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Eliot’s views seen in the context of his own story

27 March 2015


From Dr Martyn Halsall

Sir, - Context is vital, and its consideration may prove helpful to the Revd Alexander Faludy in his assessment of the anti-Semitism he discerns in the work of T. S. Eliot (Letters, 13 March). To offer context is not to offer excuses, but it may suggest that Eliot's words reflected other aspects of his life than simply a desire to be crudely anti-Semitic.

In his biography of Eliot, Peter Ackroyd also highlights the passages quoted by Fr Faludy. Ackroyd also quotes four instances, in private correspondence, of Eliot's writing disparagingly about Jewish people.

Ackroyd comments: "All the available evidence suggests, then, that on occasions he [Eliot] made what were then fashionably anti-Semitic remarks to his close friends." He also quotes Leonard Woolf, a Jew and early publisher of The Waste Land, as saying: "I think T. S. Eliot was slightly anti-Semitic in the sort of vague way which is not uncommon. He would have denied it quite genuinely."

Ackroyd dates Eliot's most prominent anti-Semitic statements to "the Twenties or just before", when he was also prone to misogynistic remarks, and "when his own personality threatened to break apart". Ackroyd argues that Eliot's dislike of Jews and women could be interpreted as "the sign of of an uneasy and vulnerable temperament in which aggression and insecurity were compounded". He adds: "This is an explanation, however, and not a justification."

Out of the turmoil of the first half of the 1920s, Eliot embraced the Christian faith in the second. In his poetry and his plays, he explored the teachings of both Old and New Testaments. Perhaps those poetic statements of faith, as in the concept of sacrificial death that concludes "Journey of the Magi", is effectively the apology for his earlier anti-Semitism that Fr Faludy desires?

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