Henry Writes Tom

Henry Eliot wrote his brother about The Waste Land in March 1923, and I have found it the most interesting of letters for various reasons. The first being that he thought the poem was some kind of spoof, agreeing with one of the critics. In fact, he said, “it wearies me a little, like the continual exploits of a practical joker. The obscurantism, moreover, seems to me a little too willfully striven for.” Good thing this came after, not before publication. On the other hand, Tom probably knew who to ask and who not to ask for critical insight on his own writing. Clearly, his brother was good for some advice but not all advice; Henry was a successful businessman. A few pages earlier in the second volume of the letters were Quinn’s comments (in a footnote summarizing a reply to Eliot’s letter to him) on how Ezra Pound, it seemed to him, had cut too much of the original poem out. Pound was the one who made sense of the thing! It really makes one wish for a letter in which Eliot reflects on these kinds of things, showing what he must have felt about it. I will be surprised if it exists, however.

Then Henry said this: “The question of how much intent to attract notice there is in the poem is a good deal similar to the question of the same intent in women’s dress. No nice woman, of course, will admit any reasons for the open bosom, the sheer waist fabric, the gauzy stockings, the high heels, the skirt drawn tight over the haunches, the cosmetics, the aphrodisiac perfumes, save that these things are the fashion, that she likes to look sweet and dainty. Strong sub-conscious inhibitions to frankness, and world-old hypocritical complexes prevent her having any conscious knowledge of her motives.” Which is a most interesting observation in and of itself, curiously naïve of Henry, who obviously thinks he’s pretty shrewd, but astonishing coming as a comment on The Waste Land. I think Henry is the older brother.

“If a petty motive is discernible it lowers the dignity of a work of art.” You did not just say that to T.S. Eliot! “Petty motives inevitably produce bad art, and it is perhaps a matter of only metaphysical importance whether it is the motive or the result that offends.” Not a man to muck around with the metaphysical side of things, Henry.

“The only other criticism I have to make of the poem is that it is too excessively allusive.”

So that was all.

T.S. Eliot had some quite unhelpful correspondence in his life. At one point, in the letter alluded to earlier, Eliot had complained that he was so busy that he had not been able to see a dentist or get his hair cut. Quinn had the obtuse and patronizing effrontery to explain to Eliot that he should see a dentist because it was important, and not worry about the haircut since that wasn’t. Eliot was on the verge of a second nervous prostration from overwork and he had these numbnuts to deal with, some of them nearly obsequiously. It comforts one. It brings Eliot closer. You hear his shoes on the pavement, watch his expression surreptitiously, can imagine his sigh as the paper rustles, and as you continue reading his private letters.


2 thoughts on “Henry Writes Tom

  1. Try today finding a businessman who is so able a critic as Henry (even if Henry is wrong in this instance–and my first impressions of The Wasteland paralleled his), who would recognize the obscurantism or even know to call it that?

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