It’s not just me and King Vlad, honest. There is some profound cultural
gulf here between America and England. There is a whole raft of writers who
are taken very seriously here, but whom English-raised people just don’t
“get.” The other day I was talking with Jeff Hart about Emerson, who
personifies the phenomenon. At Jeff’s urging, I have been trying Emerson
again, but it is hopeless. I can’t keep my eyes focused through three
paragraphs. As Charles II said of George of Hanover: “I have tried him
drunk, and I have tried him sober, and there is nothing in him.” (Though it
is hard to imagine Emerson getting drunk.) And this isn’t just me, either.
Look at Paul Johnson’s treatment of Emerson in Intellectuals. Jeff turned
purple when I mentioned this. “A travesty,” he sputtered.
I can’t account for this phenomenon except by supposing that it is an aspect
of the American lust for self-improvement. To make a crude, and of course
much too broad, generalization out of it: Americans read to be instructed
and improved; other English-speaking people read to be amused, or stirred.
Americans are really a terribly earnest people. Kingsley Amis, veteran of
many exchanges with lectureres in Eng. Lit. at American universities, used
to make fun of the way Americans talk about “important” books. “In
literature,” he said, “‘importance’ is not important. Only good writing
is.” I think that is a very un-American approach. (In fact, I think I can
hear Jeff sputtering again.) Kirk is much more American, with his stamp of
approval on Eliot as an “important” writer.
Across the pond, you will walk a long mile before you find anyone who takes
Eliot seriously as a poet. (His work as a critic is another matter, about
which I know next to nothing.) Aside from elementary-school teachers who
like Eliot’s cats–I had to memorize “McCavity” for a school show at age
9–and sentimental old Anglican ladies who like that thing about the Magi,
Britain is pretty much an Eliot-free zone, and blessedly so. I got a pretty
good education over there in the 3rd quarter of the 20th century, and in my
secondary school I don’t recall Eliot being mentioned at all. 20th-century
poetry, as I was taught it, was Hardy, Housman, Yeats, and the tail-end of
Kipling; then the WW1 poets; then Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, and
Auden. If you did Eng. Lit. to Advanced level (i.e. age 16-18–I didn’t)
you might have got some Eliot, I don’t know. You would more certainly have
got MacNeice, Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Graves. Out of school we all read
Betjeman, Larkin, and Dylan Thomas.
When Eliot’s poetry is mentioned in British literary magazines, it is most
often in a spirit of wonder that anyone is still taken in by his tawdry
tricks. One of the heavyweight lit. critics on _The Spectator_ — Philip
Hensher or Bevis Hillier, I forget which — did a nice demolition piece on
the old mountebank 4-5 yrs ago. (Could any reader who has access to
ProQuest try to capture this piece for me, please?)
A reader e-mails in to tell me that even though I don’t have to like Eliot
(thank God for that!) I should at least acknowledge that he has been a
tremendous influence on subsequent poets. I don’t think I _do_ acknowledge
this; but if it is true, it is yet another indictment of him, since the
middle and later 20th century — that is, the post-Eliot decades, the ones
he presumably influenced — were one of the darkest periods in the history
of English verse, with very little being produced above the second-rate.
Just compare the last half of the 20th century with the last half of the
19th! If that was Eliot’s doing, we should exhume his corpse and hang it in
chains, as they did to the regicides after the Restoration.
As for Kirk’s talk about Eliot’s “moral imagination,” as I intimated before,
anyone who wants my attention on this or any other topic, in prose or
verse, should write well, and preferably in English. Eliot’s verse fails on
both counts. (Though to be fair to Kirk, he may be referring to Eliot’s
criticism, which, as I said, I am unacquainted with.)
In my own mind, I think of Eliot as the verse equivalent of Ernest
Hemingway. Both wrote in a way that seemed novel and striking at the time.
Both produced stuff that was well-nigh content-free behind the novelty.
Both were simply terrible models for younger writers to emulate, and spawned
oceans of really bad writing by people who took them more seriously than
they deserved. Both will be utterly forgotten by the end–or, if we get
lucky, the middle–of this century.
In Eliot’s favor, though, he seems to have been quite a nice man, aside from
the plagiarism. This cannot be said of Hemingway, who, if the accounts I
have read can be relied on, was barely human–and, in moments of
self-knowledge (including the last terrible moment), seems to have been
aware of the fact.
(Although, in Hemingway’s favor, it must be said that at least none of his
books was ever made into a fourth-rate musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber!)