In May 1933, T. S. Eliot delivered three lectures at the University of Virginia, as part of the Page-Barbour Series. By Eliot’s own description, these lectures were intended as “further development of the problem which the author first discussed in his essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent.’” A number of critics have also noted the fact that Eliot had recently separated from his wife Vivien, and without her steadying hand, these lectures reveal his complete transformation from aesthete to self-described “moralist.”
However, the lectures, gathered in Spring 1934 as the slim volume After Strange Gods
, have gained most of their notorious reputation, because they contain some of the strongest evidence of Eliot’s intolerance for non-Christian religions and his blatant anti-Semitism. At one point, he declared that, “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”
The same spring that Eliot delivered those fateful words, the young poet Karl Shapiro, who had entered the University the previous September, decided to leave Virginia, citing its implicit anti-Semitism. In his poem, “University,” Shapiro charged: “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew / Is the curriculum.” Barely a decade later, Shapiro received the Pulitzer Prize for his poems about his World War II service, and Eliot had grown leery of having his remarks published in post-Nazi Europe. Eliot withdrew After Strange Gods
from publication, and it has remained unavailable ever since.
However, one of the lectures, “Personality and Demonic Possession,” appeared in VQR in January 1934 (and was followed in April 1934 by the poem “Words for Music”—later expanded into “Landscapes”). The following essay is decidedly the least incendiary of the three Eliot delivered at Virginia; however, even here it is clear the degree to which his dogmatic artistic beliefs have blurred into social intolerance. We are grateful to the Eliot estate for generously allowing us to reprint the piece in our 75th anniversary essay anthology, We Write for Our Own Time, edited by Alexander Burnham. That collection remains the only in-print source for any of Eliot’s Page-Barbour lectures. Now Eliot’s original typescript, from which the printed version was prepared, appears here for the first time ever.
“Personality and Demonic Possession” © Copyright Valerie Eliot, appears by permission of Faber and Faber. The typescript appears courtesy of the Special Collections at Alderman Library, University of Virginia.