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The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Again and Again

The new US edition of the first two volumes of The Letters of T. S. Eliot has received an amazing amount of attention in the press: nearly a page in the Wall Street Journal as well as an article in The New Yorker and a long review in the New York Times Book Review, not to mention a feature in The Nation. None of these stories mention that neither of the two huge volumes (1,750 pages in total, price $90) brings Eliot’s story up to 1927, the point at which Mrs. Eliot (with some help from me back in January 1988) decided to conclude the manuscript of what was to have been Volume 1. (Those years included not only the vital period before Eliot left his wife and joined the Anglican Church, but his extensive correspondence with some of the most influential and talents in the world of arts and letters. Many of them, as well as Eliot himself, were involved with the US literary journal The Dial. A few years later my interest in The Dial period led to my meeting and becoming friends with Sophia Mumford, the widow of Lewis Mumford.) The Yale edition is a re-edit of the first volumes in a series that has never gone past that original point. As there has been another change of editor (Hugh Haughton, coeditor with TSE’s widow Valerie Eliot, is no longer with the project; Mrs. Eliot is 85 and not actively involved herself in the editing any longer, though she certainly was during the time I worked on the letters), I wonder if there will be a 3rdedition of these early volumes before we ever get to move on to the rest of Eliot’s life.

The first of these books, 1898-1922, was published as a Revised Edition in 2009 and both were published in the UK by Faber & Faber two years before they came out in the United States, from Yale University Press. I can’t help wondering if letters published at this scale – now more than twice as long as originally planned in the 1980s – have any chance of finding the readership that at least some of them deserve.

I wrote in 2005, in a memoir published by the Guardian newspaper’s literary Review, about why I hoped to see the letters through 1927:

The Eliot letters still linger in the flat in Kensington, and it’s said that no more will be published during VE’s lifetime because there are vital gaps, letters of TSE’s that must be found before the work can be finished. I’m not only puzzled but impatient, because the letters in the second volume were the most moving of all the hundreds I worked on. They catalogue the breakdown of a marriage, the bewilderment and despair of two people who seemed unable to avoid destroying each other. We had not only TSE’s letters from the period, but dozens of letters written by Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, TSE’s first wife – the hysterical Viv of the play and film Tom and Viv. A second volume of letters would do much to reveal what really went on between them, and would, I feel sure, set the record straight and create sympathy for Eliot.

 And here’s how my article began, with a scene a friend said reminded him of Eliot’s line, “In my beginning is my end”:

 In January 1988 I helped Valerie Eliot into a taxi outside her flat at Kensington Court Gardens in London and handed two heavy cardboard boxes in after her. We settled them against the wall behind the driver where she could keep her eye on them. The pavement shone under the yellow street lights, and the black cab’s engine made a comfortable purr in that quiet corner of Kensington. Mrs. Eliot and I made another final survey of the contents of those boxes. We’d called Faber & Faber and someone would be waiting outside, an extra set of photocopies was secured, the flat was locked. Yes, that was everything. Mrs. Eliot settled back in the cab to make her stately progress across London.

That was that. My job was done, and I could turn in the other direction, for the Tube at Gloucester Road and the trek home to South London. But as I waved good-bye, one of VE’s stories came to mind. I saw Tom Eliot himself watching us from the chair he’d once set up next to the red pillar post box at the top of the street. He had waited patiently for the postman in order to retrieve a letter mailed too hastily. How, I wondered suddenly, would the man whose first criteria for a literary executor had been to ensure that no biography would ever be published, feel about the typescript of his and his first wife’s letters going off to the publishers?

Valerie Eliot had had two editorial assistants before me. She has had others in the 15 years since I left, only a few weeks after that chill winter’s evening. But I am the only one who has seen any of the TSE letters go to press. Only a single volume of Eliot’s voluminous correspondence has been published. This puzzles and frustrates many people, but it’s particularly puzzling to me because the boxes I put into the taxi contained enough finished material for two volumes.

You can read my memoir, “Dear Mrs. Eliot,” and I expect to write more about Eliot’s work and the current Eliot publishing enterprises. There are in the works collected prose and poetry that will, with the letters, amount to dozens of volumes – though one wonders whether they’ll really exist in print or even ebook form, or just become a massive scholarly database. Finally, here’s a entertaining passage from “Royalist, Classicist, Anglo-Catholic,” TIME, May 25, 1936, COLLECTED POEMS OF T. S. ELIOT—Harcourt, Brace ($2.50). “Thomas Stearns Eliot is a St. Louis boy who went to Harvard, and beyond. Not a particularly shining light in an undergraduate world that included such firebrands and footlights as the late John Reed and Walter Lippmann, he polished his post-graduate lamp to such purpose that he became Poet Laureate of the Lost Generation. His famed Waste Land has stood like a lighthouse against which whole flocks of sophisticated blues-writers have dashed themselves in vain emulation.” via Books: Royalist, Classicist, Anglo-Catholic – TIME.

Christensen’s letter in the New Yorker, 6 July 2006

Guardian news item about Christensen article

Guardian article, “Dear Mrs. Eliot”

2 thoughts on “The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Again and Again

  1. […] Karen Christensen is an editor and writer but admits that she is no copyeditor. On her very first day working for the formidable Valerie Eliot, widow of T. S. Eliot and controller of one of the most important and wealthy literary estates on earth, typed a letter and took it to Mrs. Eliot for signature. Mrs. Eliot reared with dismay. “My dear,” she said coldly, “Waste Land is two words.” (Karen’s memoir of working on the first volume of The Letters of T. S. Eliot was published in the Guardian Review; a link and further information is available at the Berkshire Blog.) […]

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