Jewel Spears Brooker, editor
T.S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews.
Cambridge University Press,
600 pages, $110
This is the tenth volume in The American Critical Archive series, a splendid scholarly project of the old school, by which I do not mean old hat. On the contrary, by documenting (as the series editor M. Thomas Inge puts it in his preface) “a part of a writer’s career that is usually difficult to examine, that is, the immediate response to each work as it was made public by reviewers in contemporary newspapers and journals,” these volumes form an indispensable resource for any serious student of the writers in question. Earlier volumes have been devoted to classic American authors from Edith Wharton and Henry James to John Steinbeck and Walt Whitman. The current volume, ably edited by the Eliot scholar Jewel Spears Brooker, supplements if it does not replace the (also excellent) two volumes devoted to Eliot in the Critical Heritage series (1982). Brooker has gathered together hundreds of contemporary notices and reviews of Eliot’s work from 1916, when The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock appeared, to 1959, when notices of The Elder Statesman, Eliot’s last play, made the rounds.
Eliot has been a literary and cultural titan for decades. It was not always thus. Among the earliest reviews was a raised-eyebrow dismissal from Arthur Waugh (father of Evelyn), who read Prufrock in an anthology and took to the pages of the Quarterly Review to thunder about “the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary ‘Cubists,’” etc., etc. (Brooker tells us that the phrase “literary Cubists” was a cause of much mirth to Ezra Pound.)
Waugh’s wasn’t the only assault. An anonymous review of “recent verse” in Literary World in 1917, for example, sneered about Eliot’s being “one of those clever young men who find it amusing to pull the leg of a sober reviewer.” Meanwhile Pound was working overtime to assure his protégé a more respectful reception: “It is quite safe,” Pound wrote in 1917, “to compare Mr. Eliot’s work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue.”
In accordance with the plan of the series, Brooker has included only pieces in English. Because of space constraints she has had to leave out some notices, especially some longer ones, but she ends every section with a useful “checklist of additional reviews.” This is scholarship in the traditional sense, i.e., it represents a good deal of hard work in the library and actually illuminates the subject under discussion.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 77
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