A masterful biography of the canonical modernist.
In this first of a proposed two-volume life of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), Crawford (Modern Scottish Literature/Univ. of St. Andrews; On Glasgow and Edinburgh, 2013, etc.) examines the poet’s youth and early career, ending with the publication of The Waste Land in 1922. Drawing on sources not available to previous biographers, the author fashions an authoritative, nuanced portrait. Eliot was the seventh child of a wealthy St. Louis family whose provincialism he was determined to escape. Drawn to poetry even as a teenager, he fell into “an intense engagement” with the 19th-century Romantics. At Harvard, where he was a mediocre student, he discovered the French symbolists, especially Jules Laforgue, whose poems possessed “a compulsively insinuating music” that Eliot began to imitate. Not surprisingly, he yearned to go to Paris, a plan his doting, overprotective mother sternly discouraged. Nevertheless, in 1910, Eliot sailed for Europe, enrolling in classes with the groundbreaking sociologist Emile Durkheim, psychologist Pierre Janet and philosopher Henri Bergson, thinkers who stimulated Eliot’s ideas “about the intersection between religious mysticism, asceticism, and hysteria in ‘primitive’ and modern life.” In 1914, he again left America, this time for a year at Oxford that proved life-changing: He met Ezra Pound, who responded to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” with exuberant praise. Pound opened doors, and by 1920, married, living in London, editing and reviewing while working full-time at a bank, Eliot had become “one of the best networked younger figures in London literary publishing.” Crawford illuminates Eliot’s tormented first marriage to the volatile Vivienne Haigh-Wood; his complicated relationships with Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf; and his struggle to find an American publisher. Most crucially, he explores the swirling aesthetic and philosophical forces that shaped Eliot’s startling poetry.
Although Crawford modestly claims that his biography is neither “official” nor definitive, it is unlikely to be surpassed.