For much of the twentieth century, the most revered, influential figure in English literary criticism was unquestionably T. S. Eliot. He was poet, critic, dramatist, essayist, editor, reviewer, publisher, and public intellectual; and although he had rivals in some of these fields and superiors in others, none of them could match his authority as a whole. Eliot’s consecration as high priest of English letters was all the more remarkable given the outrage that had greeted his early work as a poet. In the words of one of his first champions, F. R. Leavis, he had been regarded as “literary Bolshevik,” audaciously avant-garde and bafflingly opaque; yet by the early 1930s he was being hailed as the preeminent literary mind of his generation.
Like many of the leading writers and intellectuals of twentieth-century England, Thomas Stearns Eliot was not in fact English. He was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of a family so patrician that they refused to use the term “OK,” and could trace their residence in America back over two hundred years. The Eliots were prominent among the intellectual aristocracy of the city, though Eliot’s own father was a businessman. His grandfather had founded the local university, and championed an ideal of public service by which his grandson was to be deeply influenced. The current of Christianity associated with the St. Louis elite was Unitarianism, a moderate, high-brow form of religious faith at odds with the crude evangelical passions of the Puritan middle classes.
Yet the civilized, socially responsible class to which the Eliots belonged was being gradually displaced in the city by industrial and commercial forces, as a philistine middle class rose to power. The cultural leadership of the Eliots and their colleagues was in steep decline, as St. Louis became flagrantly boss-ridden and corrupt. The Eliot who would later speak sourly of the “dictatorship of finance” found himself an internal émigré in the place where he grew up, and would shortly become an exile in reality.
After studying at Harvard, Eliot abandoned his homeland for Paris and Oxford, and was persuaded to stay on in England by his friend, mentor, and compatriot Ezra Pound. Like a number of other expatriate writers (Wilde, Conrad, Henry James, V. S. Naipaul, Tom Stoppard), he compensated for his status as an outsider by seeking to outdo the English Establishment at its own game. He worked in a London bank and later for the distinguished publishing house of Faber & Faber, and had connections with the Bloomsbury Group. In 1927, he sealed his loyalty to his adopted country by converting to the Church of England and professed himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion. The divine right of kings was in his eyes a “noble faith.” Truly to flourish, he maintained, meant being rooted in a single spot. “To be human,” he remarked, “is to belong to a particular region of the earth.” That the local and regional take priority over the national and international is a familiar article of conservative faith. “On the whole,” this refugee from St. Louis to London shamelessly announced, “it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born” (Notes Toward a Definition of Culture).
There was, however, some benefit to be reaped from living on the margins of Europe on a small island that was formally European but, like the United States, ethnically Anglo-Saxon. His compatriot Henry James, Eliot wrote, no doubt with himself in mind as well, was a European in the way that only a non-European could be. He meant, presumably, that the outsider is more likely to be conscious of the spirit and culture of a place as a whole than those brought up within it, who tend to take it for granted and to lack an overall view of it. So there were advantages to not being a native European, as well as not having grown up in provincial Britain. Eliot may have been a pinstriped London publisher—he was jocularly known as “The Pope of Russell Square,” which was where his publishing house, Faber & Faber, was located—but like many leading modernist artists he was nothing if not cosmopolitan, roaming freely in The Waste Land across a whole span of civilizations, appropriating chunks of them in order to cobble together a synthesis that suited his own spiritual needs. He was an unstable compound of bourgeois stuffiness and literary saboteur, moving between genteel Mayfair and bohemian Soho.
For most moderately enlightened readers today, Eliot’s social views range from the objectionable to the obnoxious. In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), he portrays his ideal social order, which seems more rural than urban. There will be a culture of values and beliefs shared in common; but though society will thus constitute an organic unity, it will also be strictly stratified. There will be a governing elite, consisting of the traditional English rural class along with an intellectual coterie of men not entirely unlike Eliot himself.
The task of this elite is to protect and disseminate the (largely Christian) values of the society as a whole. It is a vital undertaking, since if Christianity were to founder the whole of Western civilization would collapse along with it. Yet since the mass of men and women are in Eliot’s view incapable of what might properly be called thinking, their participation in the culture will be less conscious than that of their superiors. Instead, it will take the form of custom and tradition, myth and sentiment, ritual observances and spontaneous habits of feeling. All individuals will share in the same form of life, but they will share in it in different ways and at different levels of consciousness. The organic and the hierarchical can thus be reconciled.