T.S. Eliot: The Poet and Anti-Semite, A New Look
09/20/2011 - 18:28

Yale University Press recently published the letters of T.S. Eliot, who, many argue, was the most influential poet of the last century.  The problem for us Jews, as ever, is that Eliot was an incorrigible anti-semite.  So what do we do?

Personally, I'm never one to advocate throwing great artists under the bus because of their personal views.  But nor am I one to argue that point by suggesting that the personal and the professional are entirely separate realms.  Particularly for intellectuals--and T.S. Eliot epitomized the role, as not only a poet but even more so, a critic--the two realms easily dissolve into one.  

Louis Menand's review of the new T.S. Eliot suggests how.  He argues that despite Eliot's renown as a reformer of poetry--a true Modern, up there with Joyce--he never rejected the poetic tradition. He only appeared to do so, but really only tried to update traditional poetic forms--the epic poem, sonnets, ballads--for the modern era.  That accounts for all the jagged-ness of his lines, the sometimes machine-line repetition, and the often numbing stoicism of his work.  If you look closely, however, the allusions to Shakespeare and Dante and Ghazal are all there, and in ways that don't mock but reverentially mimic the giants before him.

It's too hard to tell whether his catholic literary tastes were the cause or consequence of his political views. Though the anti-semitic tag is usually pinned to Eliot's back because of his close relationship with Charles Maurras, the ultra-conservative anti-semitic French author. What the letters make clear is that his anti-semitism went much deeper, and was much more ingrained in him. In a letter to his lawyer about a check owed to him by an American Jewish publisher, written in 1923, Eliot grumbles: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.”

That is what we'd call social anti-semitism. But there are more (though only slightly more) thought-out anti-semitic musings as well. In a letter from 1925 to a British poet, Eliot writes: “I am always inclined to suspect the racial envy and jealousy which makes that people [Jews] inclined to bolshevism in some form (not always political).”

To be sure, there are no bombshells in these letters.  Readers got glimpses of Eliot's anti-semitism in plenty of his published poems. In "Gerontion," he employs the stereotype of Jew as slumlord: “My house is a decayed house, / And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner.” In “Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar” there's an oblique reference to Venice and Shakespeare’s Shylock: “On the Rialto once. / The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.”

As the critic Benjamin Irvy writes in his excellent review of the new letters, few scholars have overlooked Eliot's anti-semitism.  But like the many Jewish poets who admire his work, they simple accept it as one of his many flaws.  To do otherwise would be to deny ourselves one of our greatest poets, if by no means a great man.

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Eliot was the first poet who's work showed me the poetic nature within myself. Over the past years, as I've read biographies about him, I've grown more and more disheartened by his antisemitic nature. I remember having to set aside a biography because his overall racism against many races upset me so greatly.
What I'm grateful for in this blog post is that it does not attack Eliot as the source of all evils -- it's very easy to go after someone's faults and focus solely on them. Yet it's important to also consider the context of the era he grew up in: likely entirely White, middle-upper class, and in a world that used Jews as a scapegoat for evil. By no means was his antisemitism reasonable or justified -- though it is possible to understand how it was bred and kept alive.
And as modern appreciators of poetry, there is nothing we can do about the circumstances. We can't go back in time and give Eliot a rightful slap upside the head to knock some humane decency into him. And racism is still a cancer to us today.

As someone who isn't Jewish, I can only imagine the struggle that must go on in someone who is Jewish and also a fan of Eliot's work. I enjoyed reading this perspective on Eliot.