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T S Eliot's anti-Semitism hotly debated as scholars argue over new evidence

Posted on 5 February 2003

T S Eliot, widely considered the greatest poet of the twentieth-century to write in English, was dogged throughout his later years by the charge that he was anti-Semitic. Now in a ground-breaking essay which is published in the January 2003 issue of "Modernism/Modernity", Professor Ronald Schuchard of Emory University categorically refutes the charge of Eliot's anti-Semitism, backing his claims with startling new information about Eliot's life. The essay is arousing international controversy.

Schuchard bases his argument on a previously unknown cache of letters written by Eliot to Horace Kallen, until now a forgotten figure who turns out to have been a lifelong friend of Eliot. Kallen was a Jewish-American professor of social thought in the New School University of New York. During the early 1940s, it transpires, Eliot was actively collaborating with him in helping Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to re-settle in Britain and America.

In the aftermath of World War II Eliot also voiced support for modern Israel and increasingly viewed Judaism as a model for the survival of religious culture in an increasingly secular world. He even reproved his friend Kallen for being too secular and limiting his sense of Jewishness to mere ethnicity.

Modernism/Modernity, a scholarly journal published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, is co-edited by Lawrence Rainey at the University of York. In addition to Schuchard's essay, the journal has six responses by leading scholars of Eliot's work: David Bromwich (Yale), Ronald Bush (Oxford), Denis Donoghue (New York University), Anthony Julius, James Longenbach (University of Rochester), and Marjorie Perloff (Stanford).

Schuchard's new evidence has reignited the debate over Eliot's anti-Semitism which broke out in 1995 when Anthony Julius published his controversial book T S Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. Ironically, Julius is also a celebrated solicitor famous for his defence of Schuchard's colleague, Deborah Lipstadt, against the suit for of libel brought by the discredited historian David Irving brought when Lipstadt accused him of denying the Holocaust. He argues that Schuchard is guilty of "misreadings," "under-interpretations and omissions," "a misuse of biographical material," and "the application of double standards in assessing evidence." He concludes: "Critics who excuse Eliot's anti-Semitism, or worse, pretend that it does not exist, merely carry on his own work of contempt towards Jews."

But Denis Donoghue, the distinguished critic from New York University, finds Schuchard's new evidence persuasive. Still, he doubts that they will alter the view that Eliot was anti-Semitic. The poet remains "a symbol of authority," writes Donoghue, and therefore "he must be slandered." The charge of anti-Semitism levelled against him is merely one step in that process.

Other scholars are still more divided. "However warmly Eliot may have felt about this or that Jewish friend or acquaintance," writes Marjorie Perloff, "Schuchard's researches reveal that for the poet, Jews remain Jews first, individuals later."

The debate is capped off by a substantial reply from Schuchard, who rebuts his critics with still more new evidence about Eliot and firmly reiterates his central claim: Eliot was not anti-Semitic.

"Debate about Eliot's anti-Semitism will never come to a close," says editor Lawrence Rainey, "if only because anti-Semitism, whether or not it be Eliot's own, is plainly central to two of Eliot's greatest and most difficult poems. Schuchard deserves credit for re-opening the debate and for bringing some startling new information to it. But readers will have to decide the matter for themselves. Eliot, after all, is a part of our common culture."

Notes to editors:

  • Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965). Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 and other major literary awards. His works include The Wasteland, "Preludes", and "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock".
  • Professor Lawrence Rainey, editor of Modernism/Modernity, teaches and researches in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York. The Department was rated 'excellent' in the QAA Teaching Quality Assessment, and is one of only six departments of English to score the highest 5* rating in the Research Assessment Exercise.

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