Unfortunately for a writer who wrote many plays, novels and poems, he seems to be mostly remembered for his incredible poem To T.S. Eliot, an attack on Eliot’s antisemitism, which he amazingly read out in front of Eliot himself at the ICA in 1951. Previously an admirer, he was horrified when poems such as Gerontion and Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar were reprinted in 1948 in his Selected Poems. There is little doubt of the antisemitic content of these poems; they are downright nasty:
“And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner [of my building] / Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.”
“The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
– Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar
It’s always a shame when a writer is remembered primarily for something he probably wishes he had never had to write in the first place. Especially so since most of his novels seem to be now out of print. His memoir of Jewish East End life, Journeys Through a Small Planet has a Penguin Modern Classics edition that I’ll be making sure to get my hands on.
Looking at the history of Eliot’s antisemitism and political/religious trajectory is interesting in itself. There is no doubt that Eliot was a reactionary in the Tory tradition. You could call him a ‘very English’ reactionary, but I generally hate the self-mythologising ‘very English’ label the English like to apply to anything that paints us in a good light. A Very English Civil war, a Very English General Strike, blah.
Of course, Eliot was not English, but he was desperate to firmly root himself in English society, especially upper-class society. The most obvious expression of this is certainly his conversion from the Unitarianism of his childhood to Anglicanism, identifying not only as a member of the Church of England but as an Anglo-Catholic. Then in its heyday, Anglo-Catholicism is a branch of the Anglican church that retained the most Catholic aspects of worship from the Elizabethan Settlement; sacraments, incense, veneration of Mary, confession, and even Latin Mass in some instances. Traditionally, it disdains the Protestant, or ‘low church’, aspects of the Church of England, and sees itself as part of the continuous church founded by the early Christians. Unsurprisingly, many of the original adherents to Anglo-Catholicism in the mid-19th century, known as the Oxford Movement, converted to Catholicism itself, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who continued to write poetry as a Jesuit priest. Many High Church Anglicans in recent years have also converted, unhappy with the modest attempts at liberalisation in the CofE.
High Church Anglicanism has always been the embodiment of the traditional English establishment, and none more so than in Eliot’s time, when the aristocracy still existed as a viable economic class. Toryism, the political wing of Anglo-Catholicism and the precursor to modern conservatism, growing out of the Royalist faction of the Civil War, was clearly where Eliot found himself most at home. He stated that he was a “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion”. As if to amplify his reactionary politico-religious credentials, he was a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society that venerates Charles I.
The essence of the modernism that Eliot portrayed in The Waste Land, that general unease associated with complete collapse of absolutes and the assumed survival of the political and social order, led him to embrace a totally pre-modern form of conservatism. The royalism of the Cavalier and Jacobite tradition, the religious conservatism, and in the vein of all European reactionaries since the French Revolution, the suspicion of materialism, capitalism, liberalism, and democracy. Eliot’s radicalism was one of traditional, authoritarian, paternalistic hierarchies.
In this embrace of the political and religious tastes of the inter-war aristocratic classes, it would almost be surprising if somebody like Emanuel Litvinoff had not had to write a poem denouncing Eliot for his antisemitism, which was hardly a rarity among the pre-war aristocracy.
The British Union of Fascists had many prominent aristocratic patrons, and was flocked to by the sons of Earls and Barons, although many eventually were turned off by the ‘unseemly’ violence endemic at their meetings. David Redesdale, father of the Mitfords, was notorious for his antisemitic views. While sections of the aristocracy were actively sympathetic to fascism, in particular Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the anti-democratic, traditionalist, religious absolutes of High Toryism often expressed themselves in casual, or not so casual, antisemitism during the inter-war years.*
There have been defences of Eliot, which are as predictable as nightfall when any great artist turns out to have held unfavorable opinions, or to have done something that might make them a flawed human being. Terry Eagleton counters this very well:
“Why do critics feel a need to defend the authors they write on, like doting parents deaf to all criticism of their obnoxious children? Eliot’s well-earned reputation [as a poet] is established beyond all doubt, and making him out to be as unflawed as the Archangel Gabriel does him no favours.”
Despite having felt ‘nervous’ when he saw Eliot enter, Litvinoff finished reading his poem at the ICA in 1951.
So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.
– To T.S. Eliot
Eliot reportedly said afterwards, “It’s a good poem. It’s a very good poem.”
Having dispatched Eliot, Litvinoff later led high-profile campaigns against official antisemitism in Soviet Russia and, expressing the universality of his belief in human dignity, his last novel, Falls the Shadow, written during the 1982 Lebanon War, was set in contemporary Israel and is critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.
Like many obituaries and short biographies of Litvinoff, this post has ended up saying more about Eliot than him. When I’ve got a hold of Journeys From a Small Planet I’ll write something for the man himself.
*check out European Aristocracies and the Radical Right, 1918-1939, by Karina Urbach.