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The End of the Thousand-Letter Affair

<i> Martin is chairwoman of the department of English and professor of American literature and American studies at the Claremont Graduate School and author of "An American Triptych: The Lives and Works of Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, and Adrienne Rich."</i>

If Emily Hale had not been Thomas Stearns Eliot’s confidant and frequent companion for more than three decades, probably she would not be remembered today. Hale interests us in so far as she was a source of inspiration for an acknowledged master of modern poetry. Yet Hale had a noteworthy life of her own: She taught at Scripps College, Smith College and Andover, and she was an exceptional actress and director of plays performed in both campus and regional theaters. One of her students at Scripps recalls her as a “vivid and interesting person (who) lived on campus, and her living room was a mass of color. She wore a black silk dressing gown . . . covered with gold brocaded Chinese dragons.” As a modern American woman, Hale wanted to combine both love and work. Yet this educated, independent, resourceful woman who was quite capable of creating a rewarding life for herself gave much of her best energies over to the needs and demands of artistic genius.

The story of the relationship of Eliot and Hale has been told in compelling detail by Lyndall Gordon in “Eliot’s New Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988). Eliot’s cousin introduced him to Hale when she was 17 and he was 20 and a junior at Harvard. In addition to family ties, they shared a passionate interest in drama. Soon after, Eliot went to England where in 1914 Ezra Pound convinced him to become a poet rather than a professor of philosophy. He also married the fiercely energetic and flamboyant Vivienne Haigh-Wood whose unpublished manuscripts in the Bodleian library reveal that she was a gifted fiction writer. Sometimes depressed by her inability to develop her own talents, sometimes paralyzed by the drugs her doctors prescribed for her nerves, she nevertheless consistently championed Eliot’s poetic career; her belief in her husband’s artistic genius sustained him for more than 20 years. It is not surprising that she felt betrayed when Eliot notified her of their separation through his lawyer, sent five men to their apartment to fetch his possessions, and simply vanished from her life. Increasingly despondent, Vivienne Eliot was committed to an insane asylum by her husband and her brother on the advice of her doctor. Eliot never saw her again; she died after seven years, abandoned and forgotten. Such, once, were the prerogatives of genius.

Meanwhile, as hundreds of letters that are now housed in the Princeton University library reveal, Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot had been involved in a passionate correspondence. They visited each other in England and the United States several times; in the winter of 1932-33, he came to Scripps College to visit her and lecture to her students, and they spent an idyllic interlude on Balboa Island. Casting her as Beatrice to his Dante, Eliot credited Hale with being the inspiration for his best work--she is the female presence in the “Burnt Norton” section of the “Four Quartets,” the catalyst of such essays as “Shakespeare and the Stoicism” of Seneca and Dante as well as the model for Celia in “The Cocktail Party.” Once Eliot was separated from his wife, Hale went to England hoping that their relationship would be publicly acknowledged. Eliot deliberated for more than two years, during which she lost her position at Scripps, and ultimately rejected Hale, using the excuse that they had waited too long.

In 1957, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his much younger secretary, who completely subordinated her life to his. It is not surprising that Emily Hale was deeply upset especially when she realized that Eliot had destroyed all of her letters to him. Even though Eliot acknowledged his own desire “to write a letter, to put down what you . . . don’t want to be destroyed, but perhaps hope may be preserved for complete strangers to read,” he could not extend this recognition to Emily Hale. Silencing his first wife by incarcerating her and silencing Hale by incinerating the record of her voice, he and his work are immortalized while the women who sustained him are made ephemeral.

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Unfortunately, T. S. Eliot is far from an isolated example of arrogant self-absorption in the name of art. Romantic literature is filled with examples of writers for whom all of life was subordinated to their aesthetic calling. Dickens, Hardy, Wilde as well as Shelley, Byron, and even Wordsworth were often cruel to their wives, sisters, parents and children. It is no wonder that such self-indulgence became abhorrent to women novelists like Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot who in their own fiction cut their legendary heroes down to size.

The belief that genius should not be constrained by the demands of daily life and that the imagination should not be subjected to the quotidian has its roots in German philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries, which in turn shaped the Romantic definition of artistic genius as a unique, exalted state of being. The Romantic concept of genius reaches its extreme in the cult of Byron, which gives the power of prophecy to the poet and makes a sacred text of his work.

The cult of genius is dysfunctional and even destructive. By creating an unbridgeable gulf between brilliant and adequate achievement, this model defines artistic creativity as a state inaccessible to all but the most exceptional people. In sharp contrast, the egalitarian, democratic model was perhaps best described by Thomas Edison, who observed that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

As a transcendent ideal to which all else is subordinated, genius destroys the potential for collaboration, creating the need for admirers to inspire, sustain and validate sublime accomplishment. Such a complete bifurcation of roles reinforces the need for sharp gender distinctions, so that women remain nurturing but mute. This is evident in the statement by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot’s mentor, that the act of thought is really the “phallus or spermatozoide (sic) charging, head-on, (into) the female chaos.” For Pound, then, creativity was “an act like fecundation, like the male cast of the human seed.”

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Men who wish to be geniuses will inevitably feel betrayed when women become potential competitors, as did F. Scott Fitzgerald when his wife Zelda wrote her novel, “Save Me the Waltz.” Women rarely have mates who support their artistic efforts; such cooperative relationships as those between Virginia and Leonard Woolf, George Eliot and Henry Lewes, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris are exceptional.

Emily Hale was a resilient and resourceful person who continued her career as a teacher and an actress in spite of Eliot’s rejection. Because she had work of her own, she avoided the tragic fate of Vivienne Eliot. It is lamentable that Eliot destroyed what must have been an eloquent and moving chronicle of their relationship. Perhaps the echo of Emily Hale’s voice will be heard in Eliot’s more than 1,000 letters to her that will become available to the public in the year 2019. It is no longer the prerogative of genius to silence voices other than its own.


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