I was raised a Catholic — now long lapsed — in Abilene, the belt-buckle of Protestant fundamentalism in the liquor-free Bible Belt. So I knew what it was to be marginalised as a mackerel snapper before the word was invented.
I was taught to read and write by jolly nuns in primary school, and later to become an avid reader by austere Protestants in public schools.
I was stopped in my aimless tracks as a teenager when I first read, and then heard a recording of, T. S. Eliot reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land. I had no clue of their meaning, but the music struck in me some subterranean chord which had not been touched before, and which kept drawing me curiously back to his poetry.
Yeats’s poetry arrested me in a similar way, through the eye and the ear, striking a different chord. Their antithetical minds and poetry became a place of private retreat and reverie, but it never remotely entered my mind that I could ever be a student. No one in my family had ever attended college, and we never talked about it.
Oil wells were as much a part of the west Texas landscape as tumbleweed; so I first imagined myself a petroleum engineer; but my woeful math and slide-rule skills turned me towards medicine. I worked as a male nurse, but it was financially clear that I could not proceed to medical school without joining a branch of the military in return for bursary support. Vietnam was waiting.
In this quandary, my soon-to-be wife [Marsha Keith Schuchard, an author] and I answered an ad in the student newspaper: “Teachers Needed for East Africa”. We were stationed for two years at the boys’ secondary school in Meru, Kenya. I was a science, sports, and Scout master, literature teacher, and director of the set play, As You Like It, on an outdoor stage in the forest.
I so loved teaching literature that, at the age of 25, with a Kenyan-born child on board, I applied to graduate school in English rather than going to medical school. After completing my doctoral dissertation on Eliot at the University of Texas in 1969, I received the appointment to teach Eliot, Yeats, and other modern writers at Emory— hallelujah! [He is Professor of English and Irish Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.]
In his lifetime, Eliot’s work was translated into 35 languages. At the time of his death in 1965, he was one of the most revered poets in the world. The subsequent restriction of access to his papers gradually led English and American scholars to turn elsewhere, and in the vacuum Eliot’s reputation was diminished by academic accusations that made him out to be a paragon of political incorrectness — an elitist, absolutist, misogynist, anti-Semite.
The good news is that Valerie Eliot has recently commissioned scholarly editions of his poetry, drama, letters, and prose, including all of his unpublished and uncollected writings. Accordingly, the T. S. Eliot International Summer School was founded in 2009 to welcome students and readers of Eliot back to a refreshed and unrestricted study of his work.
Last year, students from 18 nations flocked to London — from China, Russia, Romania, Latvia, India, Jordan, Australia, most European countries, the UK, and the US.
Eliot is a great poet and a great critic, though, doubtless, his essays on Christian culture have not maintained the prominence or influence of his literary essays.
Eliot was a contrarian as a social thinker, writing against the corrosive effects on culture of increasing secularism in the modern world. Behind the writings stands his controversial conviction that no culture, Christian, Judaic, or other, can survive indefinitely without the faith upon which that culture was built.
I made my first pilgrimage to Little Gidding in 1973, reading the poem alone in the chapel and absorbing a wonderful sense of place. I have returned on several occasions, and now, as director of the Eliot Summer School, I work with the Friends of Little Gidding and the T. S. Eliot Society of the UK to take students to the Eliot Festival there each July — always a highlight.
I have come to England at least once every year since 1973 to do research and teach. For 20 years, I directed a summer programme at University College, Oxford, and I have been a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College. I am also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London Institute of English Studies, where the Eliot Summer School is housed, and where I work several months each year as general editor of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot.
I am considered a “lifer” at the Newspaper Library in Colindale, and I have never come over without working there, the source of many scholarly discoveries.
I have always been intrigued by the journey of a man who, rigorously trained in philosophical scepticism, was eventually able to make “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” to the divine will. That is the true drama at the heart of Eliot’s poetry.
But since I began gathering his uncollected and unpublished addresses, I have discovered a dimension of his life previously unknown to me. From the mid-1930s, and throughout the war into the mid-’50s, living much of his life alone, the alleged elitist gave scores and scores of addresses and readings for the benefit of the blind, the deaf, the Save the Children Fund, the Fitzroy Unemployed Women’s League, the Cecil Houses’ Old Ladies’ Home, and many other charities, together with prize-day addresses to secondary schools throughout the UK on leading a moral and intellectual life. He never accepted payment, and he sent any honoraria received to the retired ministers’ pension fund. It is a fascinating story of a private, hard-to-emulate life of intellectual charity.
Shortly after arriving at Emory, I served on a committee that was visited by the CEO of Coca-Cola, Robert W. Woodruff. He was not only a great businessman, but a wholly anonymous philanthropist for education and the arts. This powerful, wealthy, generous man lived by a personal creed, emblazoned prominently on his desk: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” That was good enough for me.
The parable of the rich man (Dives) in his earthly torment, and the beggar (Lazarus) lifted into Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16.19-31: I don’t think of this or any passage as a favourite, but I find it very useful and clarifying in teaching; for so many authors draw upon this passage, however obliquely. Eliot alludes directly to it (not to John 11) in “Prufrock”: “I am Lazarus, come back from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.”
There are places “where a soul’s at ease”, as Yeats calls them. For me, a sunlit table on the Piazza del Campo in Siena; a bench on the Jardin Principal, facing the pink cathedral, in San Miguel de Allende; a game lodge on the Samburu River; a promontory on Santorini — octopus on the grill, chilled retsina beside, the red sun going down on the wine dark sea. . .
I can become hopelessly vexed by the bad manners of the cell-phone culture. They would have us believe that any public space is their private phone-booth. Alas, their proliferation hastens the decline of courtesy, consideration, and civility. Yeats says it best: “Conduct and work grow coarse, and coarse the soul.”
I feel happiest when a family member [three daughters, four grandchildren, one named Eliot] or friend has reached a new level of confidence, or accomplishment through hard work and sacrifice.
Neither Eliot nor Yeats, with their tragic views of reality, believed in the naïve concept of human progress, but they believed in the struggle to create better and more humane civilisations, knowing that the maintenance of civilisation requires eternal vigilance and an indomitable human spirit. I have to believe that the long-term effect of international education, and the technological expansion of communication among nations and peoples, will gradually bring about the diminishment of tyrannical governments, the expansion of human and civil rights, and the increase of cultures where human dignity is sacrosanct and individuals are allowed to flower according to their gifts. Yeats again: “All things fall and are built again, And those that build them again are gay.”
I’d like to sit in a candle-lit pew with Blaise Pascal. Eliot took him as a model for “facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief”, and for showing him that despair and disillusion are “essential moments in the progress of the intellectual soul”.
Professor Ronald Schuchard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.