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Writing Great Tom: T. S. Eliot & the Keepers of the Flame

Writing Great Tom: T. S. Eliot & the Keepers of the Flame

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Writing Great Tom is the journal T. S. Matthews kept as he worked on the first major biography of T. S. Eliot. It shows how he brought to light unknown women including Eliot’s first wife Vivien, and how the widow Valerie Eliot tried to repress the book. Read the foreword here.

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Writing Great Tom: T. S. Eliot & the Keepers of the Flame was T. S. Matthews’s backup project as he worked on the first major biography of T. S. Eliot, Great Tom: Notes Towards a Definition of T. S. Eliot, published by Harper & Row in 1973. So many barriers were put in his way that he thought he might not be able to produce a biography. He decided to keep this account, which he described as “living a detective story,” in reserve. It is composed of reflections, interviews, and dozens of letters to and from people ranging from Robert Lowell and Edmund Wilson, Mary Trevelyan and Valerie (Mrs. T. S.) Eliot. In the end, he managed to complete his biography and this diary was filed away with his papers, which eventually went to Princeton University. Writing Great Tom is the story of a writer’s efforts to deal with the guardians of the flame. Biographers will sympathize. Readers will get a direct, intimate look at the challenging work biographers do. Matthews was able to interview people who had died before later biographers began their work, and Writing Great Tom provides the background to much of the detail that appeared in the book. Writing Great Tom also shows how two women important in Eliot’s life, his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, and his companion of many decades, Emily Hale, were for many years hidden from view. He also interviewed Mary Trevelyan, whose account of her relationship with Eliot was published in 2022 – more than sixty years after she wrote it – having faced similar barriers.

Sara Fitzgerald, who discovered the Matthews archive, has contributed a foreword. Fitzgerald is the author of the novel A Poet’s Girl. Her biography of Emily Hale will be published in 2024. Karen Christensen edited the book and is writing a biography of Valerie Eliot, whom she worked for in London, a story told in the Guardian Review as “Dear Mrs Eliot.”

About the Author

T. S. (Thomas Stanley) Matthews (1901-1991) was an American writer and editor who divided his time between the United States and England for many years. His early career as a journalist culminated with a period as editor of Time After leaving Time in 1953, he published a number of books, and was recruited to write the first major biography of T. S. Eliot, Great Tom: Notes Towards a Definition of T. S. Eliot, published by Harper & Row in 1973. He was a wealthy and well-connected man with friends on both sides of the Atlantic. He was able to make use of those connections when he undertook the difficult task of writing about Eliot. In an unusual reversal, he was also known later in life as one of the ex-husbands of American writer Martha Gellhorn, who was herself annoyed to be referred to as the ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway.

Foreword Author 

Sara Fitzgerald’s biography of Emily Hale will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2024. She is the author of The Poet’s Girl: A Novel of Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot. Her essays about Hale’s life have appeared in Volumes 3,4 and 5 of The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, the 2020, 2022 and 2023 editions of the Journal of the T. S. Eliot Society (UK), and Time Present and Exchanges, the newsletters of the International T. S. Eliot Society and the British society, respectively. She has also presented papers on Hale and Eliot at conferences of the International T. S. Eliot Society, the South Atlantic Modern Language Association and the Midwest Modern Language Association. She is also the author of Conquering Heroines: How Women Fought Sex Bias at Michigan and Paved the Way for Title IX and Elly Peterson: Mother of the Moderates, both published by University of Michigan Press. She retired after a career in journalism that included fifteen years as an editor and new media developer for the Washington Post

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