Anyone reading or thinking about Eliot realizes, sooner or later, that the huge mass of exegesis and discussion of his work and life means that any question is likely to have been answered. In From Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation, John Harwood anticipated my question in my last post. I’d recommend his book to anyone who’s interested in any of this. He wrote:
‘Eliot’s immense influence in the academy has usually been ascribed to the power and cogency of his judgments, buttressed by his reputation as one of the century’s greatest poets. How one man could have retained so many eminent advocates, and held his position for so long, was something of a puzzle to reflective observers.’ (Harwood (1995) p.101) One might add, even more puzzling given how incoherent and inconsistent he seems, and especially since he stayed formally outside the academy.
But as Harwood goes on to state, quoting Louis Menand, Eliot’s authority was not so much imposed on the academy as co-opted by it. The academy needed Eliot, and needed him precisely because he was outside the academy.
1)If literary criticism is simply the eloquent expression of an opinion, no matter how well educated that opinion, there is little to distinguish it from what people outside the lecture room do when they discuss a book or poem. Intelligent scrutiny of poems is a natural extension of an interest in poems. "I like this" leads to "why" and answering 'why' is an act of criticism. So academic criticism, which, as Gerald Gaff and others have shown, is a recent development establishing itself against competition from the scholars and the humanitarians, has to distinguish itself to justify its own existence. If all you need is the poem and the OED, why do you need to spend three years learning how to read? So the professional critic has either got to be able to say something startling about the complex text: or say something complex about any text, to justify herself.
2) ‘It is essential to the institutional status of the academic literary critic that criticism be regarded as a discipline which produces results that can be evaluated ‘objectively’-or else how can literary critics be professionally certified and rewarded in the university system. (Menard, qtd Harwood)
So the short answer was that Eliot, and his claims to objectivity, the appearance of “scientific” method he dressed what were really acts of highly educated and eloquent opinionating, were useful to those within the institution.
1) His poetry, like Pound's, and Joyce's writings, lent itself to exegesis in a way few others did. The Waste Land seems to dare the critic to test his or her abilities against it. But it wasn’t just the poetry. What exactly was an ‘Objective Correlative”, was there a “dissociation of sensibility”, what exactly is being proposed about creativity in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. For that matter exactly what did Eliot mean by Tradition. The business of explaining what Eliot had 'really meant' (sometimes by those who were committed to a belief in “The Intentional Fallacy" when analysing his poems) was soon underway. By the late 1970s the estimate of books and articles on Eliot was a striking 4,319 (the waste land is only 400 lines long, leave out the unpublished poems and the plays and it’s unlikely he published five thousand lines of poetry). This doesn’t count the number of unpublished thesis and dissertations. Fifty years later the number must be enormous.
2) I'm not sure if I buy this, but Menand, and Harwood through him, argue that T.S.E.’s example was important as a link in a newly created critical tradition that allowed the first generation of academic critics to create a pedigree for themselves reaching back to Aristotle with Eliot the Key transitional figure between the gentlemen amateurs of the 19th century and themselves.
Whichever way, they needed him in a way he didn't need them.
The reaction when it came, mostly after his death, was not just against Eliot’s poetry, or his criticism, or his reputation, but sadly against the man himself.
Fortunately, whatever happened, whatever dirt the next set of Biographers throw, the poems are still there to be read in all their awkward, idiosyncratic beauty, and if you want to you can read them free of exegesis and the interference of 'Eliot for Dummies', "Fifty two reasons why a feminist should burn his effigy", the placards of the "Viv not Tom" party or the questions set for the exam: "What is Prufrock's 'overwelming question'? Justify your answers".
You can trust your own intelligence and find your own way home.
And I have the suspicion that when the poems are read, readers will want to talk about them, and then there will be intelligent criticism round the kitchen table, measured out in coffee spoons, and people will argue whether Prufrock is a better poem than The Journey of the Magi and that might be the highest compliment you could pay them.