Volume 1 (now revised to include some 200 letters unearthed since the first edition) sped along with an almost dizzying momentum, covering Eliot’s youth, the creation of a good chunk of the modernist poetic canon with the publication of Prufrock in 1917 and The Waste Land in 1922, and, with The Sacred Wood in 1920, Eliot’s establishment as one of the 20th century’s major literary critics.
Volume 2 covers a far darker period. These three years (1923–1925) were a barely endurable slog for Eliot, defined by his disaster of a marriage to his brittle, mentally unstable first wife, Vivienne. Careworn and tortured (if a bit conspicuously so), Eliot left a despairing correspondence. “So life is simply from minute to minute of horror,” he wrote to Virginia Woolf.
For the most part, he gave up trying to write poetry. “It is no use squeezing a dry sponge and it is no use trying to work a tired and distracted mind,” he wrote Gilbert Seldes. But he threw himself into Stakhanovite exertions in other areas. Until November 1925, when he took up a directorship at the publishing firm Faber and Faber, he spent his days beavering away in the City at Lloyd’s Bank, where he oversaw analysis of the financial activities of European governments—think international exchange rates, foreign government-bond issues, and payment of war debts; these volumes contain no correspondence related to his duties at the bank, even though that occupation took up most of Eliot’s working hours. He spent his nights editing the severely highbrow, groundbreaking quarterly The Criterion.
A journal reactionary in its outlook and modernist in its aesthetics, The Criterion published Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Proust. But as intellectually scintillating as the project was, Eliot’s correspondence regarding it makes for a deadeningly detailed account of literary sausage-making: a wearisome round of inveigling contributors (Eliot’s letters show that a great editor must be a shameless flatterer and a liar), complaining about printers, worrying over typefaces, wrestling with deadlines, and propitiating unhappy authors (and they all seem unhappy). Clearly, he did his best to remove himself emotionally from both his poetry and his marriage, as he explained in a letter to John Middleton Murray:
I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V … Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? … must I kill her or kill myself?
Anxious, shy, at once striving and smug, emotionally besieged, cold, manipulative, Eliot can be a sympathetic figure, but he’s hardly a congenial one.
Since the publication of the dazzling literary indictment T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, by the scholar and star barrister Anthony Julius, Eliot is in danger of being defined by his anti-Semitism. This volume contains ample evidence to bolster the prosecution (see his letters to Herbert Read, in which he speculates about the “racial envy” of “that people”; and to John Quinn—“I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers”—and his sycophantic extolling of the Jew-hater Charles Maurras). Because I find the condescension of posterity—through which we applaud ourselves by imposing our enlightened standards on a supposedly benighted past—to be a particularly unattractive reflex, I’ve been accused of being somewhat soft on historical “genteel” anti-Semitism. But Eliot’s anti-Semitism is particularly unlovely, because he so obviously works himself up to it in an effort to conform to the pretentious and jejune ultra-reactionary ideal to which he aspires. Eliot’s anti-Semitism should not—cannot—be dismissed: it was integral to his worldview, however artificial that worldview was. But anti-Semitism wasn’t, as some critics would have it, his defining characteristic. The inspired poet, keen critic, and brilliant editor who emerges from these volumes was undoubtedly an anti-Semite, but it is our loss more than his if we reduce him to his anti-Semitism.