Young Eliot

I hope to post about this at greater length at some point, but didn’t want to let “the cruelest month” pass by without mentioning Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, a new biography of the poet by Robert Crawford. We’ve just received our copies at St. Louis Public Library and it looks to be an engrossing and well-researched account of the early years, including Eliot’s childhood here in St. Louis.

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The reviews so far have been excellent — check out, for example, the always great Michael Dirda’s piece in the Washington Post — generally agreeing that Crawford has benefited from the changes to the Eliot estate. Previous biographers had to go through Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, who was very restrictive in terms of granting permission to quote from the works. This kind of estate lockdown has never made sense to me, and it probably opened the door for the highly critical biographies of Eliot that have appeared over the past two decades. He remains a controversial figure (one of the commenters on the Dirda article refers to him as “not just a miserable human being, but a poetaster and thief of the lowest order”) but Crawford seems to offer a more nuanced view, based on close research of the early years. You have to have some sympathy for a kid who was forced to wear a truss for his double hernia and furthermore had enormous ears.

He spent his early years just down the street at 2635 Locust, now the site of a parking lot and a plaque in his honor; a post at Distilled History makes the case that St. Louis should do something more to honor the poet, and offers some Eliot-inspired drinking suggestions. Anyway, Crawford’s book covers the 1896 tornado, Eliot’s connections to Unitarianism and the St. Louis Philosophical Society, and notes that Prufrock’s was a St. Louis furniture store around the turn of the century. Should make for fascinating reading for anyone interested in the poet or St. Louisan literary history.

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