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Thursday, January 6, 2022

January 6, 2022: 2022 Anniversaries: 1922 and “The Waste Land”

[A few years back I started January by highlighting some of the historic anniversaries we’d be commemorating in the year to come. It was a fun series, so I thought I’d do the same this year with some 2022 anniversaries. Leading up to a special post on predictions for 2022!]

On two AmericanStudies contexts for a relatively non-American literary masterpiece.

As far as I remember (and as far as my searches reveal), I’ve only written at length in one post about T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” (1922; it was published first in his own magazine The Criterion in October, then in the November 1st issue of The Dial, and then in book form in December): this one comparing and contrasting Eliot’s poem’s opening images of Spring with those in William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923). That might be surprising for a work deemed one of the most influential American (and world) Modernist texts, but I would say that my relative silence is due to the fact that the poem largely renounces America for Europe (as its author did almost exactly five years after that Dial publication). Indeed, while “The Waste Land” is absolutely littered with allusions and references and quotations and intertexts (so much so that I’ve found it hugely difficult to teach, although its importance has led me to continue trying to do so), in the published version of the poem precisely none of them are to American texts, voices, or histories.

I say “in the published version” purposefully, however, because in Eliot’s drafts of “The Waste Land” (which I first encountered in graduate school through this truly wonderful 1970s book edited and introduced by Eliot’s widow Valerie) he included an eventually-cut opening section that offers one way to AmericanStudy the poem. That opening section (which I’m not finding online, but which is included in full in that book) describes a night out on the town with a group of college students, a group that seemingly includes a version of Eliot himself and thus likely comes from Harvard College (which he attended from 1906 to 1909); that would of course make this section’s setting Massachusetts (whether Cambridge or Boston is unclear). Eliot cut this entire 50-plus line section on the advice of his friend Ezra Pound, and Pound may well have been right, as it’s not nearly as gripping an opening as those famous lines about April. But even though it didn’t end up in the published version, I’d say it’s quite interesting and telling that this college and American setting and scene were where Eliot initially chose to begin the poem—a reflection at the very least that however English and European his eventual life and career became, they began in every sense in turn of the 20th century America.

I’m not suggesting that the poem’s setting and themes, like its allusions and intertexts, aren’t as distinctly European as I mentioned above; I very much believe that they are, including in a central way the physical and psychological effects of World War I (then known as The Great War) on European landscapes and communities. But over the last couple years, as I discussed in my Semester Recap post on my adult learning class on the 1920s, I’ve come to think a lot more about the effects and aftermaths of the Influenza Pandemic on the United States, a catastrophic event that paralleled World War I but that (unlike the war) hit the U.S. as hard as it did Europe and the rest of the world. Eliot was living and working in London throughout the pandemic, but much of his family and community remained in the U.S., specifically in his native St. Louis (of which, along with the Mississippi River, he would later write they “have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world”). So I think it’s not only possible but helpful to read “The Waste Land” as a poem about the devastating effects of these multiple world catastrophes, and thus as part of an American (and global to be sure) tradition of post-pandemic literature as well.

Last anniversary tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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