T.S. Eliot’s reputation has undergone a thorough reassessment over the last sixty years or so. He was, at mid-century, the prevailing protagonist of orthodox English literature. As both poet and critic, he was worshipped in the academies and by struggling young poets alike. Hart Crane’s admiration from Eliot was so extreme that his long epic The Bridge was conceived as an answer to The Wasteland.
In 1951 the Anglo-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff read a poem that he had written, “To T.S. Eliot.” It was something of a game-changer, as it brought into the open the most uncomfortable aspect of Eliot’s poetry–his anti-Semitism. Amazingly, Eliot was in the audience that evening and is quoted as saying, “It is a good poem, it is a very good poem.”
None of this is news, however. In 1995 Cambridge University Press published a book-length study of Eliot’s controversial poetry, “T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and Literary Form” by Anthony Julius. A few years later, Julius would represent Deborah Lipstadt in court against David Irving. Lipstadt was defending herself against a charge of libel. She had written that Irving was a Holocaust-denier. He pressed charges, and the court found him giuilty. Lipstadt’s account can be read in History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier.”
But what is so extraordinary about T.S. Eliot, you ask? Everyone, arguably, was anti-Semitic in those days. Except, of course, those who weren’t. And Jews themselves, who paid a hefty price for this durable brand of bigotry. Litvinoff was horrified not only that Eliot had written these poems in the first place as far back as the 1920s, or even earlier. Litvinoff was horrified by the fact that Eliot had them reprinted in his 1948 Selected Poems. Considering that Eliot had barred his embarrassing early book, After Strange Gods, from ever being reprinted, one must ask the question: Why did he allow his Der Sturmeresque characterizations of Jews (or “jews” as Eliot himself wrote it) to be reprinted immediately following the Nazi carnage? Could this have been an oversight on the part of the great poet? If so, then why was After Strange Gods, with its ranting on about perilious “freethinking Jews” (p.20) and the utopian dream of a “Christian society” (p.21), not similarly overlooked?
These are just some of the questions readers must ask themselves when they open Eliot and begin reading, “The rats are underneath the piles/ the jew is underneath the lot.”