The Awful Daring
T. S. Eliot in 1923. Photography by Lady Ottoline Morrell
In the summer of 1918, T.S. Eliot was alarmed by the news that the American armed forces in Europe, then engaged in the final campaign against Germany, would begin to conscript American citizens living in England. Eliot had arrived in England at the beginning of WWI, four years earlier, and had sunk deep roots in his new country: he was already well known in advanced literary circles, had taken a full-time job as a clerk in Lloyds Bank, and, most important, had married an English woman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. But he was still an American—he would not adopt British citizenship until 1927—and he was worried that if he did not secure an officer’s commission, he would end up as a grunt in the American army.
The first volume of the new edition of Eliot’s Letters shows how quickly he went into action, trying to get a suitable post in the Naval Intelligence Division. He worked his society contacts and he asked all his prominent literary acquaintances for letters of recommendation. One writer who came through for the twenty-nine-year-old poet was Arnold Bennett, then the dean of English novelists. As it turned out, the war ended before Eliot could enlist, but that December he wrote to Bennett thanking him for his recommendation. “Happily,” Eliot wrote, “the letter remains in my possession, to be realised upon by my heirs at Sothebys.”
This was a piece of flattery, suggesting that Bennett’s signature would make the letter valuable. The irony, of course, is that what would bring a high price today is not Bennett’s name, but Eliot’s. The senior writer and his whole generation of Edwardian realists—Shaw, Galsworthy, Wells—now occupy a distinctly minor place in English literary history; and it was Eliot and his generation, the Modernists, who secured their elders’ demotion. To many readers today, Bennett is known only as the target of Virginia Woolf’s Modernist manifesto “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”—which was published in T.S. Eliot’s magazine, the Criterion, in 1924. In volume two of the Letters of T.S. Eliot, which is dominated by correspondence related to the Criterion, we see Eliot thanking Woolf for this contribution: “with your paper and unpublished manuscripts of Marcel Proust and W.B. Yeats, the July number will be the most brilliant in [the magazine’s] history.”
One wonders if Eliot would have been surprised, even in 1918, to learn that his reputation would one day eclipse Bennett’s. At the time, he was not yet the author of “Gerontion” or The Waste Land or “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and the best testimony of his genius, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” had been written eight long years before. “I often feel that ‘J.A.P.’ is a swan song,” he wrote his brother Henry in 1916, “but I never mention the fact because Vivien is so exceedingly anxious that I shall equal it, and would be bitterly disappointed if I do not.”