Sometime in 2011, a person I very much respect challenged me as to why I possess so much of an affection for T.S. Eliot, especially since it is known he was an anti-Semite.
At this point in my post, I should admit two things. First, I didn’t know that anyone still took the charges–especially as someone as well read, learned, and respectable as this person—of Eliot’s anti-Semitism seriously any longer. That this person stated this so openly, and with clear concern for me, made me pause.
Really, Eliot was anti-Semitic?
Second, I definitely have a strong fascination with Eliot, probably something well beyond affection even, as my wife and students can confirm. I’ve been reading him since my senior high school English teacher had me memorize “The Hollow Men.” I learned a great deal from Mr. Knauer back in 1985, and much of what he taught me has stuck with me. Not that I would want to, but I feel as though I will never escape Eliot in my life. I come back to him again and again, and he reigns as an Anglo-American demigod in my soul’s imagination. There have been times in my life I’ve found his “Four Quartets” even more calming, comforting, and inspiring than the New Testament. His collected plays and poetry sits next to my bed, and I reference it frequently. This is one of three versions I own–one at home, one at school, and an electronic copy I keep my laptop and iPad. For years, I’ve listened to Eliot read his own poetry. I even had his accent and intonations down for a while. “The river god. . . .” I have memorized much of his poetry and many of the choruses from his plays.
So, back to point one. When this person challenged me about Eliot’s supposed bigotry, I was a bit stunned. Of everything I’ve read, Eliot seems to me to be one of the single most humane persons of the twentieth century. Did the man possess a bigoted bone in his body? Eliot, an anti-Semite?
There is an odd little poem Eliot wrote in the 1910s about an unattractive Viennese man who was also Jewish. His description of the Jewish man certainly makes me uncomfortable, and I would not want my own name attached to the poem. In no way, however, is this one of Eliot’s best poems or even really worth remembering or studying. I’m not in the least convinced Eliot was anti-Semitic as much as he was anti-Semite (that is, he didn’t like this one Jewish character he had created for this poem).
Or, do I just want one of my heroes not to be anti-Semitic?
Eliot also made one strange comment in his 1933 University of Virginia lecture during which he criticized secular Jews. Eliot never allowed these to be reprinted after the initial release of After Strange Gods (1934). Despite this one awkward comment, these lectures are some of the best I’ve ever read, and After Strange Gods is one of the strongest attacks on ideology and a defense of imagination penned in the twentieth century. Unlike the strange little poem from the 1910s, After Strange Gods actually deserves to be read and studied.
Please know, I would never defend someone for anti-Semitic views. Such views are and would be as anti-humane, as anti-Natural Rights, and as anti-Christian as possible. But, it’s worth pointing out, that no one looks good in Eliot’s early poetry. He described “the Wasteland” not only in the poem of that title but in others as well. Consciously or not, Eliot’s poetry follows the pattern of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The earliest poems are Hell; the middle poems (such as The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday) are Purgatory; and the Four Quartets are Paradise.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that Eliot fought even more against secularized Christians than he did against secularized Jews. So, his one comment in After Strange Gods is not as surprising in context as it is in isolation.
Eliot was horrified by the thought that some of his contemporaries regarded him as anti-Semitic. As he told one person, “I am grieved and sometimes angered by the matter.” How could he, as a practicing Christian, despise Jews? “In the eyes of the Church, to be anti Semitic is a sin.” Categorically, he denied the charge. “I am not an anti-Semite and never have been,” he stated.
One of Eliot’s closest friends, the important literary critic and anarchist, Herbert Read, also denied the charges. As he noted after Eliot’s death in a book edited by Allen Tate, in all of their many conversations over half a century, he had never once heard Eliot make a comment that could be taken in any way as anti-Semitic.
Still, Eliot did make the two comments that can be regarded as anti-Jewish, as noted above: one in the early poem and one in his 1933 University of Virginia lectures. Even one of his greatest followers and friends, Russell Kirk, refused to apologize or defend Eliot on this matter. As Kirk wrote in a footnote to his memoir/biography, Eliot and His Age (1971), “Eliot was strangely insensitive” in these matters.
It should also be noted, Kirk believed–probably correctly–that certain lines in “Little Gidding” offered an apology for previous comments made by the author, especially those misconstrued by readers.
Again, I would never defend a person’s anti-Semitic views. Such beliefs are not only repulsive but also undignified. Still, Eliot should not be dismissed because of two comments he made during the entirety of his life. For, if we judge Eliot by his words, we have to take them as a whole. If we do, we find that the comments he wrote to promote the dignity of the human person so far outweigh those that don’t, that to focus on the two poor ones he made is grossly unfair.
So, while I’ve done my best to take the charges against Eliot seriously, I can only conclude that Eliot was a humane and brilliant man, truly one of the greats–in every way–of the twentieth century. Did he write some things he should have not? Yes. Did he write many more that he should have, blessing every one of his readers? Yes.
God bless you, Mr. Eliot, faults and all.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.