Subscribe to Christianity Today
Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
512 pp., $35.00
How Tom Grew
As well as the centenary of the births of Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot. If Bellow and Miller were two of the most significant Anglophone practitioners of prose and drama in the 20th century, then Eliot was surely the torchbearer for poetry. His legacy was some of the most artistically unique and widely read poems in the English language. Frustratingly, he also left behind a will that prohibited biographers from quoting from his works (a hamstrung Peter Ackroyd and a hobbled Lyndall Gordon had to resort to paraphrasing), and a diligent second wife who kept most of her late husband's archive under lock and key.
Since Valerie Eliot's death in 2012, the Eliot Estate has relaxed its grip, and a wealth—some might say a surfeit—of material has been made available to doughty biographers. Robert Crawford, a Scottish poet, professor, biographer of Robert Burns, and—crucially—an Eliot aficionado has stepped up to the plate. Young Eliot is the first volume of what looks set to be a definitive biography. Crawford covers Eliot's formative years up to and including the publication of The Waste Land. Previous biographers, with precious little to go on, were forced to sketch those early years. With free rein to quote, and access to new interviews, letters, and hitherto undisclosed memoirs, Crawford explores this period in great depth, revealing along the way the scale of Eliot's considerable achievement and the substantial emotional cost involved.
Crawford starts as he means to go on by getting up close and personal and calling his subject "Tom." His opening chapters take us from Eliot's birth in 1888 in St. Louis to his strict but cossetted upbringing. Eliot's parents were prim, bookish, and prosperous, with ancestral links to Nathaniel Hawthorne and presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. "Few squealing infants have had quite so much to live up to," ...