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Remembering Valerie Eliot

I learned about Valerie Eliot’s death before the news went out on the wire services yesterday because an acute reporter at The Times (that is, The Times of London) found my 2005 article about the Eliot Letters and emailed me (proving how easy I am to locate). He introduced himself as a science reporter who happened to be working on Sunday and mentioned “the two cultures,” which immediately warmed my heart. I’m a literary person who has ended up doing a lot with science, so the idea of having a science writer cover this literary story appealed to me, and we had a lively conversation about the Eliots, the Eliot estate, and the new Eliot publishing that’s now underway. Almost all of that got cut by the subeditors (what Americans call copyeditors) in the article that appeared today, but my response to the most important question is there: “Scholars anxious for a glimpse of the T. S. Eliot archive.” And the conversation was useful: talking to someone unfamiliar with the Eliot story helped clarify what I will want to cover in an article of my own. As it happened, I’d been working on a new article about the Eliots and just had dinner with Scofield Thayer’s biographer, Jim Dempsey, so many of the stories were fresh in my mind.

And of course this brings back many memories. The way Mrs. Eliot (I always called her that, just as she and her long-time cleaning woman called each other Mrs. Eliot and Mrs. Mad[ison] and yet sat down to cozy lunches together) used to urge me to eat chocolate biscuits in the morning, saying that as a new mother (my son was a toddler) I needed to keep up my strength. She would have steaming coffee and hot milk ready when I walked in the door and we always spent the first half an hour or more sitting in front of the fire, drinking coffee and chatting. A civilized work environment indeed! I’ll be writing more, and here’s a link to the memoir I wrote for the Guardian in 2005: “Dear Mrs. Eliot.”

By the way, I’ve mentioned the “two cultures” quite often on this blog. Here’s one post in which I explain where the phrase comes from, and a link to some other posts. Now that I am publishing so much about sustainability as well as writing about community and the “good life,” this concept has more relevance than ever before.

27 November 2007
Two cultures, new cultures

I mentioned the “two cultures” yesterday and perhaps should explain this important way of expressing the intellectual and political problem of divided viewpoints, in the West, that results from a gulf between the arts and humanities, on one side, and science. A famous British scientist and novelist, C.P. Snow, is known for a speech in which he coined the phrase and explained the problem.

When I attend events with lots of Internet-savvy people, like this forum in Shanghai on Nurturing and Commercializing Online Communities, I’m struck by a new type of “two cultures” divide. There’s a business aspect, which I’ll write about later, but what struck me first were the casual references to “living digitally” and “virtual life.” Myself, I don’t think there is such a thing as a virtual life, though I’m happy to use online interaction to enrich my life and work. We have only one life, and our connections with other people are amongst the most important determinants of our personal happiness and our accomplishment and legacy.

Other blog posts on the “two cultures” are here:

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