New Collection of T.S. Eliot’s Prose Offers Glimpse into Early Twentieth-Century Literature, Culture and Politics
Landmark collection includes never-before-published essays
September 29th, 2015
COLUMBIA, Mo. – T.S. Eliot is considered one of the twentieth century’s major poets and critics. However, most of his prose writing has been forgotten or ignored in back issues of long-discontinued journals. Now, a scholar at the University of Missouri is part of a team collecting, editing, and digitally publishing the approximately 1,000 pieces of Eliot’s prose, extending from his graduate school papers to his last letters to the editor, including some works never before published. This landmark undertaking presents the first complete set of corrected, annotated and searchable texts of Eliot’s prose. Students and scholars will be able to get an accurate picture of Eliot’s cultural, political and religious views, including his open repudiation of fascism and his defense of freedom of speech.
“Missouri native T. S. Eliot gained international fame on the basis of poems such as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and The Waste Land, as well as a handful of notable essays including ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and ‘The Metaphysical Poets,’” said Frances Dickey, an associate professor of English in the College of Arts and Science at MU. “While these few works often are studied and quoted, the vast majority of his prose writing—essays, reviews, opinion pieces, lectures—has remained unknown. Like any writer, he sometimes experienced writer’s block between his poetic endeavors, so, to pay the bills he wrote articles—about one thousand of them. Through those essays, he made a tremendous impact on the way we study literature and the works we read. This project makes those pieces of literary criticism available to students, fans, and scholars around the world.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Eliot was educated at Harvard University, where he pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy. He traveled to Germany to complete his doctoral studies in 1914 and had to flee to England when World War I broke out. Unable to return home due to the war, he married and worked at a bank, publishing his first poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” just 100 years ago in June 1915. He established his reputation through literary journalism and with The Waste Land in 1922. Shortly thereafter, Eliot joined the Church of England and became a British subject, making England his permanent home.
This new volume of Eliot’s prose includes “The Contemporary Novel,” an essay in which Eliot discusses the work of Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. After it was published in French in 1927, Eliot sent the original to his mother, who misplaced it. Never published in English, the essay appears here for the first time. The volume also includes commentary about Eliot’s contemporaries E.E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein.
“Our collection of works makes his critiques of these famous authors accessible for the first time in nearly a century,” Dickey said.
Dickey teamed with fellow Eliot scholars Ronald Schuchard, professor emeritus of English at Emory University, and Jennifer Formichelli of Boston University to edit this volume of Eliot’s complete prose. While combing through the essays, Dickey said, she was excited to find that Eliot had much to say about early twentieth-century politics as well.
“Eliot has been highly criticized for his conservative politics,” Dickey said. “But, in one of the essays included in the newest volume, he takes a very decided stance on the early stages of Communism and Fascism. He states that he does not view either one as a viable alternative and stresses that his policymakers should find a way of reinvigorating democracy. That’s a piece that, before now, has never been quoted or cited.”
His criticism and book reviews were distinctive in that they examined the meaning of literature and its relevance to contemporary life. In the third volume, just released on Eliot’s birthday, September 26, the poet investigates a wide range of authors including Shakespeare and H.G. Wells, Dante and Dickens, Baudelaire and Bertrand Russell.
“Relating literature to current events now is a part of everyday critique, which is another way that these volumes will reinvigorate the study of Eliot and give us a much broader and nuanced picture of his literary interests,” Dickey said. “Because the database is searchable, it’s a goldmine for scholars and students of poetry.”
“The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The critical edition; Volume Three – Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929” recently was published on the Project Muse website by Johns Hopkins University Press. The first two volumes were published digitally last summer.
Editor’s Note: For more on the story, please see: “A Birthday Gift for Fans of T.S. Eliot.”