What was left out

Lawrence Rainey

  • The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. I: 1898-1922 edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
    Faber, 871 pp, £35.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23509 4

The final letter in the first edition of the first volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters, edited by Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife, and published in 1988, appeared on page 618; the same letter in the new edition concludes on page 816. Yet those figures may understate the extent of the transformation achieved by the new edition. The earlier edition contained 509 letters by T.S. Eliot, 37 by his first wife, Vivien, and 40 by various others. The new edition adds 195 more letters by Eliot, another 27 by Vivien and 33 others. In total, then, it prints 255 new letters.

But the new edition does more than add bulk, it also makes crucial corrections. Consider one example, an important letter from Ezra Pound that makes extensive comments on a quasi-final version of The Waste Land, and is dated ‘24 Saturnus’, invoking a playful calendar he had invented for the new era marked by the completion of Joyce’s Ulysses. In 1950, D.D. Paige, the editor of Pound’s Selected Letters, mistakenly translated the date as 24 December. His error was noted by Hugh Kenner in 1973, but his correction escaped Valerie Eliot’s attention, and she repeated the mistaken date in the first edition of 1988. Only now is the letter finally assigned to 24 January 1922. Corrections to the dates of subsequent letters are also duly made. One more example: a letter to Robert McAlmon that was mistakenly assigned to 2 May 1921 in the first edition, but is correctly assigned to 22 May in this one. It matters a lot, because it is written on the same paper used in three other letters written between 9 and 22 May; Eliot also used this paper when he made a typescript of Parts I and II of The Waste Land during this period. This means we can trace the genesis of the poem with far greater precision.

No less important, the editors include almost every letter documenting the protracted negotiations that led to the publication of The Waste Land in the Dial (circulation: 9600), then the foremost literary journal in America. As part of the final publication agreement, Eliot also received the Dial’s annual prize for his contribution to literature, a prize that came with a considerable sum of money ($2000), and brought him unprecedented attention. Overnight the poem became the poetic counterpart to Ulysses, published some nine months earlier. Literary modernism was no longer an affair of eccentric coteries. Within months Eliot’s earlier poems were being reprinted in Vanity Fair (circulation: 96,000), the arbiter of fashionable taste. They were turning into a literary equivalent of the sleek motorcars whose ads festooned Vanity Fair – O O O so elegant, so intelligent, positively swellegant. In documenting this moment so scrupulously, the editors have performed a genuine service. Their selections complement recent accounts that underscore the contradictory dynamics at work in modernism’s uneasy engagement with the public sphere.

The new edition achieves something else equally compelling. Many of the newly included letters are unremitting in their emphasis on the trivial and ephemeral, on quotidian haplessness. Eliot apologises to Julian Huxley for missing an appointment. After losing his way, then finding the right place, he got lost again: ‘As I could not identify any of the offices as yours I hung about in the hall for some time and then decided that you had gone.’ He can’t write enough poetry to make anyone happy. To the publisher John Rodker, who wants to issue a volume of new poems, he confesses sheepishly: ‘I am sorry for the misunderstanding. I don’t think there is enough new stuff for more than 25 pages, but perhaps I shall have more by the end of June. I hope so.’ Elementary tasks turn into minor catastrophes: ‘About half a mile further the car collapsed completely and at the same moment punctured a tire, in the middle of a vast plain. Nothing passed but two brakes full of boy scouts so I proceeded on foot followed by three ducks.’ Vivien frets over his ineptitude: ‘Tom is fearfully vague, and one can never trust him to be worldly wise.’ There is only one way to knock him into shape, and even that isn’t foolproof: ‘I write out what he is to say under every conceivable situation, but it always happens that some unexpected twist occurs which throws him off balance for the entire interview!’ There are minor compensations, of course, such as Eliot’s dancing. ‘One day,’ Vivien urges Mary Hutchinson, ‘you really must try Tom’s Negro rag-time. I know you’d love it.’

The marmoreal lustre of our received image of Eliot is dimmed by this unrelenting catalogue of blunders. The result contradicts the glossier image of Eliot presented by the previous version of this volume. It is as if the waspish elegance and dogmatic certitude of his published prose were being coated with layer after layer of fine dust, the grit of everyday experience, the messiness of the ordinary. At the heart of this revised volume lies a mild but real paradox: the source of its triumph is its emphasis on the trivial.

That emphasis is evident even in the treatment of financial details. A reader who hasn’t glanced at the book’s title page might be forgiven for thinking it was edited by the head of Faber and Faber’s accounting department. Over and over, Eliot adds up sums, tots up finance, and laboriously thanks anyone who has sent him a cheque, typically for verse or prose, but sometimes just to help him along (as his brother occasionally does). It is a weakness of this edition, however, that we are given virtually no context for assessing these details. What could such sums purchase? Comparing everyday expenses across eras is a notoriously hazardous enterprise, but if no formula is given, the reader is left with data as intriguing as they are inert.

The 27 new letters by Vivien Eliot provide a different, often fresh and vivid perspective. More than half of them (14) are to Mary Hutchinson, a Bloomsbury hostess who took great interest in both the Eliots during these years; five of the others are quasi-official communications with Eliot’s mother, always addressed as ‘Dear Mrs Eliot’. Vivien’s informal letters sparkle. When Scofield Thayer, the cousin of her friend Lucy, and Tom’s former classmate, wishes her well on her marriage and invites her to America, she thanks him ‘for your gratters and invitation’. When she hears that Thayer is to marry, she offers advice for the wedding night: ‘Try black silk sheets and pillow covers – they are extraordinarily effective.’ There are also two letters, the only ones known, addressed to Eliot. Both are poignant and affectionate. She begins one ‘My dearest Wonkypenky’, and signs off as ‘Wee’. That last detail will arrest the attention of the psychoanalytically inclined, but we are still some distance from Havelock Ellis’s account of the moment when the poet H.D. complied with his request that she urinate on him.

When the first edition was published, some reviewers raised questions about material that had been excluded, and the rationale behind that exclusion. Some cited a letter to Richard Aldington of 7 April 1921, omitted from that edition, in which Eliot groused: ‘Having only contempt for every existing political party, and profound hatred for democracy, I feel the blackest gloom.’ The letter is now included in its entirety, but the larger question remains: how much has even now been left out, and why?

Eliot’s letters from these years can be found in three places: in 35 university libraries; a handful still in private collections; and a melange of original, photocopied and transcribed materials now in the private collection assembled by Valerie Eliot, a co-editor of this volume. Setting aside her collection, we can say with authority that the revised edition excludes only ten letters. Two of them are very brief. ‘Pour Vous souhaiter la bonne année,’ Eliot writes to Mary Hutchinson on a postcard stamped 23 December 1921, just when he was finishing The Waste Land in Switzerland. Surely it should have been included, if only because of when it was written. Another, of 21 May 1919, answers Lytton Strachey, who had asked if Eliot would reply if he wrote to him: ‘Don’t be absurd – of course I should answer,’ it reads. The eight other letters are mostly longer, but still total only 196 words. Surely it might have been better to exclude one or two of Vivien’s letters and replace them with the missing ten by Eliot. They do not contain any explosive revelations, but show the relentless grinding of the mills of daily life.

Many of the flaws in this volume occur when it comes to citing the locations where the letters are housed. Letters by Eliot to Harriet Monroe are repeatedly assigned to the Houghton Library at Harvard, but are actually at the University of Chicago, along with the rest of Monroe’s papers. A letter to Ottoline Morrell, given the date 14 January 1920, is said to be at the Beinecke Library at Yale, when in fact it is at the University of Texas. Three others, to John Rodker, are said to be in the possession of Mrs Burnham Finney; but this information was mistaken even in 1988. All three had been sold to the University of Tulsa in 1984, and the mistake has been corrected elsewhere. Likewise, the infamous letter to Aldington is marked ‘CC’, presumably a carbon copy in possession of Mrs Eliot. But the original is at the University of Texas, and that is what should have been cited. The most endearing of the location citations reads simply: ‘?TS’. This refers to a typescript that is located: where? Such details may only concern scholars, but they matter.

Volume III is discussed by Michael Wood in this issue.