T.S. Eliot is remembered variably as a poet, a husband, a critic, an anti-Semite, an expatriate, a breast pocket companion turned App; the list goes on. He was born September 26, 1888, and we remember him today as one—if not the—unmistakable voice of twentieth-century poetry.
Yale University Press has just published the long-awaited first two volumes of T.S. Eliot’s letters, (Okay, a technical note: the first volume now includes completely new material from its original 1988 publication, and the second is new to US audiences.) spanning 1898-1925 of the young poet’s life, and edited by his widow, Valerie Eliot, and Hugh Haughton of the University of York. To some, publishing letters and correspondence might seem an unwanted revelation of private life, but as James Longenbach writes in The Nation: “he fulfilled and decimated [his family’s] expectations, constructing a life that allowed his family to admire his achievement only inasmuch as they were also bewildered, incapable of helping themselves to the side dish of self-congratulation that usually accompanies the main course of familial pride,” and, Longenbach notes, it was no different with the scores of readers that Eliot attracted.
Nearly 3,000 of his letters are included in Volumes 1 and 2, and, in his own words, they tell the stories that surround the sheer force of language delivered in his poetry; from his travels throughout America, Britain, and Germany to his correspondence with editors and writers—F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, to name a few—who were or were to become the defining artists of their age. We would not know the shape of Modernist thought without him, now accessible through that very same complex language and thinking that continues to puzzle the world today in our search for shantih, shantih, shantih.