Joseph Epstein’s essay, “T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture,” in the November issue of Commentary, strengthens the case for The Waste Land author’s enduring legacy. Epstein captures the high points of Eliot’s biographical and literary accomplishments in only eight pages – an admirable feat given the extent of Eliot’s influence on the past century. After filling out the checklist of Eliot’s early poetry, friendships, jobs, marriages, alleged anti-Semitism, and criticism by rote, Epstein concludes Eliot was a tremendous poet and literary critic more than likely destined to be forgotten due to the imminent collapse of Western culture.
One cannot help but agree with Epstein’s assessment of Eliot as an erudite writer and speaker who could fill a hall with 15,000 attendees – in Minnesota, no less – eager to hear the Nobel laureate speak on literature. Epstein notes it is doubtful any writer living today could match Eliot’s drawing power for a live audience. But the Internet and television render such expectations moot. For example, I don’t have counts on how many people visit Web sites devoted to Seamus Heaney, another Nobel laureate poet, but one can easily imagine a number such as 15,000 boosted a hundred-fold.
Likewise, I respectfully reject Epstein’s too-easy assessment of Eliot as the last of a dying breed and the end of culture. While admitting many of Epstein’s concerns about the present and future cultural climate, your writer is not quite ready to throw in the towel. Call me stubborn, foolish or naïve. But I witness culture thriving on a daily basis, from the glorious Gilead by Marilynne Robinson to the agrarian short stories, novels and poetry of Wendell Berry.
Let readers recall as well Eliot knew that our literary tradition evolved, subsuming all that was best from preceding generations as well as what was once considered avant-garde. It’s easy to dismiss contemporary culture simply because there’s so much Cracker Jack to riffle through before finding the prize.
Depicting Eliot as nothing more than a literary high-brow, in any event, misses the totality of a fascinating individual who boasted of his correspondence with Julius Henry Marx – the inimitable middle sibling Groucho of the Marx Brothers and You Bet Your Life television legend – and a English Music Hall regular who would have been more than likely pleased by the success of the Broadway musical Cats based on Eliot’s children’s book, Ol’ Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. (more…)