Visions and Revisions

On T.S. Eliot

James Longenbach

By the time T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis on September 26, 1888, he had been preceded in this world by a brother and four sisters, the eldest of whom was nineteen years his senior. Inevitably, great care was lavished on the youngest Eliot; he had five mothers. Or perhaps six. Next door to the Eliot house on Locust Street lived Abigail Adams Eliot, Eliot’s grandmother, who had grown up in Washington, DC, and could recall clearly her great-uncle, the second president of the United States, after whose wife she had been named.

Great things were expected of the youngest Eliot, and a crucial part of his genius was to have achieved greatness in forms that no one in his family was fully equipped to countenance. Simultaneously, he fulfilled and decimated their expectations, constructing a life that allowed his family to admire his achievement only inasmuch as they were also bewildered, incapable of helping themselves to the side dish of self-congratulation that usually accompanies the main course of familial pride. The author of The Waste Land and Four Quartets secured the loyalty of his admirers (as well as the unshakable attention of his detractors) in precisely the same way.

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