Magazine | September 22, 2014, Issue

Looking for Tom

I do not know much about gods; but

    I think that the river

Is a strong brown god — sullen,

    untamed and intractable.

           — T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

London was T. S. Eliot’s “timekept city.” St. Louis was the source of “the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.” The riverside factories and the smoke they produced are mostly gone, but the city remains industrial. It isn’t the biggest or the best in any category: third-busiest inland port, third-largest railroad hub, etc. Manufacturing continues to play a large role in the economy there, but it is mostly of an unglamorous sort: dog food, gravel, chemicals. It lost its Corvette factory, but the GM plant in nearby Wentzville is building pickup trucks — not quite as sexy, but solid work. St. Louis reminds Americans, who tend to be class-blind, that class is a reality. It is a working-class city, and a city that works — a little downscale, maybe, but certainly not a post-industrial nightmare like Detroit or Cleveland. It is a bracingly modest place, despite Eero Saarinen’s famous arch, which, in the context of this most un-soaring of cities, looks slightly ridiculous, a Colossus bestriding nothing in particular.

It might be that St. Louis’s inability to lead the rankings explains that arch, which is the world’s tallest, and the tallest monument in the United States, nearly a hundred feet taller than the Washington Monument. But what exactly the arch is a monument to is mysterious.

It isn’t Silicon Valley, but business is pretty good. It’s no small thing becoming a dog-food mogul or building a gravel-shipping empire. Those pursuits may not inspire the same sort of romance as does the work of a Jobs or a Branson, but they are the enterprises that build the world. And they also make romantic undertakings possible: Charles Lindbergh didn’t call his monoplane theSpirit of St. Louis” simply because he loved his hometown — he named it in honor of the local industrialists and merchants who financed his experiments.

Contrary to the Sinclair Lewis cartoon, the great businessmen of the Midwest’s golden age were not a bunch of Babbitts. Among the public-spirited capitalists of St. Louis was Henry Ware Eliot, president of the Hydraulic Press Brick Company. Eliot was the son of an intellectual, William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister who founded Washington University. The eastern branch of the family was dominated by another intellectual, longtime Harvard president Charles William Eliot. (He is today remembered for having tried to abolish football at Harvard.)

Henry Ware Eliot was a Civil War veteran, having served with the Missouri Militia, and began his career as a wholesale grocer. He was intellectually gifted, and founded a chemical-manufacturing concern, joining the brick company after that business failed. He was a man of responsibility, serving on university boards, on the board of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and as president of the Academy of Science while running his business. He married a poet and social reformer, Charlotte Champe Stearns, who had an interest in medieval religious figures and published two books. They had five daughters and two remarkable sons: Henry Ware Eliot Jr. took over the family business, served as a research fellow in Mesopotamian archaeology for the Peabody Museum, and published a novel. And their younger son, Thomas Stearns Eliot, would become the most consequential poet and critic in the English language of his time and, with due respect to Walt Whitman, the greatest American poet.

The greatest American poet was not an American — five years after publishing The Waste-Land, Eliot renounced his U.S. citizenship and became a British subject. (He would, over time, develop a ridiculous quasi-British accent, available for posterity’s mirth in his audio recordings of his poems: “Appreeel ess the crawlest maanth.”) But while he was a British subject, he was an undeniably American poet, by his own account: “I’d say that my poetry has obviously more in common with my distinguished contemporaries in America than with anything written in my generation in England,” he said. “That I’m sure of. In its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.” Or, as he put it on another occasion: “My mind may be American, but my heart is British.”

Eliot’s strong brown god still stands sentinel on the perimeter of St. Louis, and shows itself to be capricious, destroying a city or two every few years. And the rank ailanthus of “The Dry Salvages” still grows in St. Louis’s Central West End, a lovely, leafy neighborhood full of galleries and cafés. There, Henry Ware Eliot’s work as a businessman is on gorgeous display, the neat, spacious homes composed of elegant brickwork, their walls lustrous, the bricks fitted so precisely together and so artfully mortared that, from across the street, they look like solid stone. There, the tastes of St. Louis’s ancien régime, the Eliots and other families with their roots in the East, are on display. These are houses from an era in which St. Louis still faced Boston rather than points south or west — no porches for socializing on summer evenings. They are closely packed, but not quite rowhouses: There is a little space between them — not so much that you couldn’t stand between two homes and touch both of them, but a little zone of insulation. Their walls are their own, separate and apart. (“I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison.”)

#page#Somewhere, here, there should be a trace of the boy before he was the great man, Tom before he was T. S., possibly shaped by something in St. Louis other than his own indifference to it or distaste for it. “It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done,” he wrote. “I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not.”

It is easy to walk right past the Eliot home without noticing it; that is exactly what I did. The plaque in the sidewalk that identifies the Federal townhouse at 4446 Westminster Place as the home of the teenaged Eliot is less noticeable than are the manhole covers that punctuate the pavement. (His earlier childhood home stood where there is today an office building’s parking lot.) Together with a bust in front of Left Bank Books down the street, commissioned and installed only a few years ago, this constitutes St. Louis’s only acknowledgment of its most famous literary son. That and a star on the — did you know there was such a thing? — St. Louis Walk of Fame, an honor he shares with William S. Burroughs and the Rockettes.

Eliot himself was not eager to spend time in his hometown. He visited to deliver a lecture on Shakespeare in 1933, and did not return again until 20 years later to mark the centennial of Washington University. “It is bigger and all that sort of thing,” he said, “but it is still the St. Louis I knew.”

It isn’t that now. The Prufrock Litton Furniture Company, once such a commanding commercial presence that its seven-story building occupied an entire city block, is long gone, Eliot’s hijacking of its name for the titular narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” all that remains of it. Eliot may have known “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” but it is difficult to imagine him eating a bowl of hot straight at Chili Mac’s diner or proudly displaying his biceps for the “Flex Cam” at Busch Stadium every time the Cardinals get a base hit.

If there is an Eliot-shaped hole in St. Louis, it is foolish to go looking for a St. Louis–shaped hole in Eliot. The city and its denizens make their appearances, to be sure — Eliot was a connoisseur of the specific and the particular, especially of location. But the city whose half-deserted streets were stalked by Eliot’s restless mind was London, and his sense of confinement deepened in that most characteristic of London settings:

Or as, when an underground train, in the

    tube, stops too long between stations

And the conversation rises and slowly

    fades into silence

And you see behind every face the

    mental emptiness deepen

Leaving only the growing terror of

    nothing to think about . . . 

The confinement of the subway, of his basement bank office, of his office at Faber & Faber, where he labored behind doors that were locked against the intrusions of his madwoman first wife: Perhaps provincial St. Louis and the entanglements of his life there — with a family in the business, too symbolic for a poet to overlook, of building brick walls — were to him only another confinement. (“Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”) He confessed that he entered his disastrous first marriage mainly as an excuse to avoid ever coming home to the United States.

If his architecture is penal, his geography is liberating. T. S. Eliot was not only an American but an American raised on the banks of the Mississippi River. Writing about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Eliot observed:

The River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending. A river, a very big and powerful river, is the only natural force that can wholly determine the course of human peregrination. . . . The river is never wholly chartable; it changes its pace, it shifts its channel, unaccountably.

And perhaps it was the same river he had in mind when he wrote:

What we call the beginning is often the

    end

And to make an end is to make a

    beginning.

The end is where we start from. . . .

At the source of the longest river . . .

In building a monument to nothing, St. Louis built what would have been an appropriate if oversized monument to T. S. Eliot: a steely and precise inverted catenary of high modernism rising above the drab beige of St. Louis, facing away from the city, toward the river, austere, indifferent, unsentimental, willing to be forgotten. Prufrock Litton is a memory, literary trivia. J. Alfred is still very much with us, as he was with T. S. Eliot, no matter how much distance he put between himself and those neat brick houses in St. Louis.

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