From The Wall Street Journal:
If fame is the name of your desire, writing about literature is among the least likely ways to find it. From the 17th century until today, only four literary critics, John Dryden (1631-1700), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Matthew Arnold (1828-1888) and T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)—five if one includes that one-man Tower of Babel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)—have attained enduring reputations. All five also wrote poetry, but, apart from Eliot, it is doubtful if today any would be remembered for his poetry alone.
What these men have in common is that all were, in the old-fashioned phrase, men of letters. T.S. Eliot, who may have been the last of the breed, defined the man of letters as “the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content.” Literature, for the man of letters, who not only writes about it but practices it by himself writing poetry, fiction or drama, provides wisdom beyond all other wisdoms, surpassing science, social science, history and philosophy, while incorporating them all.
The man of letters, like the poet, has a responsibility to the language, for, to quote Eliot, “unless we have those few men who combine an exceptional sensibility with an exceptional power over words, our own ability, not merely to express, but even to feel any but the crudest emotions, will degenerate.” He is also responsible, as Eliot wrote in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923), for “the reorientation of tradition” in the arts, and, like the artist, is “the perpetual upsetter of conventional values, the restorer of the real.”
The responsibility of the man of letters is finally for the culture at large. His duty, as Eliot wrote in the 1944 essay “The Responsibility of the Man of Letters in the Cultural Restoration of Europe,” is “neither to ignore politics and economics, nor, certainly, to desert literature,” but to “be vigilantly watching the conduct of politicians and economists, for the purpose of criticising and warning, when the decisions and actions of politicians and economists are likely to have cultural consequences,” for “of these consequences . . . the man of letters is better qualified to foresee them, and to perceive their seriousness.” As he views politics as being too serious to be left to the politicians, the man of letters feels education is hopeless without a clear ideal of the educated individual. “I hope,” Eliot wrote in “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” “that we shall not consciously or unconsciously drift towards the view that it is better for everyone to have a second-rate education than for only a small minority to have the best.” Which is, of course, where we are today.
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In his late 20s Eliot would write of Henry James, whom he much admired, that “it is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” Cosmopolitan in interest and outlook though he was, Eliot went on to become an Englishman to the highest power: He applied for British citizenship, at the age of 39, in 1927, the same year he was confirmed in the Church of England. So rigidly English did he seem that Virginia Woolf called him “the man in the four-piece suit.”
The young T.S. Eliot was also a careerist, fully aware what would bring him the prominence and ultimately the fame he craved. Eliot wrote to J.H. Woods, one of his teachers at Harvard, that there were two ways to succeed in the literary life in England: one being to appear in print everywhere, the other to appear less frequently but always to dazzle. Eliot arranged to do both, publishing his dazzling poems at lengthy intervals, propelling himself to prominence with the prolificacy of his brilliant criticism and commentary.
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How prolific, and to what impressive effect, is now revealed in “The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot,” a handsome trans-Atlantic co-publication of Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, London. An eight-volume hardcover collection, “The Complete Prose”—edited by many hands under the guidance of Ronald Schuchard, a professor of English emeritus at Emory University—is elaborately but relevantly footnoted, a work of learning and scholarship. The separate introductions to its eight volumes, running to roughly 250 pages, constitute a splendid biography in themselves. This edition of the prose makes plain, as nothing before it quite has, that T.S. Eliot, as the introduction to the seventh volume has it, “lived life large—larger than we have known.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but if it doesn’t work, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)