Eliot's Dangerous Art. (Arts & Letters)

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Eliot's Dangerous Art. (Arts & Letters)


"Burbank with a Baedeker, Eliot with a Cigar: American Intellectuals, Anti-Semitism, and the Idea of Culture" by Ronald Sehuchard, with responses by David Bromwich and others, in Modemism/Modemib,' (Jan. 2003), The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md., 21218-4363.

Was T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) an antiSemite? 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 33year 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 Lowe 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 friends hips 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.

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