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TSE  January 2002

TSE January 2002

Subject:

Re: Eliot biographies--why not, then, disprove?

From:

"Nancy Gish" <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 31 Jan 2002 00:52:59 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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text/plain (177 lines)

Dear Will,

First of all, my question was not directed at you but at a theme that runs 
through much Eliot commentary, and not only on this list.  Second, I am 
repeating in a way, but what I find fascinating about Gordon is the way her 
tone has changed as she has learned more information.  That shows, I 
think, that she had no agenda.  If anything, her earlier agenda was to praise 
and/or justify.  I think she was pushed hard to an altered--and still very 
balanced--evaluation.  I cannot speak for Jewel, but I think she too would 
have had to weigh her position in the face of evidence.

I think the opinion one develops of a writer's life has varying degrees of 
significance depending on how the life affects or permeates the work.  It 
affects our reading, say, of "This Living Hand" or "Ode to a Nightingale" that 
we know Keats was dying of tuberculosis and writing about his sense of 
impending death.  It matters in reading Milton that we know he was a 
puritan and that he became blind.  It matters very much in reading Woolf to 
know she had mentally ill  or emotionally distressed episodes in which she 
heard voices or that she had an extraordinary background of reading in a 
highly educated family despite having not had a university degree.  All that 
kind of information affects what is written and reveals details.  It even 
matters in reading WCW to know he was a doctor and wrote every day 
between patients--ergo, short direct poems and then theory to make that 
the right style--and to know Conrad himself went up the Congo river, so 
Marlow is not just giving imagined material.    

In the case of Eliot we have an especially complex and fascinating problem 
because he himself made a career of denying biography's significance and 
developing an "impersonal" theory of poetry, only to acknowledge later that 
he was in fact getting something off his chest and to write about the 
importance of the life in, say Yeats.  Then we have the suppression of his 
life for decades and the release bit by bit of material (such as the original 
WL with Valerie's notes and INVENTIONS OF THE MARCH HARE and the 
Clark lectures) that show more and more how deeply he delved into his own 
experience when writing.  So the need to suppress becomes not simply a 
kind of challenge but a serious question of what did drive his work and how 
much the suppression is because of the life.  So I think he created the very 
thing he claimed early in his career to deny and later took back.  In 1962, 
for example, he said in an interview that Prufrock was partly himself and 
partly someone else.  That very much alters how one reads Prufrock I 
think.  And when we learned in about 1971 that scenes in TWL were really 
sometimes based on Tom and Viv and that she even added a couple of 
lines and that the pub scene is a writing down of actual conversation 
reported to him, it became harder to read it as a critique of civilization that 
had nothing to do with the poet.  That is just the tiny tip of fact that now 
keeps emerging.  So I would say that because his work seems more and 
more to have drawn on his life, experience, emotions, and desire, that in 
his case it matters a great deal to know as much as we can of those things.

Re:  publication--I have an article coming out this year that I wrote over two 
years ago.  The press for the collection has had it in a queue all that time.  
And before that, I rewrote it twice as they changed their minds about 
lengths and balancing focus.  So notes could look obsolete by the time it is 
out except that that is always true.  Sorry to tell you this annoying info 
about publishing. 
Best,
Nancy
Date sent:      	Wed, 30 Jan 2002 21:38:24 -0500
Send reply to:  	[log in to unmask]
From:           	"Will Gray" <[log in to unmask]>
To:             	[log in to unmask]
Subject:        	Re: Eliot biographies--why not, then, disprove?

I've been out for a couple of days, but I wanted to respond one more time
to the discussion. I too have appreciated the discussion on the
biographies and Gordon as biographer, and especially the addition of Jewel
Spears Brooker's essay. Thanks to Rick Seddon. I agree strongly with her
point of view (and most of Gordon's, too): I think we gain from Gordon's
extensive study the insight of a pattern to Eliot's work, but I would take
some objection to her tone at times. I want to try to answer some
questions that Nancy brought up--I assume they are directed to me...

> I would like to ask again--though it just gets ignored--why 
> praise of Eliot as a person is uncritically taken as true?  As Raphael
> pointed out, it too can be an agenda.  To admire that and disparage
> critique is meaningless unless one goes back to the original sources and
> disproves the conclusions.  I have not seen that done.  

Agreed. I too respect the writer who does his homework but is willing to
be fair with the subject. I think Jewel is a good example.

> So could we be specific?  What does she say that is false?  What is a
> better way of interpreting, as one example and not at all the worst, the
> fact that two women spent years believing Eliot would marry them, and
> for reasons he clearly gave them (most women, even far more
> sophisticated and experienced than Emily Hale) would think 30 years of
> letters and many visits and a past in which love was spoken meant more
> than a mild flirtation to be dropped without a shared discussion; I
> would have thought so myself), yet she was so astonished and devastated
> by learning of his marriage that she had a breakdown.  Now these are
> facts shown by letters and pictures and not disputed by anyone.  And the
> Eliot estate does not bring libel actions, and one can be pretty sure
> they would at any falsehood. Please tell he how this can be interpreted
> to his credit or what there is about it that makes it appallingly wrong
> to find it faithless and cruel in > Eliot?  That seems to me a quite
> logical inference. 

I don't think this question was directed to me, but I didn't see who
brought up the issue, so... I agree--that does seem a quite logical
inference. Here is my question, though--how important is it for a critic
or writer to develop an opinion of the writer as person? Is that essential
to a study?

> I think the reason you are not seeing the latest book quoted is simply
> that publication is so delayed for any book or article that citations
> seldom turn up in any number for a couple of years at least.  Gordon's
> latest is 1998, so work done since then is only about on the verge of
> being finished and published.  

Thanks, Nancy. I didn't realize that publication took that long to catch
up with new sources. I'm still on the early side of publication, so I
wouldn't have known that.

Will Gray
> 
> Date sent:      	Sat, 26 Jan 2002 20:35:42 -0500
> Send reply to:  	[log in to unmask]
> From:           	"Your Name" <[log in to unmask]>
> To:             	[log in to unmask]
> Subject:        	Re: Eliot biographies
> 
> Hi. I just joined the list yesterday and was thrilled to see so much
> discussion going on. As per the discussion of biographies--I would be
> hesitant to recommend An Imperfect Life, even though Gordon synthesized
> much of her earlier material here. Her tone toward Eliot and his work is
> notably changed from her earlier books--I came across some comments to
> this effect in a recent book, Experiments against Reality (Roger
> Kimball). He says, "Gordon was never burdened with a gift for narrative,
> but in her original volumes she presented the paraphernalia of Eliot's
> life and career clearly and succinctly. The new book introduces a thick
> patina of animus. Gordon tells us that her aim was not to demystify
> Eliot but 'to follow the trials of a searcher whose flaws and doubts
> speak to all of us whose lives are imperfect.' In fact, she never misses
> an opportunity to highlight--often, to exaggerate--Eliot's failings." I
> have also noticed that many Eliot articles these days make use of
> Eliot's Early Years, even though Gordon's new book has been out for some
> time now. I have not seen this new one cited at all yet. The first book
> appears to be the standard; the newer book unproved at least. Hope these
> thoughts are helpful. I look forward to more discussion. Will Gray
> 
> > 
> > 
> > --On Saturday, January 26, 2002 4:03 PM +0100 INGELBIEN RAPHAEL 
> > <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> > 
> > > I don't see why personal remembrances or memoirs should escape the
> > > suspicion of being informed by particular agendas.
> > 
> >   I don't either. I didn't say they did. I think they are. But I meant
> >   to 
> > imply that a wide mix of viewpoints might give a sense of the man
> > less, how to say it, dictated by a current mythos, as Gordon's view
> > clearly is. Grant her her scholarship; more's the pity that she is the
> > one interpreting it.
> > 
> > > As for the biographies, they may be biased, but one can hardly blame
> > > Ackroyd or Gordon for not having had direct access to the man
> > > himself (where would that leave, say, Keats or Tennyson
> > > biographers?). Moreover, Gordon in particular consulted and
> > > incorporated many personal sources in her own work, as any
> > > conscientious biographer would do.
> > 
> >   Again, no quarrel here with sources or their lack. To state it
> >   baldly, I 
> > don't think any amount of knowledge of materials or personal knowledge
> > of the poet could save Gordon from her prejudices. Ultimately the
> > poetry exposes the underpinnings of this sort of biography.
> > 
> >  Cheers,
> >  Ken Armstrong
> > 
> > 
> 
> 
> 

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