Response To Ronald Schuchard

A reply to Schurchard’s “Burbank with a Baedeker, Eliot with a cigar: American intellectuals, anti-semitism, and the idea of culture,” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 1 (2003): 1-26.

Marjorie Perloff

Published in Modernism/Modernity, 10, no. 1 (2003): 51-56.

The name Anthony Julius is nowhere mentioned in Ronald Schuchard’s richly informative essay, but clearly the author of T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (1995, second edition forthcoming) was on Schuchard’s mind as he assembled his brief in defense of the poet against the charge of anti-Semitism—a charge not original with Julius, of course, but made most forcefully by him. In countering the Julius line, Schuchard mounts two arguments. The first (pp. 1-19) carefully contextualizes the “offensive” poems of the late teens—e.g.,“Burbank with a Baedeker,” “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” and “Gerontion”—so as to show that the “dominant motive” of these poems was not to “exercise a little gratuitous anti-Semitism” (p. 12) but to dramatize the sense of despair and failure of Eliot’s war years—a phantasmagoria in which the poet’s own consciousness is at one with that of his characters. The second argument (pp.19-36) concerns, not Eliot the youthful poet, but Eliot the Public Man and Social-Cultural Presence of the post-conversion years, especially on his now frequent visits to the United States.

Here, I shall not take up Schuchard’s first argument since I have myself recently countered Julius along somewhat similar lines. In my T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture (September 2002), [1] I suggest that the notorious passage in “Gerontion” (“the jew squats on the window sill, the owner. . .”), obviously anti-Semitic as it appears when taken out of context, must be understood within the frame of the entire poem, which expresses, in the most moving and terrifying terms possible, the crisis (“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”) Eliot underwent in the years following the death of his beloved Jean Verdenal, mort aux Dardanelles in 1915, his miserable marriage to Vivienne, coupled with his knowledge of and complicity in her sordid affair with Bertrand Russell, and the sudden death in 1919 of his father, with whom he had not had a chance to reconcile and who was never to know that his son was to become a distinguished poet. Schuchard establishes a careful factual context for “Burbank with a Baedeker,” and although I disagree with some of his particulars—I think, for example, that Eliot’s alleged concern for post-war Vienna was hardly, as Schuchard thinks (p. 9), a case of empathy for the displaced Eastern Jews pouring into that city but, on the contrary, a concern that the great imperial capital would be mongrelized and its vibrant culture destroyed—I am sympathetic to the argument for context that Schuchard makes.

But the second half of the essay is more troubling. Here the focus is on Eliot’s relationship with the Jewish social philosopher, Zionist, and New School of Social Research professor Horace N. Kallen, an intellectual whom Eliot first met at Harvard in 1906, and whose (hitherto unknown) correspondence with the poet has now surfaced at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. This cache of letters—they extend from 1927 to 1960 and, as Schuchard points out, more and earlier letters may well surface since the two men had been close friends at Harvard from 1906 to 1911—does indeed, in Schuchard’s words “restore a missing chapter of American cultural history.” The question is what that missing chapter tells us.

From 1927 on, when his “friendly correspondence” with Eliot resumed, Kallen was evidently making “repeated efforts to bring [the poet] to the [New School] to lecture and read, an arrangement that finally materialized in the spring of 1933 when Eliot was Norton Professor at Harvard” (p. 24). Kallen was a fervent admirer of the Great Poet and was hence honored to entertain him. At the dinner party he hosted for Eliot at a New York restaurant, one of the guests was the Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Eliot was apparently much impressed with Cardozo, writing to his producer Henry Sherek that the Justice was “singularly distinguished amongst all the guests,” and that “I have always been attracted by Sephardim” (p. 26).

Schuchard takes such anecdotes –and he gives a number of them–as evidence of Eliot’s cordial feeling toward Jews. But why shouldn’t Eliot have been pleased to meet someone as distinguished and famous as Cardozo? And even then, he cannot seem to take Cardozo’s accomplishments at face value: they must be related to the Chief Justice’s Sephardic origins. As for Horace Kallen himself, why wouldn’t Eliot be pleased and flattered by the fuss Kallen, obviously a man of independent means, made about him whenever he visited New York? Kallen, after all, was not just any Jew but a well-situated Harvard Jew who had demonstrated his intellectual distinction. A Jew, moreover, who despite friendly debates with Eliot on issues of religion and culture, seems never to have voiced the slightest objection to the poet’s words or actions.

The delightful visit with Kallen, in any case, coincided with the preparation and delivery of the Page-Barbour Lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in April-May 1933 and published in 1934 under the title After Strange Gods. It is here, of course, that Eliot made his notorious statement that “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” “This unfortunate statement,” writes Schuchard, “one of the most quoted and disdained in modern literary and cultural studies, has pained many readers of Eliot, including myself, and my purpose in bringing it forward again is not to excuse it but to reconstruct a context that shows that it is not, regardless of its appearance, an anti-Semitic statement; it is an anti free-thinking statement” (p. 27). Here Schuchard follows Cleanth Brooks, who declared in 1985 that “free-thinking [not Jews] is the key phrase. Thus, even the ultra-conservative Old South got along with its God-fearing Jews very well. There was perhaps less anti-Jewish feeling in the Old South than anywhere else in the United States” (p. 27, note xliv).

As a “free-thinking” Jew married to a free-thinking Jew brought up the Old South (New Orleans) I have always found Brooks’s statement offensive. Who is Eliot, who is Brooks, to tell Jews that they should or should not be “free-thinking”? That as long as they were “God-fearing” they were acceptable in the Old South? For one thing, it isn’t true: Jews in New Orleans, for example, whether secular or religious, were (and still are) excluded from all Mardi Gras activities which were, in Brooks’s day, at the very heart of the social and commercial life of the city. But even if this were not the case, Brooks’s remark, which Schuchard endorses, is irritatingly patronizing, as if to say, we really like those darkies down here as long as they know their place. Who, after all, was telling the Christian majority in the Old South what they should or should not believe?

Eliot’s statement evidently cost him a number of friendships, including that of the (Jewish) philosopher Franz Boas, who, Eliot told Kallen, had been his closest friend in graduate school (p. 25), and it produced a rift between the poet and his later friend Isaiah Berlin. In response to Eliot’s remark about not wanting free-thinking Jews about, Boas evidently wrote him, “I can at least rid you of the company of one.” (p. 28, n.xlvii). There is no record of a reply, but to Berlin, Eliot wrote in 1951 that “the sentence of which you complain (with justice) would of course never have appeared at all at that time if I had been aware of what was going to happen, indeed had already begun, in Germany” [p. 27, my emphasis].

Schuchard takes this disclaimer at face value, noting that Eliot may well have had in mind the ‘free-thinking humanism” of his friend Kallen (whom he admired despite the aberration of his secularism), and he adds, “Though Kallen and Eliot never discuss the episode in their letters, Kallen would certainly have understood Eliot’s intention in relation to their own dialogue on the relation of culture, humanism, and religion; it certainly had no effect on their friendship” (p. 28). But the fact is that Kallen should have objected. For Eliot’s claim that he had been unaware “of what was going to happen, indeed had already begun, in Germany,” strikes me as quite disingenuous. Here a few dates and facts may help clarify the situation.

Hitler came to power in January 1933, at the very time Eliot was beginning work on his Page-Barbour Lectures, which were delivered in April of that year. Within weeks, all Jewish civil servants were dismissed as were all Jewish university professors and school teachers. The number of Jewish students at German schools and universities was rigidly curtailed. Jews were quickly dismissed from the press, the broadcasting industry, and the arts. By April 1, a large-scale state boycott of Jewish stores and businesses was introduced; armed SS guards made an example of particular Jewish shops to insure compliance with the ban. On May 10, 1933, a public burning of Jewish and anti-Nazi books took place throughout Germany, anticipating Kristallnacht of 1938. By July ‘33, Germany had passed a law for forced sterilization of those with “genetic” defects and all East European Jewish immigrants were stripped of their German citizenship. By August, Jewish lawyers were forbidden to practice law and Jewish doctors were allowed to treat only Jewish patients.

All this was done quite openly and was reported by the newspapers throughout Europe and the U.S. In Mein Kampf (1927), for that matter, Hitler had made no bones about his intentions so far as the Jews were concerned, and the minute he came to power, he began to carry them out—in the form of public edicts and laws. Indeed, in the United States, protest on the part of American Jews was quick to come: in the spring of 1933, anti-Nazi rallies took place at MadisonSquareGarden, demanding a boycott of trade with Germany.

What then does Eliot mean when he says he didn’t know what was happening in Germany? If he read the newspapers at all, he did “know.” And even if he didn’t “know” in the spring of ’33, what about the interval between delivery of the lectures and their publication by Faber & Faber in 1934? Eliot could easily have expunged the offending sentence from After Strange Gods. Or could he? Here is the whole paragraph in which it is embedded:

You are hardly likely to develop tradition except where the bulk of the population is relatively so well off where it is that it has no incentive or pressure to move about. 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 numbers of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and agricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.[2]

In the context of what was already happening in Germany, the demand for cultural and religious homogeneity and the caution against tolerance put the notorious sentence about “free-thinking Jews” in an especially negative light. Eliot, who later confided to various friends that the word he especially regretted in the passage was race, never reprinted After Strange Gods. In the years that followed, no doubt feeling somewhat guilty, he worked with Kallen to help Jewish refugee professors –for example Karl Mannheim and Adolph Löwe–obtain jobs in the U.S. and he participated in a group called Moot, organized in 1938 to discuss social and political issues and, later, to plan for national reconstruction (p. 30). But are such activities different in kind from the help Ezra Pound offered to Louis Zukofsky over the years? Indeed, in many ways Pound was more generous than Eliot: strapped for funds himself, he paid Zukofsky’s way when the latter came to visit him in Rapallo in the mid-twenties. Pound could forgive Jewishness in poets whose work he admired just as Eliot could forgive it in highly cultured educated men. Both cases are no more than variants on “Some of my best friends are Jews.”

There is no indication that the basic views formulated in After Strange Gods ever changed. Schuchard cites a commentary Eliot wrote for the Christian News-Letter in 1941, protesting the Vichy government’s anti-Semitic policies, as evidence of the poet’s firm objection to anti-Semitism. But this protest is at best equivocal. “Anti-Semitism,” writes Eliot, “there has always been among the parties of the extreme Right: but it was a very different thing, as a symptom of the disorder of French society and politics for the last hundred and fifty years, from what it is when it takes it place as a principle of reconstruction.” (p. 31). The implication of this statement is that anti-Semitism is natural, perhaps even inevitable, when government is not sufficiently in control, as was the case in France throughout the twenties and thirties, but that when it is codified as law, it goes too far. Eliot does not seem to understand that the second step follows logically from the first.

However warmly Eliot may have felt about this or that Jewish friend or acquaintance, Schuchard’s researches reveal that for the poet, Jews remain Jews first, individuals later. In 1947, for example, Eliot protested to the poet Edward Field, who had accused him of being anti-Semitic, “I am no more anti-semitic [sic] than I am anti-Welsh or anti-Eskimo” (p. 31). This is, of course, the ultimate put-down since Eliot hardly numbered many Eskimos among his acquaintance or among those cultivated Western Christians he admired. Like the wild Welsh and the exotic Eskimos, Jews remain outsiders for Eliot—people one tolerates (and sometimes even befriends) but whom one can’t quite accommodate into The Idea of a Christian Society (1939). And there the matter stood even if Eliot admired the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg or the social philosophy of his friend Horace Kallen.

Indeed, Eliot’s later cultural pronouncements provide an interesting gloss on his earlier poetry. I would myself argue that the overtly nasty slurs on Jews in Poems 1920 are much less offensive than the “humane” position adopted by Eliot the sixty-year old smiling public man. For that younger poet was much less given to holding “views” than to putting his feelings into his poetry. From “Prufrock” to The Waste Land, Eliot’s poetry is nasty, cruel, painful—and utterly charismatic, no doubt because the poet is just as hard on himself as he is on those hated others, “Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.” It is the poet as Gerontion, after all, who “was neither at the hot gates / Nor fought in the warm rain / Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, /Bitten by flies, fought.” The verb “fought” in that last line is almost spit out in a moment of self-disgust.

“Gerontion” and The Waste Land will always attract readers because of their sheer verbal and conceptual brilliance. The poetic fabric, in these cases, has absorbed the ideological residue. Ironically, it is not the fiery, nasty younger Eliot but the genteel and understanding Public Poet of the later years that is the problem–the poet who writes those self-deprecating lines in “East Coker” about “Twenty years largely wasted,” since his every poetic attempt has been “a different kind of failure,” even as he declares that an “ideal Christian culture “can“ accommodate Jewish religion and culture” — provided, of course, that, as Eliot wrote the Jewish publisher Victor Gollancz, Jews be “devout and practicing” (p. 36).

“At the end of the culture war,” Schuchard concludes, “Eliot, tired of conducting conflicts with secular humanists in no man’s land, warmly welcomed followers of the Jewish religion into his idea of a Christian society” (p. 36). Provided, of course, they followed the religion. For many of us, there is nothing “warm” about this exclusionary gesture.


[1] “Cunning Passages and Contrived Corridors: Rereading “Gerontion,” forthcoming.

After Strange Gods (London: Faber & Faber,1934), pp. 19-20.