Eliot's Dangerous Art

Eliot's Dangerous Art

Was T. S. Eliot anti-Semitic? The question still rages fiercely, as does the debate over its consequences.

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“Burbank with a Baedeker, Eliot with a Cigar:
American Intellectuals, Anti-Semitism, and the Idea of Culture” by
Ronald Schuchard, with responses by David Bromwich and others, in
class="text31">Modernism/Modernity (Jan.
2003), The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md.,

Was T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) an anti-Semite? The
modernist poet and critic, author of “The Waste Land” (1922)
and other seminal works, has been attacked for employing seemingly
anti-Semitic language, especially in a group of poems written during the
period immediately following World War I. Consider these lines from
“Burbank with a Baedeker” (1920): “The rats are
underneath the piles./ The jew is underneath the lot.” The debate
over Eliot has recently heated up again, and some academics now even refuse
to teach his work in their courses.

Schuchard, an English professor at Emory University,
argues that the poet’s own complex views regarding religion help to
explain the controversial passages. A recently uncovered 33-year
correspondence with Amer­ican intellectual and Zionist Horace Kallen
reinforces the view that Eliot was no bigot. In the “sustained and
cordial dialogue between Eliot the conservative, believing Christian and
Kallen the liberal, freethinking Jew,” Kallen often asked Eliot to
intercede on behalf of certain European Jews who were fleeing Nazi
persecution. In every case the poet responded vigorously, using his
influence to secure a position for economist Adolph Löwe at the New
School for Social Research in New
York City, for
instance, and also befriending sociologist Karl Mann­heim and
introducing him to other academics in London. Eliot counted many Jews among
his friends, including such luminaries as Supreme Court justice Benjamin
Cardozo, and, unlikely as it seems, the comedian Groucho Marx.
Eliot’s detractors point to his friendships with known
anti-Semites—Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, among others.

Schuchard says that during the time that Eliot was
writing the troubling poems he was also preparing to join the Church of
England, converting from the Unitarianism of his youth, which he detested
because of its humanistic separation from traditional Christianity. In
fact, says Schuchard, Eliot
admired class="text28"> the Hebrew faith for its grounding in ancient
tradition. Deeply affected by the horrors of the Great War and immersed in
the difficult creative process that would lead to “The Waste
Land,” with its vision of the disintegration of Western culture and
society, Eliot frequently employed Jewish characters in his poems,
according to Schuchard, as a metaphorical device, to represent the decay of
tradition. That was effective, but it made for dangerous art, and
Eliot’s critics recoil at some of the imagery he used. In
“Gerontion” (1920), for instance, a Jew “squats on the
window sill,” his skin “patched and peeled” by a
loathsome disease.

Equally damning, in the critics’ view, is a
published remark from 1933, when Eliot declared that “reasons of race
and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews
undesirable.” Schuchard counters that, to the archconservative Eliot,
freethinking intellectuals of
any class="text28"> stripe were anathema. Eliot later retracted the word class="text57">race. (He also claimed ignorance
of the persecutions that were already under way in Nazi Germany, and
Schuchard, relying on several recent studies of newspaper accounts of the
time, says that is completely plausible.)

The invited commentators mostly remain unconvinced by
Schuchard’s arguments. The milder voices, such as University of
Rochester English professor James Longenbach, allow that
“Eliot’s poems are powerful because their language invites us
to call him a bigot.” But Anthony Julius, author of
class="text57">T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form class="text28"> (1995), says that “critics who excuse Eliot’s
anti-Semitism, or worse, pretend that it does not exist, merely carry on
his own work of contempt toward Jews.” The "text57">Modern­ism/Modernity debate
concludes on a wistful note, with Schuchard’s hope that future
discoveries on the scale of the Eliot-Kallen correspondence might shed new
light on Eliot’s personal views. Until then, the truth about his
beliefs may remain as elusive as the meaning of some of his poetry.

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