Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
by Robert Crawford.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015.
Hardcover, 493 + xvi pages, $35.

As I finished this prodigious tome about “Tom,” a painful question came to mind. What American could have pulled it off? The ideal biographer is a master of language and a servant of facts. He aims to conjure the past, valuing its riches for their own sake. The American professor is averse to standard English and stubborn facts. He aims to transform the past, mining it to fuel his politics. Always the individual, Eliot would not be surprised by the totalitarian successes of groupthink in his native land. Young Eliot, the first of a projected two volumes, is the work of a Scot, a serious and accomplished poet, who is a professor of English at the University of Edinburgh.The population of Scotland is not much over five million. We had better not compete against them in any marathons of literary biography.

With his immense harvest of materials about Eliot’s childhood, Crawford has done what needed to be done: he has grounded Eliot in Saint Louis, Missouri, where the poet was born into a wealthy and highly respected family in 1888. The names “Prufrock,” “Sweany,” “Klipstein,” and “Krutzsch” all hail from Saint Louis. Scott Joplin lived near the Eliots. African-Americans and Irish built churches and homes in the city, even as it opened its doors to the ritzy culture of New York and Europe. A paragraph devoted to Ziegfield actress Anna Held, “in St. Louis acting the part of Suzette in The French Maid,” might not excite us, but it helps document Eliot’s growing interest in all forms of theater-going. More arresting is the 1904 performance at Eliot’s own Unitarian church, of “the Angels’ Chorus from Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius,’ with its libretto by the famous English Catholic convert Cardinal Newman.” Crawford’s research into Eliot’s years in Saint Louis and summers sailing the New England coast is invaluable, but the early part of the book is presented more for scholarly digestion, while the rest is an absorbing pleasure. The rare instances of hurried writing occur early on.

Eliot attended elite, private schools throughout his youth and well into adulthood. Shying away from sports due to a congenital hernia, young Tom read widely and wrote imitative verses. He played piano and took dancing lessons. His early school performances were uneven, by turns brilliant and lackadaisical. Crawford supplies a memorable account of Eliot’s years at Harvard, a whirl of clubs and fraternizing, where Eliot carved a masculine niche by reciting his ithyphallic verses–the kind of stuff that would nowadays set the Yard on fire. He almost flunked out and did not entirely snap into shape until late in his undergraduate career when his schoolwork and his real interests finally cohered. He excelled as a graduate student in philosophy. Among the poets, his Olympian education resembles that of Milton. Both were the beneficiaries of indulgent parenting. Both were voracious classicists who capped off their studies with visits to the continent. Both turned their monumental learning to literary gain.

Eliot wrote most of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” on his first trip abroad. Though he battled with his mother, Charlotte or “Lottie,” to get to France, the twenty-two-year-old resisted temptation by attending Henri Bergson’s lectures at the Sorbonne and studying the language very hard. His excellent French would serve both his poetry and his ability to impress. He met the painter Henri Matisse in Paris in 1910. In the summer of 1911 he finished “Prufrock” in Munich. He also fell ill there. The connection between sickness and creative release developed early.

Naturally, readers will bring their own feelings about Eliot to this biography. They will note omissions as well as emphases that differ from their own. In Crawford’s account, the American writers who count the most for Eliot are Poe, Hawthorne, and Henry James. Crawford takes note of Poe’s poetic influence, but does not pursue it. Emerson exerts little pressure. The rivalry between the born exile Poe and the “Frogpondians,” as Poe called Emerson and the Boston literati, connects to how the American Civil War unfolded in American literary history. Whitman, whose work Eliot must have encountered in Cambridge, also figures in this American narrative. But Crawford says little about the Civil War and does not develop its relevance for Eliot as an American writer. Certainly, Crawford’s discussion of Jules Laforgue’s seminal impact on Eliot is well supported. Eliot qua poet is markedly French and European in Crawford’s handling. He becomes, in essence, a European writer with heavy American baggage.Eliot’s in-the-grain Americanness is not much in evidence. Possibly in his second volume, in contemplating Eliot’s contact with Hart Crane, for example, Crawford will find time to comment more on Eliot’s place and meaning as an American poet. On the other hand, what Crawford says of poetry is probably true of biography as well: it “involves resisting some influences, integrating others.”

Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood on June 26, 1915, and she haunts the second half of this book with a passion. Her inserting herself (and the Atlantic) between Eliot and his parents, her affair with Bertrand Russell, her literary shrewdness, her manipulative valetudinarianism: these determined the course of Eliot’s life and writing. Crawford is absolutely remarkable in his portrait of Vivienne. He is fair-minded and sympathetic without being false. He summons the ghosts of Bloomsbury, and they come. The book re-creates their dense, competitive, gossipy, incestuous milieu with astonishing success. Crawford conveys the pressure of their personalities, and the forces driving them. We see Tom and Vivienne through their eyes, and hear the voices of censure and approval. Yet, by sticking to facts, Crawford refuses to write pap or to dress up his own emotions in self-indulgent scribbling. His Scots common sense serves him well. He is a kind of great literary bloodhound who has found the right trail.

Eliot conquered a London literary scene that tore lesser writers to pieces. He worked himself almost to death doubling as a lecturer and a banker. Sometimes he was blindsided by British manners, yet he adapted and shone at diplomacy. He gambled all on his artistic talent, but first he had to learn the journalistic game. As Crawford shows in ample detail, he and Virginia Woolf knew (as we Americans say) how to roll a log. “If such shenanigans seem less than professional,” Crawford writes of one particularly dizzying round of mutual back-scratching, “they are hardly unknown in the literary world …” Given their high degree of isolation and individuality, non-academics like Woolf and Eliot did well to recognize each other’s talents and, when possible, to pull together. It was, at least, an alternative to rash acts of malice and envy.

Crawford has crafted this volume from the acorn to the oak, so that it develops and culminates in Eliot’s composing The Waste Land. Eliot’s 1922 poem functions as the telos or end, in some sense the justification, of his early life: his massive education, exile and difficult marriage, chronic exhaustion, and nervous collapse. In Crawford’s reading, Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance provides an important conduit for Eliot’s longstanding interest in anthropology and his personal fascination with ritualistic connections between sexuality and myth, where Eliot could glimpse the basis of much Western literature and get a grip on his own nervous and erotic energy. Weston’s book is not the last-minute scaffolding that some critics have taken it to be; rather, it enables Eliot to plumb the psychological history of Europe, to juxtapose the primitive and the modern, to traverse “vast temporal domains.” Crawford makes important observations about The Waste Land’s chronology and Ezra Pound’s adroit editing of the manuscripts, and he brings forward a remarkable number of previously unknown sources and analogues–he is the unflagging literary sleuth to the end. I depart from the learned author in that I see a more central role for Schopenhauer in The Waste Land. It is an influence that goes back at least to Laforgue, and may suggest the possibility of release from the poem’s cycles of despair.

Quibbles? Eliot wrote “vicegerent,” not “viceregent.” Pope wrote, “Thy hand, great Anarch!” not “Thy hand great Dullness!” Eliot wrote, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,” not “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.” (375). Perhaps Crawford’s proofreader was responsible for that last one. In any case, the book is a miracle of scholarship and good sense. 

Lee Oser, a novelist, teaches religion and literature at the College of the Holy Cross.