Robert Crawford’s biography is probably the best account so far of how The Waste Land came to be written, and what resources it drew upon. This is not to treat the poem teleologically, as though Eliot had always been working towards it. Rather, the biography simply acknowledges (not least by its subtitle) that Eliot would pin his entire future prospects on its composition, publication and reception, turning down a promising career offer in American academic life in order to stake his productive expatriate existence on this singular poem.
Literary history has vindicated that decision, and by extension, this latest mapping of young Eliot’s life as a movement toward the now famous 1922 landmark. Inchoate or achieved, The Waste Land magnetised and polarised the literary scene, drawing into its orbit the formidable editorial and publicity skills of Ezra Pound and enchanting an otherwise baffled Virginia Woolf by the incantatory force of its rhythms. Remarkably, this same year saw the whole volume appearance of Joyce’s Ulysses, and Woolf’s own first novel length experimental fiction Jacob’s Room.
Crawford’s method is what anthropologists sometimes refer to as a “thick description”, which embeds Eliot’s poetry firmly in the St Louis, Missouri, and Massachusetts milieux of his earlier life. At times this can feel a bit of a slog. Yet readerly patience will pay off richly – the importance of the sea to Eliot and even certain surnames such as Prufrock are all illuminated by circumstantial detail. The family’s entrenched antisemitism is highlighted because Eliot’s seems milder when compared with his mother Lottie’s. She also intensely disliked the French; but that didn’t stop Tom heading to Paris to make a nuance of himself.
The women in Tom’s life (Crawford calls Eliot “Tom” throughout) more or less dominate this biography and will, Crawford notes, figure prominently in a second volume forthcoming sometime after 2020. Tom’s mother was his first (and ongoing) female influence – a strict, endlessly anxious, physically vigorous and frequently exacting lady of Unitarian religious and moral convictions, who worried about her youngest child with his shy and bookish ways, and his congenital double hernia. He both loved her dearly and had to oppose her. As Somerset Maugham once said, there can be few more consequential fates for a boy than to have a really affectionate mother.
Hence, perhaps, Eliot’s sudden and unannounced, lovingly disastrous first marriage to the vivacious yet valetudinarian Vivien Haigh-Wood, here traced in painful detail. These opposites certainly attracted but should never have married. Vivien believed profoundly in Eliot’s poetry, often more than he himself did, but at the spousal and sexual levels, these two people were bad for each other. Besides, Eliot remained haunted by his youthful American sweetheart Emily Hale. His voluminous correspondence with Emily, which only ceased – abruptly at that – upon his second marriage to his Faber secretary Valerie, is under lock and key until 2020, when all parties will have been safely dead for some time. Its sudden end, and the reasons for that curtailment, might say something about Tom’s feelings for (and/or Valerie’s feelings about) Emily. Crawford promises to say more about this in his follow-up volume.
Finally, Eliot was “the man Virginia Woolf came very close to loving”. Crawford does not explain what stopped her, though the observation matters greatly, and is complexly true. Perhaps he will do so in the next part of his biography.