Young Eliot

Young Eliot

From St. Louis to The Waste Land

Book - 2015
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"A biography of T. S. Eliot from his birth in St. Louis in 1888 to his publication of The Waste Land in 1922"--
Publisher: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Edition: First American edition
ISBN: 9780374279448
0374279446
Branch Call Number: B EL46C 2015
Characteristics: xvi, 493 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm

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ksoles Apr 26, 2015

“T.S. Eliot was never young.” Though this seems a cryptic, oxymoronic way to begin a biography entitled "Young Eliot," Robert Crawford eventually debunks his own introductory sentence. His diligent and engaging work chronicles the renowned Eliot's life up until the creation of "The Wasteland," arguably the most influential poem of the 20th century.

Crawford’s biography represents the culmination of a lifelong study of Eliot but also breaks new ground because, until recently, Eliot's second wife Valerie enforced her husband's wish that no biography be written of him. Scholars Peter Ackroyd and Lyndall Gordon previously produced highly praised unauthorized biographies, both of which Crawford honors, but Crawford became the first to enjoy full access to the Eliot archive, as well as permission to quote from it. As a result, he has amplified and enriched his audience's understanding of this prominent Modern writer.

The ability to delve into the minutiae of Eliot's archive proves both a blessing and a curse; Ackroyd uses the single word "listless" to describe Eliot's personality at Harvard whereas Crawford needs a whole chapter to say that the learned poet/critic was not particularly driven to excel in college. Nevertheless, Crawford deftly evokes Eliot’s St. Louis upbringing, revealing just how much of the poet’s personality took shape in his early years: “For all their more recent Unitarianism, the Eliots had inherited a witch-hanging, judgemental Calvinist streak. In later life even when he tried hard not to, Tom could appear a ‘Puritan ascetic.’ ” Additionally, Crawford uses an empathetic tone to describe the strained relationship between Eliot and his mentally fragile first wife, Vivian.

With his biography, Crawford indeed introduces the reader to "Tom," not a hollow man decrying the sterility of a secular epoch populated by craven Prufrocks, but a jovial prankster who, at the drop of a hat, would roll up the carpet to dance with his second wife, Valerie. Even Eliot experts will find much to learn in the array of new material at Robert Crawford’s disposal, which the author handles with care, if not always with concision.

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