The poet who confronted T S Eliot over his anti-Semitism

In 1933 T S Eliot said a 'large number of free-thinking Jews' were undesirable in a Christian society

Another fascinating obituary in the Telegraph: that of the Jewish poet, Emanuel Litvinoff. Two things interested me in it: at first, the remark, “Emanuel was a bookish child in a bookless household and, like his [nine] brothers and sisters, treated the local library as his second home.” So did I, like countless others, though unlike Litvinoff I didn’t grow up in two rooms and there were books around the house. Memo to the Coalition: please don’t close the public libraries. Cut or cap the salaries of overweening local government officials instead.

The second point concerns Litvinoff’s celebrated attack on T S Eliot. The obit states: “Litvinoff admired Eliot and was inclined to forgive him for his fashionable pre-war anti-Semitism, but was horrified that he was prepared to celebrate such sentiments after the Holocaust.” In 1952 he wrote a poem, “To TS Eliot”, attacking him for his views and recited it at the Institute of Contemporary Arts where, by an unfortunate coincidence, Eliot himself happened to be present. There was a furore among Eliot’s friends, such as Stephen Spender and Sir Herbert Read, though the poet himself was heard to mutter: “It’s a good poem.”

There is no getting round Eliot’s anti-Semitism which I feel went deeper than a merely “fashionable” pre-war stance. His 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia, later published as After Strange Gods, contain the notorious sentence: “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

After the war Eliot prudently withdrew this book from circulation and never re-published it. So why did he not withdraw the equally damning poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” from his Selected Poems, published in 1948 and which Litvinoff rightly took exception to? It was still included in my own copy of his Collected Poems 1909-1962, published in 1963 and which I read that same year. Was it an oversight or did the magnitude of the Holocaust not impinge on Eliot’s consciousness?

As Anthony Julius’s book on Eliot’s anti-Semitism suggests, a very great poet can also be a flawed human being.