T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism

By Fleissner, R. F. | Contemporary Review, December 1999 | Go to article overview

T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism


Fleissner, R. F., Contemporary Review


SOME years ago I attempted to repudiate the critical charge that first America's and then England's leading poet of the twentieth century -- see the dictum in Time magazine, for example, in a 'best-of-the-century' compilation -- was a blatant anti-Semite. My main essay appeared in the Yeats Eliot Review (1990) and then led to a chapter in my second Eliot book (T. S. Eliot and the Heritage of Africa, 1992). Recently a lengthy study by Ranen Omer, "'It is I who have been defending a Religion called Judaism": The T. S. Eliot and Horace M. Kallen Correspondence,' in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (1997). helped to respond to this dastardly contention. Still, references in many journals have taken the adverse criticism as a matter of course now, referring to the 'anti-Semitic T. S. Eliot' as if that was universally accepted. Probably the main stimulant has been Anthony Julius' T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995). Yet he had previously admitted, even in The Times ( 9 Aug. 1988), how the poet 'wrote publicly, and in stirring terms, condemning anti-Semitism.'

In the recent biography of A. L. Rowse by Richard Ollard, mention is made of a letter from Eliot to Rowse in January 1934 trying to organise help for German Jewish refugees. Eliot had been asked to do this by a Jewish friend in New York.

So is the fact that a few Jews are cited in Eliot's poetry, and not admittedly in complimentary ways, sufficient evidence that he was of two minds? If so, on the same grounds we would have to condemn great writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. No doubt the close association with Ezra Pound constitutes a major factor (Pound having eventually confessed to having been anti-Semitic, as is well known), but it is also widely recognized that Eliot wrote Pound a strong letter deploring the latter's anti-Semitism. Positive proof for this I happen to have seen in the material assembled from Pound's stay at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, D.C., now available in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of the Hamilton College Library, Pound having been a student there once. He referred, for example, to his Jewish psychiatrist as a 'kike.'

To cover in detail all the many things Eliot had said which would dispute the charge would mean reiterating material very well known, so at this stage it might be just as well to stick to some basic concepts, as well as a few personal items. With regard to the latter, it might be mentioned that Mrs. Valerie Eliot happened to remark to me, at the International T. S. Eliot Symposium at the University of London (July 1996), that in all the years she had known Tom she never had found him guilty of making any anti-Semitic remark. Such evidence could be taken as a form of special pleading perhaps, and so would hold little scholarly weight, but to me at least it was a memorable reminiscence. One other personal note is that I happened once to hear him speak at the Poetry Center, Young Men's Hebrew Association, in New York after the war (the second time he had been there for that purpose). The subject of race or ethnicity did not arise then, though admittedly some Jewish members boycotted the event and picketed it.

Now because the charge of racism has been applied to his purported anti-Semitic portrayals (admittedly this term being a bit controversial with regard to Jewish people, though some Jews have defended it in particular contexts), we surely should not deny some connections with his attitude toward African people in general, the partial subject of my second Eliot book (incidentally acclaimed, as the official announcement for it demonstrates, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the Harvard DuBois Center for African Studies). The point here is that he was on record for asserting that poetry originally derives from the African beating his drum in a jungle. That, in itself, may seem to be a statement which could be taken in different ways, but at any rate it need not be considered in any literal, palaeontological sense. …

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