A Birthday Gift for Fans of T.S. Eliot
When members of the T.S. Eliot Society gather in St. Louis this weekend for the group’s annual meeting, they will be greeted with a new collection of the famous poet’s essays. Frances Dickey, an associate professor in the Department of English, has been working on the first complete edition of Eliot’s prose writing—more than 1,000 pieces, some published here for the first time and most not reprinted since their original appearance in journals and pamphlets. The first two volumes were published digitally last summer on Project Muse by Johns Hopkins University Press. Dickey worked as an editor for the third volume, spanning the years 1927-1929, which is scheduled to be released in conjunction with Eliot’s birthday, September 26.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888 and lived in the city during the first 16 years of his life. After attending Harvard University, Eliot spent a year in Paris before returning to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy. As part of his doctoral studies, he returned to Europe just as World War I began, which prevented his return. He stayed on, entering an unhappy marriage and working long hours at Lloyds Bank in London. He got his start as a published poet 100 years ago when his friend Ezra Pound helped him place “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry magazine, in June 1915. By the time Eliot published his poem The Waste Land in 1922, his status as an internationally renowned poet and literary critic was well established. Never a prolific poet, he earned his living as a journalist, critic and editor. But Dickey says most of Eliot’s prose has never been collected. She says Eliot wrote more than 1,000 pieces of prose, mostly literary journalism such as book reviews, opinion pieces, and essays on various subjects.
“His impact as a critic was enormous at the time, and throughout the middle of the 20th century, but that impact came to be felt through a handful of essays,” Dickey says. “If you go to an Eliot conference, you will hear the same lines from his essays being quoted over and over, and no one ever quotes from the other essays because they’ve been out of print for 80 to 90 years. So what this project does is it makes those thousand pieces of literary criticism available to anyone who has access to a university library or subscribes to the edition.”
Dickey, who is originally from Connecticut, says she has been perplexed by the seeming lack of interest in T.S. Eliot by residents of his hometown or residents of Missouri. She says the T.S. Eliot Society was founded by a Hungarian man, Leslie Konnyu, who immigrated to St. Louis and was surprised to learn there was no annual celebration of Eliot’s work. Dickey, who is vice president of the Eliot Society, also says Washington University has little connection to Eliot, even though the university was founded by the poet’s grandfather. She hopes the newly-released collections of Eliot’s prose will enhance his legacy locally and worldwide.
“I think these volumes will reinvigorate the study of Eliot and give us a much broader and nuanced picture of his literary interests, his political views, his network of associations in London and in the United States,” Dickey says. She says the new collections will be searchable because they are being published digitally. “It’s a goldmine for scholars and students of poetry.”