Revisionists Revised

Louis Menand
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

The American in Europe is the anthropologist of his own culture. In October 1869, at the end of his first day in Rome. Henry James rushed back to his hotel to report to William before the strangeness could wear off:

To crown my day, on my way home I met his Holiness in person—driving in prodigious purple state—sitting dim within the shadows of his coach with two uplifted benedictory fingers—like some dusky Hindu idol in the depths of its shrine. Even if I should eave Rome tonight I should feel that I have caught the keynote of its operations on the senses…. I’ve trod the Forum and I have scaled the Capitol. I’ve seen the Tiber hurrying along, as swift and dirty as history! From the high tribune of a great chapel of St. Peter’s I have heard in the papal choir a strange old man singe in a shrill unpleasant soprano. I’ve seen troops of little tonsured neophytes clad in scarlet, marching and countermarching and ducking and flopping, like poor little raw recruits for heavenly host.

The sensation of being both inside and, as if by magic, outside the life he observed was of course precious to a writer of James’s temperament and ambitions, and his devotion to its cultivation became for his young expatriate admirers Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot—men who took pains to feel at home nowhere—one of the exempla of his career. James’s trick, already evident in his letter to his brother, of investing a European social situation—the Bellegardes’ soirée or the drawing-room of Madame de Vionnet—with an atmosphere of slightly exaggerated foreignness before he began to analyze it Pound and Eliot appropriated for their examination of cultural artifacts. What Englishmen would have thought to critique English versification with the example of the Chinese ideogram, as Pound did, or to compare Jacobean dramatists according to the development of their nervous systems, as Eliot did? But Pound and Eliot’s critical anthropology was not conducted in a strictly scientific spirit: they were reformers at heart, and they undertook to reorder the cultural lives of countries of which they were not natives with a zeal that even today seems somewhat astonishing.

“There are advantages, indeed, in coming from a large flat country which no one wants to visit,” Eliot explained in one of his little essays on James, and he learned far better than Pound Just how those advantages might be put to use. A passage in one of his early reviews—of Edward Garner’s study of Turgenev, whom James himself had once taken for his master—might have been a recipe for Eliot’s own career:

Turgenev was, in fact, a perfect example of the benefits of transplantation; there was nothing lost by it; he understood at once how to take Paris, how to make use of it. A position which for a smaller man may be merely a compromise, or a means of disappearance, was for Turgenev (who knew how to maintain the role of foreigner with integrity) a source of authority, in addressing either Russian or European; authority but also isolation. He has a position which he literally made for himself, and indeed almost may be said to have invented.

Eliot’s social success among British literati was somewhat equivocal: though he eventually, apparently by dint of persistent application, won the admiration and friendship of most of the Bloomsbury set, he was at the admiration and friendship of most of the Bloomsbury set, he was at the first regarded with the mixture of distrust and condescension which those champions of personal relations seem to have reserved for outsiders. “I found him dull, dull, dull,” Lady Ottoline recorded of Eliot’s first visit to Garsington in 1916. “He is obviously very ignorant of England and decorous and meticulous.” “Ordinarily just an Europeanized American,” wrote Aldous Huxley to Julian, explaining why he was surprised at liking Eliot’s poems, “overwhelmingly cultured, talking about French literature in the most uninspired fashion imaginable.” And Lytton Strachey reported to Carrington that he found Eliot “rather ill and rather American: altogether not quite gay enough for my taste.”

But the qualities that sometimes exasperated Eliot’s acquaintances were perhaps among the very things that made possible his extraordinarily rapid rise to prominence as a critical authority. The overcultivation and excessive learning that Bertrand Russell, for instance, complained of—“window-dressing seems inevitable to Americans”—helped Eliot score a success in what must have seemed even to him an unexpected quarter: among young academics. When The Sacred Wood appeared in 1920, Eliot was thirty-two; he had been writing literary criticism for just four years. But the book became almost immediately a Bible among undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge. I. A. Richards, teaching at Cambridge, had been interested already by Eliot’s poetry and sought him out. F. R. Leavis, then a graduate student, bought a copy in 1920 and read it through, he tells us, every year, pencil in hand. F. W. Bateson recalled Eliot impressing the members of the literary society at Oxford in 1922 and 1923 with a paper read “without a trace of an American accent”: “Balliol...received a lesson on how English should be written and how it should be enunciated.” The Sacred Wood provided younger critics with a manner; the essays on seventeenth-century poetry published four years later as Homage to John Dryden supplied them with a canon, and with the consequent rise of Cambridge English in England and the New Criticism in America, an academic critical discourse was established that would persist for more than thirty years. Thrown off by the declining belletristic side of American literary study at Harvard, as Pound had been thrown off by the declining philological side at Penn, Eliot became one of the figureheads of the academic orthodoxy that supplanted it.

For The Waste Land is the great monument to the “international style,” and the "international style" was an American invention.

As with all orthodoxies that on got started as a heterodoxy, and, as with many orthodoxies, its heterodox element was what kept it alive even after it had become an accepted method of critical conversation. For criticism in the mode established by Eliot and his academic followers is revisionism: when Eliot or Leavis or a New Critic is not subverting the received idea of a literary reputation, he usually tends to sound merely dutiful. Eliot’s special genius, of course, was for revising himself: he devoted much of the second half of his career to reversing many of the estimations of literary merit he had devoted the first half of his career to devising—“the only instance I know,” declared Delmore Schwartz in a moment of annoyance, “where anyone has abdicated and immediately succeeded to his own throne.”

Eliot’s success at this game was due in part to the extraordinary liberties he took with the cultural traditions of his adopted country, and he was able to take those liberties because he was an American. Though The Waste Land seemed to many readers of the day the fullest reckoning of the damage inflicted by the First World War, it could only have been written by a man who not only took no part in the war, but who, as an American, was exempt from complicity in its “European” stupidities. For The Waste Land is the great monument to the “international style,” and the "international style" was an American invention. “We are Americans born,” the young Henry James advised his friend Thomas Sergeant Perry, “—il faut en prendre son parti.”

We have exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in fact more than either of them we can deal freely with forms of civilization not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically etc.) claim our property wherever we find it…I think it not unlikely that American writers may yet indicate that a vast intellectual fusion and synthesis of the various National tendencies of the world is in the condition of more important achievements that any we have seen.

This was an impulse Eliot understood: plus royaliste qu le roi though he was, he looked upon the condition of being an Englishman, as he did the condition of being an American, as a provinciality. “It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American,” he wrote in 1918, “to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” This attitude could lead to cultural constructs otherwise inconceivable—inventing a tradition for one’s work that ran from Dante through Donne and Baudelaire, for example—but it had its limitations. Thus it is that for all the bickering and badgering in the pages of Scrutiny, we feel when we read them that real blood was being shed, while in the pages of The Criterion the presiding figure is that bloodless abstraction “the mind of Europe.” And thus it is, too, that despite his eagerness to submit himself to its “impersonal” discipline, Eliot entered the genteel and comfortable world of twentieth-century Anglicanism with all the missionary fervor of his Unitarian grandfather. Eliot’s England was an invention built out of nostalgias peculiarly American, and in his later years he preached to the English by appealing to traditions which, as Donald Davie once pointed out they had already repudiated.

Few writers have taken their property where they found it with greater avidity than Ezra Pound. He shared with Eliot the revisionist’s passion for constructing cultural genealogies, but unlike Eliot his enthusiasm for the new was nearly indiscriminate: anything that interested him he made a part of his tradition. An Italian friend recalled Pound explaining to him in 1941 that “Fascist doctrine had its origin in Confucius, passed by way of Cavalcanti, Flaubert, the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius and Enrico Pea [an Italian novelist Pound was translating] directly to Mussolini, Hitler, and Oswald Mosley.” Pound made The Cantos the record of his interests, and though many readers have found it a monologue without a drama or a collection of clues without a mystery, the poem has both: its drama is the spectacle of its author’s confidence, fading to a hope, fading to despair, that a pattern will ultimately emerge. And its mystery is the mystery of Pound, whose life and many contacts make up one of the remarkable plots in the story of modernist culture. ·

Pound seems to have made a habit of wearing out his welcome everywhere he went—in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, which he left in the middle of his doctoral studies by mutual agreement with his professors; at his first teaching job at Wabash College, after an incident involving a violation of local parietals; in London, where by 1920 no one but Orage at The New Age would publish his work; in Paris, where he found himself in the shadow of Joyce and the company of too many of his fellow countrymen; and his final removal to Rapallo in 1924 was a kind of exile from exile. But in the end it was his refusal to renounce his Americanness that was his undoing, for Pound had—at least until he was faced with the prospect of trial for treason—the crazy courage of his crazy convictions, and when he undertook to deliver radio broadcasts for Mussolini at the height of the war, he had not taken the precaution of changing his citizenship first.

Dr. Torrey is shocked by the blatant displays of homosexuality among various of Pound’s Paris acquaintances

When Pound was taken into custody by the American Army in May 1945, he was sent to the American Disciplinary Training Center at Pisa, a facility for hard-core Army criminals. There he was locked in the famous cage: it was six by six and a half feet, made of wire and concrete, and exposed on all sides to view and to the weather. At night a searchlight was aimed at it. Pound slept, until the rains came, on the concrete floor; he was given one meal a day and a tin can to use as a latrine. No one was permitted to speak with him. He knew that he was under indictment for treason and had every expectation of being executed. He was fifty-nine years old. Some time into his third week in the cage, Pound collapsed: he became examined by Army psychiatrists and taken to a medical tent. E. Fuller Torrey thinks that Pound was faking—which will give some idea of the sympathy Torrey’s new biography, The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeths, extends toward its subject.

Dr. Torrey is not a literary historian; he is a psychiatrist who has used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to files at the FBI and at St. Elizabeths, where Pound was incarcerated for twelve and a half years. The “secret” of his book’s title is an open one: it is that though Pound was declared unfit to stand trial, he was at no time clinically insane; that his hospitalization was the result of what amounted to collusion between Pound’s American friends, the Justice Department, and the psychiatrist in charge of St. Elizabeths, Dr. Winfred Overholser; that despite the feelings of junior members of the psychiatric reports—interesting in their own right for the light they throw on the politics of psychiatry and the law—there is nothing about these claims that has not been known or that anyone involved would have been likely to deny. Pound’s commitment was in fact a solution that suited all interested parties. It suited Pound’s friends because it avoided both the spectacle of a trial and the scandal of exoneration; it suited the government because of the difficulty of proving an overt act of treason under existing law (Pound’s broadcasts were witnessed by one Italian technician at a time—the law required to witnesses—and the technicians did not speak English and therefore ould not reliably testify that Pound actually said what he was heard to say); and it suited, in the end, Pound himself, by providing him with a kind of sanctuary within which to conduct the business of what his disciples called Ezuversity.

Dr. Torrey has made the mistake of introducing the story of Pound’s non-trial with a full-length biography of the poet. Pound was an irritating man, and many of the people he irritated have left tales of his offenses. Dr. Torrey seems to have read all of them, and with a credulity befitting a man with a hatchet in his hand. Thus, for instance, the reminiscences of Ford Madox Ford, one of the most incorrigibly unreliable men who ever wrote a memoir, are repeated without the flicker of a reservation. It appears to be Dr. Torrey’s view that many of the major figures of twentieth-century culture were libertines, mystics, and frauds. Poor William Butler Yeats figures in his account as a sensualist and adulterer. Dr. Torrey is shocked by the blatant displays of homosexuality among various of Pound’s Paris acquaintances; and any writer who can be suspected of licentious behavior is somehow implicated into the story for many: Dr. Torrey explains Pound’s enchantment with Sirmione, on Lake Garda in northern Italy, as follows: “As Pound knew, it had been home to the Roman poet Catullus when he was writing some of his most passionate and sensual lyrics in honor of Lesbia, the wife of another man.”

Pound was, for much of his life, a deluded, intemperate, and, to use Elizabeth Bishop’s word, a wretched man. He was not, in any strict sense, a dangerous one: it is hard to imagine what sort of aid or comfort the Fascist government of Italy could have derived from someone who suggested, several months after the fall of Rome and the Normandy invasion, when Mussolini was a German puppet playing solitaire in the last days of the Salo Republic, that it would be a good time for the Italian government to produce a photomicrographic edition of the works of Vivaldi. Readers who want to know more about the life that led the friend and promoter of Eliot and Joyce to such a pass will find an account unclouded by either animus or excessive sympathy in Noel Stock’s Life.

Eliot’s story is a more difficult one to tell for many formidable reasons, chief among them being his own wish that no biography be written, a desire that has been respected with what many scholars feel to be an inordinate degree of punctiliousness by the trustees of his literary estate; and the intricate and apparently paradoxical theory of the relation between the artist and his art out of which most of his poetry seems to have been written. Ronald Bush has met both of these difficulties head on: he has searched out Eliot’s correspondence and his many unpublished lectures, and where he has been denied permission to quote he has paraphrased at length. And he has insisted on reading Eliot’s poetry, sometimes at a level of extreme nuance, as an expression of the inner life of the man.

T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style complements in biographical detail Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years and, in its reading of both the life and the poetry, far surpasses it. Bush’s book is thorough yet economical: it relies on almost none of the familiar formulae most studies tend to make much of—the “dissociation of sensibility,” for instance, is not mentioned once. Readers will have their own opinions of the justice of Bush’s interpretations, and those who profess to be scandalized by the approach will find many of the revised readings Bush suggests disagreeable. My own reservations have nothing to do with the propriety of Bush’s undertaking—his is an eminently tactful book; they are compelled by the assumptions his methodology requires him to make. As its subtitle indicates, his study is phenomenological: its subject is what Bush calls “Eliot’s quarrel with himself,” and its claim is that the lineaments of Eliot’s inner life can be read in not so much the words as the tone and shaping of his poems. It is Bush’s contention that the development of a style that would express Eliot’s most genuine emotions culminated in The Waste Land, which so terrified its author by its very success in uncovering feelings he did not wish to confront that he devoted the rest of his career to the contrivance of a series of stratagems for keeping in abeyance the compulsion to sincerity that had directed his earlier work.

I think, and I say this with no fealty to the doctrine of impersonality, that he was trying to write a poem.

How do we know that in, say, “Gerontion” Eliot was being honest with himself, while in, say, Ash Wednesday he was engaging in duplicity? Bush’s response is that where the technique fails, Eliot must be cheating: “Eliot’s only means of protecting the authenticity of his inner life against repression was through the rigorous honesty of literary craft.” Thus Four Quartets is “shot through with technical and emotional lapses” because Eliot was led “to adopt a form that would not let him face his demons honestly.” But this requires the enormous assumption that at some level of intention Eliot wrote poetry in order to express his true emotions, and the further assumption that the stylistic choices he made were dictated not by the range of styles available to him as a modernist writer committed to a certain kind of experimentalism but by the logic of inner weather.

Let us take, for one example, the poem Bush’s assumptions would appear to be best adapted to: everyone knows that at the time he was trying to write The Waste Land Eliot’s life was at one of its most tormented stages, that he wrote much of the poem in bits and pieces and over several years in despair of getting his material under control, and that he was being treated for a serious breakdown at the moment the poem came together. Bush’s argument is that the blockages Eliot experienced were the consequence of the deterioration of his relationship with his wife and the added trauma of a visit from his mother in the summer of 1921. At the sanatorium at Lausanne, Eliot was finally able, in this state of profound psychic unrest, to produce his poem. The work written under these circumstances, Bush suggests, was uniquely authentic as a record of Eliot’s deepest feelings: “Guided by the principles of rigorous emotional honesty that he had been following since his Harvard days, Eliot’s habits of composition led him to open a door he could not close.”

I do not doubt that Eliot was emotionally agonized in the years he wrote The Waste Land, or that the strains of his daily life impeded the poem’s composition, or that his trip to Lausanne helped him to pull his poem together—or even that these things got into and are in various ways surreptitiously referred to by the poem. What I doubt is that we can take the poem, on any level of reading, as the picture of Eliot’s true feelings about himself, because I do not think that when Eliot wrote The Waste Land—or any other poem of his early period—he was trying to lay his soul bare. I think, and I say this with no fealty to the doctrine of impersonality, that he was trying to write a poem. And the composition of his poem was determined not only by the circumstances of his life but the circumstances of the literary moment. In the late 1950s, Eliot described to an Irish interviewer the effect on him, at the time he was planning his long poem of reading Joyce’s Ulysses in manuscript as the chapters arrived at the offices of the The Egoist in London: “What he was tentatively attempting to do,” he told the interviewer, “with the usual false starts and despairs, had already been done, done superbly and, it seemed to him finally, in prose which without being poetic in the older sense, had the intensity and texture of poetry. He abandoned his poem.” Pound, he said, later talked him out of his discouragement. But surely it was the case that among the pressures preventing Eliot from making his poem work was the purely external pressure exerted by the achievement of a literary rival, and that what he was finally able to produce was in part the result of the application of techniques not harrowed in the soul but borrowed from the work of his competitor.

Having played their notable parts in the drama—it sometimes seems in their cases to have been a melodrama—of revisionism that is a characteristic feature of modern criticism, it has been the turn of Pound and Eliot for some years now to be revised. It has in fact become the habit among certain critics to write them out, as they wrote so many others out, of the history of texts that continue to matter. But even those who are most suspicious of the claims modernism made for itself and for its place in cultural history will not want to forget those writers entirely, if only because suspicion is a good faculty for critics to have, and we need tough cases to keep it sharp.

Louis Menand is an American essayist and English professor. He has contributed to publications such as The New Yorker. His works include the Pulitzer Prize winning The Metaphysical Club and The Free World: Art And Thought In The Cold War.
Originally published:
October 1, 1984


A Faceless Compass

Johannesburg’s haunted streets
Ivan Vladislavić

Case Studies

A critic tracks herself
Margo Jefferson

Geoff Dyer

The essayist on not having a career
James Surowiecki


Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.