contributors to the symposium, “The Jewish Writer and English Literary Tradition” (September and October 1949).

3 “The Church of England and the Jews of Germany, 1933-1937,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, 1993.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link