T.S. & His UU Infection

September 8th, 2011 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

An excellent piece in The Nation (9/26) reviews in detail the two-volume set of T.S. Eliot letters. I was happily chugging right along when I found delightful insights by him on the nature of Unitarianism.

For those not of a literary bent, nor historical, nor UU, nor Bostonian, note for background such as:

  • His family settled in MA about 1670
  • A grandmother recalled well her great-uncle, President John Adams
  • A grandfather moved to St. Louis to establish the first Unitarian church west of the Mississippi
  • He attended the private Milton Academy and Harvard University (Unitarian founded institution)

He studied, worked and wrote in France and England, taking British citizenship at 39. Yet the letters make it clear his New England Unitarian heritage was very real to him, even after joining the Church of England.

There I was, amused by his and his first wife’s hypochondria. Suddenly, it was:

The Eliot Way—a stultifying compulsion to weigh the details of everything from pajamas to the PhD—was something Eliot himself knew all too well. In an uncollected essay about Henry Adams, to whom Eliot was distantly related (Adams having been the great-grandson of the second president), he referred to the Eliot Way more generally as the Boston Doubt, “a scepticism which is difficult to explain to those who are not born to it.” … “This scepticism,” Eliot went on, “is a product, or a cause, or a concomitant, of Unitarianism.” Wherever someone infected with the Eliot Way stepped, “the ground did not simply give way, it flew into particles.” Such people “want to do something great,” said Eliot, but “they are predestined failures.”

The reviewers advance to other aspects of this complicated person, but do note the influence of and reaction to his familial culture. For example, “Eliot’s first great artistic success grew from an effort to distance himself from the threat of such failure by dramatizing it.” Moreover, Prufrock’s “very linguistic texture… embodies the typically Eliotic stalemate between fortitude and inertia…” and so forth.

In this most UU of regions and with my long UU history, I did enjoy this lengthy review and do intend to grab the volumes. The Eliot Way, indeed, is part of UU churches, clerics and congregants.

As a group, we study and consider and re-analyze all. I think along the lines of a joke my high-school Jewish chums used — where there are eight Jews, there are ten opinions. UUs forever examine an issue, often turn to experts (ideally UU “saints” like Emerson or Parker or Channing or recently Thich Nhat Hanh [as so many UU preachers have co-opted the Zen master]), and do battle in the arena of ideas.

I have volumes of Eliot. I’ll hit the letters, flesh out my sense of him, and plough through some of his works with a UU coloration.

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