Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, April 9, 2003

Journal rekindles debate on whether T. S. Eliot was anti-Semitic

BY JOHN SANFORD

Was T. S. Eliot anti-Semitic? The perennial question gets lively, multifaceted treatment in the January issue of Modernism/Modernity, the official journal of the Modernist Studies Association with editorial offices at Stanford, the University of York in England and Drew University in New Jersey.

Among the seven contributors to the debate is Marjorie Perloff, the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities, Emerita, in the English Department.

The author of such groundbreaking and celebrated poems as "The Waste Land," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Four Quartets," Eliot, who died in 1965, was dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism even during his lifetime. The charges stem from both the content of his poetry and statements he made in letters and speeches -- perhaps most notoriously while delivering the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933, when he said: "Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable."

But in an essay titled "Burbank with a Baedeker, Eliot with a Cigar: American Intellectuals, Anti-Semitism and the Idea of Culture," Ronald Schuchard, the Goodrich C. White Professor of English at Emory University and distinguished author of Eliot's Dark Angel (1999), sets out to refute the reading of this seemingly damning phrase, as well as several allegedly anti-Semitic allusions in Eliot's verse. Concluding that Eliot was in fact a "philo-Semite," Schuchard cites the recently uncovered cache of letters between the poet and Horace M. Kallen, a Jewish social philosopher, Zionist and co-founder of the New School for Social Research in New York City.

The Eliot-Kallen correspondence continued for at least 33 years, according to Schuchard, who asserts that the Jewish intellectual's relationship to the poet "may radically reform our perception of Eliot as a critic of Judaeo-Christian culture in Europe."

Although they held "diametrically opposed social thought," the two men were warm friends and maintained a tremendous respect for one another, Schuchard writes. He points out that Kallen sought Eliot's help with expanding the International League for Academic Freedom, an organization founded in part to call attention to scholars and teachers in German concentration camps. "'What do you think can be done about organizing analogous groups in England?' Kallen asked [Eliot] on 27 December 1933," Schuchard writes. "Eliot immediately sent a letter to A. L. Rowse at Oxford, asking him for ideas about forming academic groups to help Jewish refugees. Eliot then took the initiative to assist and befriend refugees on his own."

In the same vein as the late literary critic Cleanth Brooks, Schuchard argues that Eliot's infamous sentence at Virginia is not "an anti-Semitic statement; it is an anti-free-thinking statement." (In the October 1985 issue of Southern Review, Brooks wrote that "free-thinking is the key phrase.")

"To Eliot, any large number of free-thinking New Humanists -- or any secular humanists, Christian or Jewish -- would be intellectually 'undesirable,' for in diminishing the role of religion in culture they would threaten the very project of reestablishing a traditional, religion-based culture," according to Schuchard.

Perloff doesn't buy this argument. "As a 'free-thinking' Jew married to a free-thinking Jew brought up in the Old South (New Orleans), I have always found Brooks's statement offensive," she writes in her response to Schuchard's essay. "Who is Eliot, who is Brooks, to tell Jews that they should or should not be 'free-thinking'?"

Perloff also rejects the argument that Eliot and Kallen's relationship offers any evidence of the poet's "philo-Semitism." "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?" Perloff writes. "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. ... Schuchard's researches reveal that for the poet, Jews remain Jews first, individuals later."

In addition to Perloff, five other eminent scholars respond to Schuchard's essay: David Bromwich, Ronald Bush, Denis Donoghue, Anthony Julius and James Longenbach. But only Donoghue, the Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, shares Schuchard's view on the issue. He writes that he does not believe "Eliot was prejudiced against Jews" and, toward the end of his response, asks a rhetorical question: "Why are we still arguing about 'anti-Semitism in Eliot'?"

Eliot's Christianity (given that "the animus against Christianity is rampant and vicious in our profession"), his moralism and his "critical and pedagogical influence" combine to make him a "symbol of authority whom many teachers and critics want to cut down," according to Donoghue, who adds: "In this respect he differs from Pound and Celine, virulently anti-Semitic writers but not symbols of authority. It is easy to consign Pound and Celine to explanations. Eliot is far more difficult to undermine. So he must be slandered."

An electronic version of the January issue of Modernism/Modernity (Vol. 10, No. 1) can be viewed free of charge at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mod. Stanford affiliates have access to all issues online at this URL. For print subscription information go to www.press.jhu.edu/press/journals/subscribe/index.html.

The journal is published quarterly by Johns Hopkins University Press. The next issue (due out later this month) was edited at the journal's Stanford offices, in the Department of Comparative Literature, by Jeffrey Schnapp, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, with managing editor Matthew Tiews, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature.