Using Eliot’s Complete Prose at the T.S. Eliot Summer School
Aviva Dautch and Oline Eaton
After two years as students at the T.S. Eliot International Summer School, we were delighted when the School’s Director, Gail McDonald, invited us to return in 2016 as Postdoctoral Teaching Fellows. In this role, we facilitated workshops training students to use The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, which is hosted on Project Muse. Overseen by Ron Schuchard, the General Editor, and published by Johns Hopkins University Press, The Complete Prose gathers the collected, uncollected and unpublished writings of Eliot in eight volumes. Each volume features extensive notes from distinguished scholars, many of whom have been Faculty of the Summer School. This year, Jewel Spears Brooker (co-editor of Volume 1), Jason Harding (co-editor of Volume 4) and Jayme Stayer (co-editor of the forthcoming Volume 5) were at the Summer School and provided insight into their work researching, editing and annotating this material for the project.
In our workshops, we focussed on a talk by Eliot, entitled ‘English Poets as Letter Writers’, that he delivered at Yale on the 23rd February 1933. This was one of five subsequently destroyed lectures he gave during a trip to America between 1932-33. As Ron Schuchard told us, it took several years to reconstruct the lecture and the process was dependent upon access (granted by the late Valerie Eliot) to Eliot’s private letters, previously restricted manuscript materials, and his library. The primary challenge for the lecture’s reconstruction was that it was only delivered once and, as Eliot wrote to Virginia Woolf— in a remark that all of us procrastinating scholars will appreciate— he left it to the last minute and only had five days to prepare. Initially, the Yale Daily News report of 24 February 1933 was all the editors of The Complete Prose had to go on but, eventually, they found what Schuchard described as “an archival bonanza” at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. In the archives, they located transcriptions by Eliot’s brother, Henry Ware Eliot, taken from a binder of originals that Eliot let him examine before they were destroyed, which included descriptions of several lectures. The editors were able to reconstruct portions of what Eliot may have said on the 23rd February by combining these transcriptions and the Yale Daily News report with a number of other third-hand sources.
The lecture begins with Eliot’s surprisingly self-deprecating portrait: “I am almost illiterate, although not analphabetic. I am an extremely ill-educated and ignorant man. I have been trying for some years, indeed, ever since I provided one of my poems with notes, to shatter the fiction that I was a man of vast erudition.” As well as his literary analysis of specific writers’ letters, he goes on to opine that the best letters “put down what you don’t want anyone else to see except the correspondent”, tells us that his ideal correspondent is “a person of the opposite sex” but not one with whom he is in love, rather “a mature friend” and, in a foreshadowing of the debates the rise of social-media will create less than a century later, states “No other form of communication can ever supplant the letter”.
The workshops we designed were intended to give the students experience of using The Complete Prose on Project Muse, but we selected this particular piece for the diversity of what it would enable us to do. In building the sessions around the text of ‘The English Poets as Letter Writers’, we were able to illuminate the editorial process around the reconstructed lectures, to demonstrate the variety and richness of the material within The Complete Prose, and to highlight the preconceptions of Eliot that the students arrived with (that he was a curmudgeon, that his work is “difficult”, etc.).
We asked the students to actively engage with this lecture as a jumping off point for their treasure hunt through The Complete Prose over the course of the week and sent them off to find material on related themes across the four volumes published so far. We were struck by the students’ enthusiasm for the pieces they encountered, their eagerness to present their findings and, most of all, their appreciation of the scope of material contained with The Complete Prose. Simply by dipping into the various volumes through key word searches, they gained remarkable insight into the extent and diversity of Eliot’s oeuvre and how The Complete Prose might be of great value in their own Eliot research.
Aviva Dautch teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at the British Library and is Poet in Residence at The Jewish Museum, London. Her PhD thesis considered the influence of the Metaphysical Poets on Eliot and other modern and contemporary writers. Her poetry, reviews and literary essays are widely published. Twitter: @avivadautch
Oline Eaton is a researcher at King’s College London where she teaches English and American Literature. Her recently completed critical/creative PhD thesis analyses popular forms of biographical writing in relation to celebrity and culture. She is the host of New Books in Biography and on the board of directors of Biographers International. Twitter: @oline_eaton