Sunday, August 19, 2012

T.S.Eliot, Social Class, and Anti-Semitism




I've been working on a chapter about T.S. Eliot for a book whose current working title is Poetry, Autonomy, Society, and I've been trying to think of a way of addressing Eliot's very real, entirely inescapable anti-Semitism.  On the one hand, I don't want it to become the main focus of the chapter, since the book is about the idea of aesthetic autonomy.  On the other hand, I don't want to act like Eliot's anti-Semitism didn't exist, or didn't matter, or didn't play an important role in his poetry and his social writings.

One line of argument I'm making in the chapter is that Eliot's early interest in aesthetic autonomy comes from his break with his own social class' moralism.  That is: he comes from a long line of people who formed a social elite in Boston, and in various communities where Bostonians settled, as in his native St. Louis.  The Bostonian elite believed in a very paternalistic kind of civic-mindedness.   They were not firm believers in popular, bottom-up democracy—but they thought elites should be good stewards of the community, and they often lavished funds on hospitals, churches, schools, and charities of all sorts, and were wary of excessive avarice and of financial speculation.  

Beginning in the years after the Civil War, they began to be displaced by a newer and more overtly materialistic elite, often politically corrupt (this new elite was overwhelmingly made up of gentiles, both Protestant and Catholic).  The decline of their class accelerated right around the time Eliot was born in 1888.  And when their power fades and their old ideal of stewardship is no longer relevant to their new circumstances, Eliot turns his back on the moralistic aesthetic associated with his class—think of the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier, or of James Russell Lowell, both with family connections to the Eliots—and writes less overtly moralistic poetry, as well as poetry that satirizes the old elite's rectitude and reserve. Think "Portrait of a Lady" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" — though there's more to both poems than a rejection of overt moralism and the ethos of the Boston elite.

So, since I'm already discussing Eliot's class circumstances as a way of explaining some of his aesthetic choices, I want to take this as an opportunity to discuss his anti-Semitism, especially since Eliot's prejudice isn't just a personal quirk: it's part and parcel of the outlook of his class.  Which is not to say that they were the only American anti-Semites, but their anti-Semitism took a particular form.  That is: the decline of the old elite happened to coincide with the arrival of numbers of Jewish immigrants, many of whom prospered in American conditions.  Always an easy target for those with axes to grind about their position in society, these immigrants bore much of the brunt of Eliot's class' resentment about their own loss of status.

Many among the old elite believed that scruple, gentlemanly habit, and class-based reservations hampering them in their attempts to retain privileged positions.  There is certainly some truth with regard to their loss of political power in cities like New York and St. Louis, where political bosses like William Magear "Boss" Tweed and Edward "Colonel Ed" Butler used tactics anathema to the well-bred gentleman to secure power, and it may have had some truth in the economic sphere, where fortunes like those of the Carnegies and Rockefellers (new money men, not members of the old elite) were built with a ruthlessness the old elite had never known.

But along with disdain for the new political and economic elite—both overwhelmingly Christian—came an anti-Semitism, drawing on longstanding bigotry and the coincidence of the arrival of Jewish immigrants with the decline of the old elite.  That is, a measure of the anti-Semitism endemic to Eliot and his class may be traced to their notion that their genteel ideals put them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Jewish immigrants who were arriving in America and often thriving in an environment that did not restrict their actions to the degree that many European countries had.  No less a Brahmin than Henry Adams, thinking of the man of the old class, wrote:

Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow—not a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto, snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs—but had a keener instinct, an intenser energy, and a freer hand than he—American of Americans, with Heaven knew how many Puritans and Patriots behind him… 

The old elite’s sense of displacement, coinciding with the arrival and success of Jewish immigrants, in no way excuses the anti-Semitism of “Gerontion” or After Strange Gods, although it might be said to provide an explanatory context: Eliot’s bigotries were those of his class in a particular phase of its decline.




17 comments:

  1. Would Eliot have encountered many Jews in St. Louis? Jews were all over the South, especially in port cities, and I never encountered any real anti-Semitic attitudes growing up. That always seemed to be a northeastern kind of prejudice. A little Googling reveals that Harvard was 7% Jewish when Eliot entered, so perhaps his anti-Semitism had a New England basis. Anyway I agree that this was largely a class prejudice, not a personal one. Just finished Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour--a well-researched but maybe lopsided portrait of TSE.

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  2. There may be something to the notion that this is primarily a northeastern prejudice, though I'm not speaking as someone who really knows what he's talking about here and am open to correction. But the Eliots were very self-concious about being a kind of Bostonian outpost in St. Louis -- Eliot even writes about feeling that he's not at home anywhere in American, being what he called a "southwesterner" in the northeast, where he spent summers and went to high school and university, and a northeasterner in St. Louis, where he grew up. I can relate, actually: in Canada they call me an American, and in the U.S. they call me Canadian. The truth is my parents are American, I was born in Rhode Island, but before I was a month old we moved to Manitoba, where I lived for 9 month of the year for the first 21 year of my life, and the rest of the time in Maine and Ohio.

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  3. So he broke with his class in a shift from moralism to aesthetic autonomy, but not as far as anti-Semitism is concerned.

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    1. Yes -- but the move into aesthetic autonomy was ambivalent and short-lived. Much of what comes later is an attempt to confront the dislocations of modernity (if I may be permitted to use this kind of shorthand), and then to restore a cultivated class, such as his was, at the helm of society. That's where all of his writing about a "Community of Christians" seems to come from: a yearning to restore something like the status his class had lost, and to tame the more materialist forces that were now in the power position.

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  4. Eliot was quite homeless in a way himself. Having become a British subject around 1927. I don't know how his antisemitic views developed in the course of the war or what he thought of fascism. (Nowhere near Ezra Pound I think). And he still lived until 1965, so there must have been some development there.

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    1. After WW2 he softens a lot of his social views, and he kept After Strange Gods out of print. It's still one of the hardest Eliot book to get your hands on.

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  5. "Eliot turns his back on the moralistic aesthetic associated with his class—think of the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier, or of James Russell Lowell, both related to the Eliots"

    Was Eliot related to Whittier? That surprises me, since Whittier was a Quaker. In any case, JGW was not of the same background: he came from a very humble family--Robert Burns was his earliest inspiration.

    I did learn recently that Eliot was related to Christopher Pearse Cranch, who better fits the bill, though CPC was raised in Virginia. A more interesting analogue than Lowell or Whittier, perhaps, because his intellectual development was abetted by some Jewish ladies in Richmond--as a human being, anyhow, he was certainly preferable to Eliot:

    http://archive.org/stream/lifelettersofchr00cran#page/26/mode/1up

    For what it's worth...

    Ben F.

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    1. Eliot's grandfather had a Greenleaf connection, and his uncle's middle name was Cranch, so that seems to affirm the CPC connection you mention. The family trees of those old Boston families get pretty tangled up. There's a lot of good detail about the particular's in Eric Sigg's book "The American Eliot" and in an old, but truly indispensable study by Herbert Howarth, "Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot."

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    2. I've never read any of Eliot's mother's poetry. Have you? I expect it was pretty "moral."

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    3. Oh, very much so! Here are a few lines plucked at random:


      Though culture may be our corner stone,
      We cannot exist for culture alone
      In scholarly retreat.

      For lo! Grave problems press.
      The pleadings of distress
      Will follow the mind’s sublimest flight,
      A voice from the depths disturb the height,
      When wrongs demand redress.

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    4. I mean, Mallarme it ain't.

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  6. Jamie McKendrick2:43 PM

    I’d be interested to read the whole chapter, but so far am a little sceptical about this class explanation for Eliot’s anti-Semitism. I’d incline to the view, in the end, that all prejudices are personal, or personalized – they have to be admitted, and have to consort and coalesce with all kinds of other opinions. This is particularly so with thinkers who are systematic – and at times iconoclastic – like Eliot. Hence, I suppose, the surprise at how rooted and visceral these prejudices are in the passages you cite, and in one or two others.
    Pound’s reported remark to Ginsberg at St Elizabeth’s about his own “suburban prejudice” was an attempt in a way to exculpate himself by foisting responsibility onto a particular locale and class, while at the same time he was continuing to accept visits from a militant anti-Semite.
    Merely saying this takes the question no further, whereas you’re at least trying to fathom it. Writing an introduction for The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, Bassani’s novel in translation, and following his fleeting reference there to the loathsome Padre Gemelli, an actual person, I began to read through several years (’36-38) of the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica. (And so a few years after After Strange Gods.) I was surprised to find how very closely consonant were the thinking and the language of various of its contributors with Eliot’s much-quoted remark in After Strange Gods – down to the reference to “free-thinking”. It suggests to me that at least in his prose he was following a well-worn ecclesiastical form of anti-Judaism, though the poems unleash an even more virulent hatred.

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  7. I'd agree that prejudices are personalized, but not that they are personal. Or maybe a better way to put it is this: I think that Eliot's prejudices involved a particular combination of experiences and attitudes we find in no one but him (that is: they are personalized). But I do think one big ingredient here is his class situation. I don't believe that prejudices are just chosen by individuals as if they existed in a social vacuum -- like accents, preferences for food, clothing styles, etc., prejudices come from somewhere. It doesn't mean they're excusable, because people have opportunities to grow out of their prejudices, but it does mean they're larger than individuals. Anti-semitism was endemic among Eliot's class (consider Parkman). To show the social origins of a prejudice is not to excuse it. It is to understand it better, though. So perhaps we disagree -- though if we do, I think our disagreement is larger than a disagreement about Eliot, and has to do with whether people choose their attitudes freely, or whether those attitudes are influenced by factors larger than personal choice. I'm no Marxist, but I incline toward Marx's assertion that social being determines consciousness. That may be where we disagree.

    Bob

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  8. Jamie McKendrick11:51 AM

    Influences rather than determines, then? I’m not surprised the unintentionally adversarial manner of my note has left you trying to figure out exactly where the implied disagreement is. For “a bit sceptical” read “hesitant”. On reflection I may be arguing with myself more than with you. There’s much in your post and reply, anyway, that I agree with. Not least that you don’t try to argue away Eliot’s anti-Semitism as Ricks, in my view, does in his T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Like a brilliant barrister, Ricks addresses each of the instances in isolation to cast doubt on their final admissibility until by sleight of hand there’s almost nothing left as evidence. At times turning furiously on Eliot’s accusers to convict them of prejudice. In this line, but more crassly, Craig Raine’s In Defence of T.S.Eliot sees the poet’s “reasons of race and religion” pronouncement as merely "the equivalent of the Labour Party's immigration policy” – entirely deserted on this occasion, where they might have helped, by his skills as a close reader.
    You persuasively answered the relevant objection as to why Eliot should abandon an aesthetic of his class but not that prejudice. I don’t have an answer myself but I was raising a question about how determinant class was in respect of a prejudice which, though it’s undergone a number of metamorphoses since Greco-Roman times, and then the Christian-Judaic schism, has had a particularly dark and persistent history across many classes, places and times. The reference to Pound’s “suburban prejudice”, whatever its evasive intent, was in part to suggest that anti-Semitism belonged also to another contemporary class than that of the exiled Boston Brahmins – that , I guess, of the Idaho nouveaux riches. Again, my attempt to link Eliot’s views with a strand of Christian intolerance, is inconclusive. You would have to have some rooted disposition to go seeking that kind of abstruse fortification for your prejudice.
    Given the number of Irish immigrants to America, Eliot could have taken an anti-Catholic position but instead he espoused that tradition. In a way you also address this question by saying Jews “bore the brunt” of a series of anxieties about a changing economy and the decline of particular class.
    Rather than thinking prejudice occurs in a “social vacuum”- no such thing exists – or that it is an entirely conscious “choice”, it often seems to me as though it’s a default mode. Rather than choosing to be prejudiced you have to choose not to be prejudiced, and in societies (and perhaps classes) where racial prejudice is prevalent that’s very much the rarer option.
    Anyway, you’re not obliged to answer questions about this long pre-history and you set out clear instances of a particular formation in Eliot’s case, so please ignore what was unhelpfully confusing in my response.

    (I'm finding it increasingly difficult to prove I'm not a robot by transcribing the characters in order to send - is it my eyesight or are robots becoming cleverer and so the tests have to get harder?)

    Jamie

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  9. Eliot is pretty anti-Irish, too. Consider the "Sweeney" of those early poems: a figure of vulgar carnality and materialism. I'm half-convinced that the thing that kept Eliot from becoming a full-on Catholic, rather than a High Church Anglican, was prejudice against the Catholicism of immigrants, German and Irish in St. Louis, Irish in Boston, etc.

    Ricks? I had a look at the book you mention, but it's been a while. I will say that his edition of the early Eliot poems has been incredibly useful to me. No one knows how to edit like Ricks does.

    Bob

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  10. What was his social status tho?

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    1. Downwardly mobile provincial brahmin offshoot, initially.

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