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T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide

T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide

by David E. Chinitz

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For decades T. S. Eliot has been applauded and denounced as a staunch champion of high art and an implacable opponent of popular culture. But Eliot's elitism was never what it seemed. T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide represents this great writer as the complex figure he was, an artist attentive not only to literature but also to detective fiction,


For decades T. S. Eliot has been applauded and denounced as a staunch champion of high art and an implacable opponent of popular culture. But Eliot's elitism was never what it seemed. T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide represents this great writer as the complex figure he was, an artist attentive not only to literature but also to detective fiction, vaudeville theater, jazz, and the songs of Tin Pan Alley.

David Chinitz argues that Eliot was productively engaged with popular culture in some form at every stage of his career, and that his response to it, as expressed in his poetry, plays, and essays, was dynamic rather than hostile. He shows that American jazz, for example, was a major influence on Eliot's poetry during its maturation. He discusses Eliot's surprisingly persistent interest in popular culture, both in such famous works as The Waste Land and in such lesser-known pieces as Sweeney Agonistes. And he traces Eliot's long, quixotic struggle to close the widening gap between high art and popular culture through a new type of public art: contemporary popular verse drama.

What results is a work that will persuade adherents and detractors alike to return to Eliot and find in him a writer who liked a good show, a good thriller, and a good tune, as well as a "great" poem.

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T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide

By David Chinitz

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 David Chinitz
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226104478



Speaking in his native St. Louis in 1953, Eliot recounted the adventure of a certain American native who had survived the arduous voyage to Great Britain:

In October last occurred an event which, while not as spectacular as the descent of Col. Lindbergh at Le Bourget in "The Spirit of St. Louis," is equally remarkable in its kind. For the first time, apparently, an American robin, well named turdus migratorius, crossed the Atlantic under its own power, "favoured" according to the report, by "a period of strong westerly weather."
("American Literature" 50)
Eliot went on to identify this expatriate with the "American language," extending its influence eastward through the mass media, global capitalism, and the other phenomena of postindustrial modernity that seemed to emanate from the United States. Yet it is hard not to identify the robin with Eliot himself, especially when he contrives (as if their parallel courses were not already obvious) to associate the bird's point of origin with St. Louis. Moreover, the "strong westerly weather" that had blown Eliot along his own passage to prominence was essentially the same force that was backing American English.During his rise to what Delmore Schwartz would call "literary dictatorship," Eliot had been an American poet in England--it is not clear that he ever really ceased to be--and his ascendancy seemed related in some mysterious way to the other cultural developments blown over from America by the proverbial winds of change. The conviction that Eliot's work was, somehow, fundamentally connected with jazz in particular has been held with assurance, even taken for granted, by critics since the earliest years of Eliot's career. This chapter will show how that notion, though often vaguely apprehended, contains a genuine insight with a basis in both history and prosody.

In his 1953 address Eliot proceeded to "speculate on the future" of the transatlantic robin. Would it soon be joined by a mate of its own species to populate England with American robins? Otherwise--as seems more likely--

Our lone pioneer must make the best of it, and breed with the English thrush, who is not migratorius but musicus. In the latter event, the English must look out for a new species of thrush, with a faint red spot on the male breast in springtime; a species which, being a blend of migratorius and musicus, should become known as the troubadour-bird, or organ-grinder.
Again, drawing a parallel with T. S. Eliot is irresistible. For Eliot was himself, as poet, just that combination of migratorius and musicus, an original blend of Yankee revolutionary and Great Traditionalist, peripatetic haranguing prophet and patron of the "music of poetry," exile and tribal bard. Eliot himself, to complete the analogy, was the "troubadour-bird," or else--and how much homelier it sounds!--the "organ-grinder." Of these two epithets, the early Eliot at least would have embraced the second. We will see presently how he chose to depict himself as a kind of literary organ-grinder: a rude musician, inelegant, impoverished, unrefined, an American migrant worker in the rich but overcultivated aesthetic fields of the Old World.

To play this role in the culturally conservative enclave of early-twentieth-century London was, for Eliot, to present himself as something of a barbarian at the gates. His status as an outsider was enabling. Only by speaking as an American could Eliot write to Maxwell Bodenheim in 1921, "I have . . . a certain persistent curiosity about the English and a desire to see whether they can ever be roused to anything like intellectual activity." This is Eliot at his most secure, certain that England needed him to rouse it. "This is not conceit," he assured Bodenheim, "merely a kind of pugnacity." By positioning himself as an American intruder, Eliot could critique British culture from a seemingly independent point of view.

Although Eliot found it useful in this endeavor to be an American, his pugnacity found no object in America. He showed little interest in attempting to arouse "anything like intellectual activity" in the United States--considered this, in fact, an unlikely prospect. The letter to Bodenheim explains the English difference: "Once there was a civilisation here, I believe, that's a curious and exciting point." And this opposition of a once-civilized England to an ever-heathenish America gnawed at Eliot precisely because he was an American: he feared that his roots would forever snarl him in what he regarded as the morass of American nonculture. In 1919 he told his friend Mary Hutchinson of his struggle to fathom the English national character:

But remember that I am a metic--a foreigner, and that I want to understand you, and all the background and tradition of you. I shall try to be frank--because the attempt is so very much worth while with you--it is very difficult with me--both by inheritance and because of my very suspicious and cowardly disposition. But I may simply prove to be a savage.
Shortly after this letter, Eliot was writing "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and attempting to reassure himself that tradition "cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour." If so, then being born, as Pound was to put it, "[i]n a half savage country" was no disqualification (Selected Poems 61): everyone had to labor to obtain "civilization," a term Eliot uses interchangeably with "tradition" in his letter to Hutchinson. But this idea could not dispel the anxious concern that Eliot, as an American, had simply missed out on the opportunity to be civilized. Civilization, he wrote to Hutchinson, "forms people unconsciously--I don't think two or half a dozen people can set out by themselves to be civilised." Thus Eliot himself, for all his efforts, might "simply prove to be a savage." He would like to have been Henry James in Rome, but dreaded that he might instead be Burbank, or even Bleistein, in Venice.

Six months later Eliot was writing again to Mary Hutchinson in what appears to be the same tone of self-doubt: "I am glad to hear that you enjoyed yourself and didn't get tired, and that Lytton's life is so perfect. But it is a jazz-banjorine that I should bring, not a lute." While it is impossible to reconstruct the full context of this enigmatic remark, it appears that Hutchinson, addressing Eliot as a troubadour (i.e., poet), had invited him and his "lute" to a social occasion. Perhaps Eliot's lute was to balance Strachey's prose instrument. What is clear, at any rate, is the denial in Eliot's reply that he is the sort of poet who sings to the classic lute; it is rather the "jazz-banjorine" that suits him. Correcting his friend's characterization of his poetry, Eliot bases himself in America rather than Europe, in the contemporary rather than the classical, and in the "jazz movement" of modernism rather than the Great Tradition.

Eliot's seizure of the jazz-banjorine is, on its face, self-abnegating. The banjo, popular in stage entertainment and parlor music, certainly lacked the cultural cachet of the lute; in fact, it had a reputation as a crude instrument with little expressive range:

With its African percussiveness and short sustain on stopped strings, the banjo was ill suited for the slow legato melodies of much European music, and so seemed, by European aesthetic standards, to be emotionally limited and incapable of musical profundity.
And since the banjo was still best known as a fixture in the minstrel show, Eliot's comment effectively cast him as a blackface comic--or even as the plantation "darky" such a comic would play. By consigning his talent to the banjo, Eliot is forgoing any claim to the bardic mantle in which Mrs. Hutchinson's reference to the lute would wrap him. He is no troubadour, but merely, as he would describe himself to Herbert Read in 1928, a "southern boy with a nigger drawl."

Eliot's selection of the "banjorine" in particular only intensifies his self-denigration. Variations on the banjo proliferated during its heyday: there were mandolin-banjos, zither-banjos, banjolins, cello-banjos, tenor-banjos, and so on. Eliot's instrument of choice (often spelled banjeaurine) was a diminutive, high-pitched member of this family. In assigning himself a jazz-banjorine, Eliot was making the humblest available selections in both genre and instrument.

Yet when Eliot offers to play his jazz-banjorine, there is a deeper claim to power underlying his modesty. For seventy-five years, the banjo had spearheaded the "Americanization" of Europe--the infiltration of American popular culture into European life. The instrument seemed to have been present at every turn. In 1843, when the minstrel show first stormed England, the banjo (then a novelty) led the charge. By the 1880s it had made its way into more "elevated" performance settings, becoming in the process an acceptable study for respectable ladies and gentlemen. By the 1890s, it had become positively "a fixture in fashionable . . . parlors." The fashion became a rage around the turn of the century, when even the Prince of Wales began taking lessons. As ragtime reached England, American banjo virtuosos were on the scene again to facilitate its entry, so that in the early twentieth century the instrument was commonly associated with ragtime (20-21). By the time Eliot claimed to wield a jazzbanjorine, the humble banjo had ushered in an enduring taste for the "unofficial" artistic expression of American popular culture. And so the banjo prepared the arrival of Eliot and his modernism--his own challenge to the official culture of England. For Eliot, to play the jazz-banjorine was to be an agent of change.

There is another, related sense in which Eliot's banjorine signifies a kind of modernist bravado. As Michael North has shown, Eliot and Pound's assumption of African-American "trickster" personae ("Old Possum" and "Brer Rabbit") in their correspondence, together with their appropriation of black dialect, functioned as a private code, a "sign of [their] collaboration against the London literary establishment and the literature it produced." By "blacking up" in their communications with each other, the two poets affirmed their mutual shame and pride in being American "savages" in exile. But in claiming to play the banjorine, in thus professing his abjection to Mary Hutchinson, Eliot is not only blacking up: he is also concealing his strength from his British correspondent while pretending to weakness. This is, of course, precisely the strategy of the trickster in African-American folklore, and in the enormously popular semi-authentic tales of Uncle Remus, which functioned as the sourcebook for Eliot and Pound in what North calls their "racial masquerade." Meanwhile, by wearing blackface, Eliot again associates himself with the popular culture that was America's most important export--for the African American was always at the center of its development.

"It is a jazz-banjorine that I should bring, not a lute": Brer Rabbit himself could not have framed a brag with warier calculation. Yet its anxious humility is genuine too. Eliot's deliberate association with the emerging American popular culture, and with its largely African-American roots, provided a way of laying claim to revolutionary cultural power while simultaneously acknowledging ambivalence about his relationship to it.


Even in so early a work as "Portrait of a Lady," a poem written several years before Eliot's emigration, the sense of cultural homelessness is already strongly felt. Implicit in the encounter between the young male narrator and the older woman who seeks to befriend him is a conflict between a degenerate high culture and an inadequate modern alternative--a skirmish fought out largely in the realm of music. As the poem begins, the pair have just come from a Chopin recital, to which she responds with cultivated cliche and he with irony (the pianist who "Transmit[s] the Preludes, through his hair and fingertips" is only "the latest Pole" in an implied succession of uncoiffed Slavs). The lady's musty romanticism is likewise embodied in musical terms:

--And so the conversation slips

Among velleities and carefully caught regrets

Through attenuated tones of violins

Mingled with remote cornets

And begins.
These "attenuated" sounds are the outmoded culture of the lady's Victorian world. Where one might expect the speaker to be cast as simply antithetical, though, he turns out to be rather more interesting.

Interrogating his own position throughout the poem, the young narrator asks essentially what he, as a modern, has to substitute for the lady's decaying high culture. He finds no single answer to these questions but proposes several partial solutions, as when "Inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins / Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own." The modern comprises, among other things, the primitive--a tom-tom capable of disrupting the meticulously arranged world of the lady. Uncontrollable and destructive, however, this "Capricious monotone" seems to offer no basis for a modern successor to the lady's disintegrating world.

A passage in the second section of the poem--Eliot's earliest canonical work9--approaches the speaker's problem along a different axis:

You will see me any morning in the park

Reading the comics and the sporting page.

Particularly I remark

An English countess goes upon the stage.

A Greek was murdered at a Polish dance,

Another bank defaulter has confessed.
Popular culture, then, including such favorite Eliot pastimes as comic strips, drama, boxing (on "the sporting page"), and sensational murder stories, might offer an alternative to Chopin, were it not associated so immediately with vulgarity and materialism. Later, Eliot would complain that the newspapers were "filled with nonsense and personalities" --in fact, with "an infinity of trivial matters." These remarks date from 1918, when Eliot wrote to thank his mother for a shipment of American newspapers: "They are the first I have seen for a very long time, and they seemed very strange and also wasteful of paper." All was not lost, though: "The part that usually interests me the most is the sporting news."

The speaker in "Portrait," similarly, finds the tabloid diverting enough to read daily but does not feel at home in its world:

I keep my countenance,

I remain self-possessed

Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired

Reiterates some worn-out common song

With the smell of hyacinths across the garden

Recalling things that other people have desired.
In these lines Eliot encapsulates a simultaneous yearning for and fear of the popular and of ordinary feeling. The very possibility of belonging to the mass is both craved and dismissed. The street piano grinding out its "common song" has moved the speaker where Chopin has failed--but only by reminding him that however much he enjoys the comics, he is no less excluded from the quotidian life surrounding him in the park than he is from the lady's "buried life" of tea and lilacs. He remains trapped between these two worlds to the very end of the poem. The lady has her conventions and cliches, her preludes and "velleities"; it is somehow the narrator, though he will survive her, who is "really in the dark." The declining romantic high culture and the ascendant popular fight to a draw, while Eliot's speaker can only observe gloomily his own alienation from both.

In "Cousin Nancy," a poem of 1915, Eliot--now ensconced, though still precariously, in London--gives an updated and more impersonal treatment to a similar network of anxieties. Nancy challenges the stale New England tradition of her aunts through her participation in the nascent culture of what we have since learned to call the Jazz Age:

Miss Nancy Ellicott

Strode across the hills and broke them,

Rode across the hills and broke them--

The barren New England hills--

Riding to hounds

Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked

And danced all the modern dances;

And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,

But they knew that it was modern.
The second stanza situates the poem historically by alluding to the craze for "social dancing" that was sweeping across the United States and blowing on to Europe at just that time, an extension of the popularity of ragtime. American restaurants were laying dance floors and hiring bands in 1912; by the next year, theaters and ballrooms were beginning to sponsor dance contests, and department stores were advertising thes dansants. Nancy Ellicott's "modern dances"--the Grizzly Bear, the Texas Tommy, the Lame Duck, the Fox-Trot, and so on--followed each other in rapid succession. And the establishment, of course, made known its disapproval.

Eliot was not about to range himself with that reflexive opposition and its expressions of alarm. His endorsement of Nancy's offensive against social authority is signaled by his comic portrayal of her aunts' befuddlement and by the parenthetical description of the matriarchal New England hills as "barren." But Nancy's unconventionality also makes Eliot sufficiently uncomfortable that he must parry it with irony, chiefly by making Nancy a romantic heroine of gargantuan dimensions. As a metaphor for her indulgence in tobacco and the tango, the image of Nancy bestriding and breaking the hills is simply out of proportion, an effect corroborated when "Riding to hounds" is juxtaposed with "Over the cow pasture." Nancy's rebellion is thus rendered nearly as absurd as her aunts' reaction.


Excerpted from T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide by David Chinitz Copyright © 2003 by David Chinitz. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

David E. Chinitz is associate professor of English at Loyola University Chicago.

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