A founding father of literary modernism and regarded throughout the English-speaking world as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature. His most famous works include the path-breaking The Waste Land (1922), the publication of which is considered one of the defining achievements of twentieth-century modernist poetry, and, ironically, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a minor work that became famous for engendering Cats, now the fourth longest-running Broadway musical of all time.
However, Eliot remains highly controversial and, although the debate over his antisemitism continues to rage among literary critics, there can be little doubt that his work reflects an anti-Jewish animus. One of the most notorious and oft-cited examples is Gerontion, where he not only embraces the stereotype of the Jew as heartless landlord but also portrays him in scatological terms, as “squatting:”
My house is a decayed house,
And the jew [sic] squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet [cafe] of Antwerp,
Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.
In Burbank with a Baedeker; Bleistein with a Cigar, Eliot invokes the stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew and the Venice of Shakespeare’s Shylock, where his protagonist is a “vulgar Austrian Jew,” and he holds the Jews responsible for the decline of Venice:
But this or such was Bleistein’s way:
A saggy bending of the knees And elbows,
with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese.
A lustreless protrusive eye Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time Declines.
On the Rialto once.
The rats are underneath the piles.
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs.
The boatman smiles . . .
(Emphasis added). The apelike Bleistein, whom Eliot depicts as walking like a gorilla, is a “Chicago Semite Viennese” (that is, a rootless foreigner, like his fellow Jews) who looks up at the world from the depths of “protozoic slime” like a rat – recall that Jews as rats was a common image in Nazi propaganda. Moreover, Jews were well known by antisemites for both their love of money and their involvement in the clothing trade; hence “money in furs.”
In The Dirge, published posthumously with his manuscript of The Waste Land, Eliot wrote:
Full fathom five your Bleistein lies Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead Jew’s eyes!
When the crabs have eat the lids.
Lower than the wharf rats dive Though he suffer a sea-change
Still expensive rich and strange.
In Sweeny Among the Nightingales – a euphemism for prostitute; the Jewish woman as harlot and animal (“paws”) were common antisemitic tropes – Eliot writes “Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.” In Cooking Egg, Eliot writes “The red-eyed scavengers are creeping/ from Kentish Town and Golder’s Green. (Golder’s Green, then and now, was well known as a largely Jewish London suburb.) In one of his King Bolo poems in Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, his unpublished poetry notebook, he writes that “the only doctor in his town/was a bastard jew [sic] named Benny” who, in a malevolent act of medical malpractice, administers muriatic (hydrochloric) acid to a patient. In a 1927 variant on one of the stanzas in the Bolo poems, Eliot said that it should have read “Now the Jewboys of Colombo’s (Columbus’) Fleet/ were feasting at the Passover.”
Eliot’s antisemitism also manifested itself in his public lectures and private correspondence. In the 1933 Page-Barbour Lecture he delivered at the University of Virginia, he declared:
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 . . a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be depreciated.
(Emphasis added). He repeated the quote verbatim in After Strange G-ds, A Primer of Modern Heresy, a book of lectures he published in 1934 shortly after the Nazis took power. Possibly due to the significant adverse reaction to the book at the time, he did not permit the publication of a second edition, backtracking with a claim that it was merely a reflection of his disturbed state of mind at the time.
In a March 1923 correspondence to John Quinn complaining about an advance payment due to him from American Jewish publisher Horace Liveright, Eliot writes: “I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.” Quinn was a New York lawyer and a vicious antisemite who had written to Eliot that Broadway was “infested” with “swarms of horrible looking Jews, low, squat, animal-like.”
In a February 1925 letter to British literary critic, poet, art historian and philosopher Herbert Read, Eliot admitted that he shared Read’s antisemitic animus and embraced the antisemitic stereotype of the Jew as Bolshevik: “I am always inclined to suspect the racial envy and jealousy which makes that people [Jews] inclined to bolshevism in some form (not always political).”
In January 1932, Eliot wrote a letter to The Daily Mail congratulating the paper for a series of laudatory articles on the rise of Mussolini, and he publicly supported two organizations that claimed Jews were the enemies of civilization. Many of his private comments were also overtly antisemitic including, for example, questioning “why is there something diabolic about so many Jews?” and remarking that “there are enough Jews in the English universities as it is.”
As editor of The Criterion, Eliot published an uncredited 1936 review of The Yellow Spot: The Extermination of the Jews in Germany, the first widely circulated report in English to claim that Jews were being murdered at Dachau. While the review acknowledges that German Jews had suffered some minor persecutions, it denies any major attacks against Jews or the devastation of their communities; claims that the book “is an attempt to arouse moral indignation by means of sensationalism;” and asks why “they [the Jews], among all the unfortunates of the world, have a first claim on our compassion and help.”
In a 1935 Criterion article about British poet Isaac Rosenberg, he wrote “For a Jewish poet to be able to write like a Jew, in western Europe and in a Western European language, is almost a miracle.” In other words, how remarkable it is for a Jew brought up in British culture to master the English language; as one critic wrote – I really love this – does Eliot think that Jews write with a foreign accent?
In trying to explain away Eliot’s antisemitism, apologists have come up with eight theories. The first is the “historical approach,” which I refer to as the reprehensible “everybody’s doin’ it, doin’ it, so it must be okay” argument; that is, he was merely reflecting the ethos of his time and, in the pre-Nazi era, antisemitism was little more than “a forgivable social vice.” Supporters of this historical theory note that when Eliot launched a literary quarterly, The Criterion, in 1922, he relied on “nice Jews” as contributors, none of whom ever challenged him on his antisemitism because “Anglo-Jewry has habitually treated such comments as minor irritations in the general context of historical experience.” As George Orwell said, “of course you can find what would now be called anti-Semitic remarks in [Eliot’s] early work . . . but who didn’t say such things at that time?”
The second theory is “the dissociative theory,” pursuant to which Eliot’s poems and prose, which are indisputably antisemitic, are distinguishable from his own views; that is, it is the characters, and not the author, who are antisemitic. This view fails for several reasons: first, because, as discussed above, Eliot made any number of antisemitic statements in his public lectures and private correspondence; second, because antisemitism was an essential part of his conservative world view and his embrace of Christian orthodoxy, particularly including his belief that the glue of a successful society was religious uniformity and disciple; and, third, this theory does not explain why so many of his repellant characters just happen to be Jews.
The third theory is the “frequency analysis” claim, pursuant to which critics argue that the oft-cited instances of antisemitism in Eliot’s writing – essentially five works, as discussed above – is but a drop in the sea considering the breadth of his oeuvre and that, if antisemitism was such a central feature of his character, it would surely have manifested itself more frequently in his work. The problem with this argument is that virtually no major English poet at the time published as few poems as Eliot and, in fact, he discontinued writing poetry entirely in 1942.
The fourth theory is the “biographical approach,” pursuant to which – there is no other way to put it – “some of his best friends were Jews.” As one critic argues, “his was an anti-Semitism that was also compatible with cordial relations with individual Jews.”
However, Eliot would not be the first antisemite to brag about having Jewish friends, and the evidence is clear that however favorably he may have viewed his Jewish friends, he always considered them as Jews first and individuals second. For example, he wrote to his mother that he and his wife had “spent the weekend . . . visiting some friends called Schiff – very nice Jews.” In other words, some Jews may be his friends, but he first and foremost views them through the prism of their being Jews. (And the apple may not have fallen far from the tree; in an August 1920 correspondence to her son, Eliot’s mother wrote: “It is very bad in me, but I have an instinctive antipathy to Jews, just as I have to certain animals . . . There must be something in them which to me is antipathetic.”)
Pursuant to the fifth theory, which I characterize as the “But It’s Great Art” approach, Eliot’s antisemitic poems and prose are “one of antisemitism’s few literary triumphs.” As one proponent of this theory writes, while antisemitic discourse is ordinarily not particularly literate and antisemitic writers generally produce drivel,
Eliot’s poems are inventive and resourceful and display his mastery over a heterogeneous mass of material. These poems are derived from a cluster of clichés, conventions exhausted by over-exposure. With great virtuosity, Eliot turns this material into art. He compresses anti-semitism into powerfully charged language, and thereby restores something of its menace and resonance.
In other words, antisemitic poems and prose, when literate, achieve a public good. One apologist even goes so far as to claim that Eliot’s antisemitism in Gerontion is a reflection of a divine tender moment (you just can’t make this stuff up): Eliot presents “A universe in which a horrifying, hostile, contemptuous image of a ‘jew’ can also be made to suggest God, in his most tender moment of Incarnation as well as in his terrifying justice.” And in response to those who think this nonsense is patently absurd, this critic dismissively says that “literature is not the game for them.”
Pursuant to the sixth theory, critics maintain that Eliot’s writing has been misinterpreted, exaggerated, and taken out of context. For example, they argue that Eliot’s notorious comment during his 1933 lecture at the University of Virginia was directed at free-thinkers in general and not specifically at Jews; Eliot manifested particular disdain for secular humanists – Jewish or Christian – and other unbelieving individuals who stood in the way of re-establishing a traditional and religion-based society. The absurdity of this argument may be demonstrated by the fact that it is these critics who take Eliot’s words out of context: first, he specifically criticizes “free-thinking Jews” as “undesirable” and not all free-thinkers; second, these critics obviously try to isolate each of Eliot’s antisemitic writing without considering the comprehensive gestalt of his antisemitism.
Pursuant to the seventh theory, which I call the “antisemites defending other antisemites” approach, Eliot himself remarked that only the Jews consider his writing to be antisemitic. His apologists argue that any claim that he was an antisemite is little more that “anti-literary idiocy” because literature must never be evaluated based on the artist’s prejudices because these are always recast and modified through the critics’ own biases. Their favorite example is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; should the portrayal of Shylock by the undisputed greatest English playwright of all time lead to the censorship of his great works?
These apologists, however, have erected a straw man, and a transparent one at that: everybody recognizes Eliot as one of our greatest poets and thinkers, and virtually no one argues that his works should be censored. And while there is ample proof of Shakespeare’s antisemitism – although that, too, remains a controversial topic; another issue for another day – there are very few people indeed who want to censor Shakespeare. The crucial point is one that I have advanced in these pages many times: one can simultaneously appreciate the great contributions made by odious people in art, music and medicine, etc., while condemning the haters themselves. In this regard, it is important to note that Eliot remarked – although surely not in the context of inner reflection and with reference to himself – that one can be a great poet and a bad man.
Pursuant to the eighth and final theory, Eliot’s antisemitism was “a sin of youth” and, as he matured, he grew out of the bigotry of his early years. Supporters of this theory argue, for example, that the fact that later in his life he allowed After Strange Gods to go out of print proves that he rued its antisemitic content. Moreover, in The Rock (1934), which was performed at a London theatre and was one of the first produced plays to include Eliot’s work, he wrote a critical scene that parodied and ridiculed the antisemitic ideology of the Nazi Fascists. Furthermore, as a founding editor and publisher at Faber and Faber, he was offered God Among the Germans, a manuscript in which Paul Douglass dealt sympathetically with the racial ideas of Alfred Rosenberg and argued that Jews, as an alien people, are incapable of assimilation; Eliot’s report on the book was that “I have never advised against a book with more burning conviction than I have advised against this.
More critically, Eliot defenders maintain that the recent publication of a previously unknown cache of his correspondence discovered in 1997 at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati lays to rest every allegation that he was an antisemite. The letters, which were written to Horace Kallen – a Jewish social philosopher, noted Zionist, co-founder of the New School for Social Research in New York City, and a lifelong friend of Eliot’s from his earliest days at Harvard – show that he was actively helping Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria in the early 1940s to immigrate to the United States and Britain.
As early as December 27, 1933, when Kallen sought Eliot’s help with expanding the International League for Academic Freedom (an organization established, in part, to call attention to the plight of scholars and teachers in Nazi camps), Eliot responded by immediately writing to A. L. Rowse at Oxford asking him for ideas about how to form academic groups to help Jewish refugees. He then acted directly to assist Jewish refugees; for example, he appealed to Kallen in a 1941 letter for help finding a job for a desperate Jewish immigrant from Vienna, and he wrote to British historian A. L. Rowse asking for support in helping a Jewish academic refugee from the Third Reich.
However, notwithstanding Eliot’s suppression of After Strange Gods, he refused to recant any of his other ugly antisemitic statements in his work, his lectures, and his personal correspondence, and even during and after the Holocaust, he remained a vocal antisemite. At a September 1943 London poetry recital, he elected to read, of all things, Gerontion, in which the Jewish landlord “squats on the window sill,” and he chose to include Burbank with a Baedeker in his anthology Selected Poems, which was published in 1948, well after the Holocaust.
In 1946, with Jewish Holocaust survivors returning home only to find their residences destroyed and their communities and families wiped off the face of the earth, Eliot wrote that “on the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the places in which they were born.” (In other words, let’s keep those Jews in the Land of the Final Solution – far away from us.) Commenting on an article, he referred to “so-called anti-Semitism.” Noting the arrival of Jewish refugees, he remarked that “Jews in the mass are antipathetic.” When a refugee child was adopted by a friend, he was pleased to note that the child “was not at all objectionably Jewish to look at.”
Perhaps most telling of all, he observed that “to suggest that the Jewish problem may be simplified because so many will have been killed off is trifling: a few generations of security, and they will be as numerous as ever.” In other words, the murder of six million people does not really matter because, much like the vermin to whom Eliot compared the Jews, they will again exhibit their prodigious reproductive capacity and poison the world anew.
Perhaps inexplicably, Eliot voiced support for the State of Israel and increasingly viewed Judaism as a paradigm for the survival of diverse religious cultures in an increasingly secular world. He even went so far as to chastise his good friend Kallen for being overly secular and for reducing his sense of Jewishness to mere ethnicity. In a 1963 letter to Groucho Marx, with whom he maintained a friendship (“some of my best friends are Jews”), he wrote, “I envy you going to Israel, and I wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country.”
Eliot also evidenced a pro-Israel position in his correspondence with Jacob Baal-Teshuva (1929 – ), a distinguished international editor, appraiser, and critic of modern and contemporary art and an internationally recognized authority on Marc Chagall who, to mark the “bar mitzvah” of the State of Israel (1961), was selected as editor of The Mission of Israel, an anthology of essays on the importance and centrality of the Jewish State. Baal-Teshuva solicited articles from numerous important personalities, among them Eliot who, in the fascinating March 30, 1961, response exhibited here, writes:
I am honoured by being asked to contribute to the book you have in mind and would be very happy to do so, or at least to proceed to meditate in what way I could make a worthy contribution . . . [but must decline because of scheduling]
Baal-Teshuva had apparently made a very unusual request, given Eliot’s antisemitism. It may be that, while always insisting that he was no antisemite and stubbornly refusing to publicly retract his antisemitic writings and statements or to apologize for them, Eliot saved face by supporting the Jewish State.
At the end of the day, as Anthony Julius wrote in T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, a seminal work on the subject:
Eliot had the imagination of an anti-Semite to the highest degree. He was alive to anti-Semitism’s resources, insensitive to Jewish pain. Anti-Semitism did not disfigure Eliot’s work, it animated it.
Perhaps Hannah Arendt said it best:
The chronic misbehavior of poets and artists has been a political, and sometimes moral, problem since antiquity . . . poets, too, can sin so gravely that they must bear the full load of guilt and responsibility. And . . . the only way to determine unequivocally how great their sins are is to listen to their poetry . . .
An artist is ultimately responsible for his work, and Eliot was at once a great poet and an ugly man. He did not merely reflect old antisemitic conventions but, as one critic cogently noted, he “exploited them to fresh and disturbing effect.”