Updated June 04, 2017


A literary agent once said to me that a paragraph in People magazine with some trivial gossip about a writer sold more copies of his book than a prominent favourable review in The New York Times. Except for Ernest Hemingway, for whom to be on the cover of Time tolled the bell of success, the more important writers of the 20th century had no interest in such publicity. They were important because of their contribution to the high art of their time and not because they ran before the bulls in Pamplona or posed, gun in hand, with a lion they had shot in Africa: their chief interest was that the quality of the writing be appreciated, not their personality.

When he was 42 years old and already established as one of the finest living poets of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot wrote to his brother Henry, “… if I could destroy every letter I have ever written in my life I would do so before I die.” The letter in which he made that wish is in the fifth volume of his letters of which six hefty volumes, containing a total of 5,237 pages with letters written between 1898 and 1933, have been published so far in a very handsome edition by Yale University Press. Several more volumes of letters he wrote in the succeeding 32 years will no doubt follow.

In that letter to his brother, Eliot also said, “I should like to leave as little biography as possible.” Whatever was happening in his private life was none of anyone’s business and he preferred it to remain unknown. However, in his final years, when he found happiness with his second wife, Valerie, he was persuaded by her not to forbid the publication of his letters, and she devoted the 47 years that she survived after his death doing one of the most magnificent editing jobs (assisted by John Haffenden) ever done with a writer’s correspondence, exceeding even the brilliant scholarly work by Francis Steegmuller on Gustave Flaubert, Leon Edel on Henry James, and Richard Ellmann on James Joyce.

Much of Eliot’s correspondence consists of letters he wrote as the editor of Criterion and as a director at Faber & Faber, and while it reveals an important aspect of his life, showing how scrupulously correct he was in his editorial decisions and the trouble he took to encourage new writers he was obliged to reject for economic reasons, there is little in the correspondence with any voyeuristic appeal to amuse the curious. Inevitably, there are letters associated with the problems of his first marriage and the spiritual crisis that drew him to the Anglo-Catholic church, but the real value of a writer’s correspondence is to be found in some spontaneous remark that’s revelatory of his aesthetic or philosophic preoccupation, as when Eliot remarks that Beethoven’s quartets have made such a profound impression on him that he would like to replicate in some future verse the effect produced on him by the music. However, while there are these occasional nuggets with their gleaming insight into the nature of literary creativity which reward the patient reader of Eliot’s correspondence, our appreciation and enjoyment of his poetry would scarcely have been diminished had his original wish to destroy his letters been carried out. We know nothing of Homer, very little of Shakespeare, and our understanding of their work is none the worse for it.

It’s a well known fact that Ezra Pound helped launch Eliot’s career as a poet by persuading Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry — at that time the most important poetry magazine in the United States — to publish ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, a poem that made little sense to her; and it’s also well known that Pound helped Eliot to edit and put together the various related fragments that became ‘The Waste Land’. These incidental facts enhance our admiration for Pound’s passionate promotion of good literature, but in no way colour our reading of the poems.

Pound was a tireless promoter of other writers, even to the extent of sacrificing his own work, as when he was so extraordinarily impressed by a book by Joyce which no one was prepared to publish, that Pound sent it to his own American publisher, “advising him”, he says in a letter, “to print the Joyce in preference to my book”. He also suggested that if the American censor found certain passages unacceptable, then, rather than allowing the book to be banned, it should be printed with blank spaces for the censored passages and that he himself would type out those missing passages “on good paper” and paste them in the blank spaces. Then there is the astonishing occasion when the American Pound persuaded the British prime minister to give the poverty-stricken Irish novelist Joyce a grant of 100 pounds from the English Civil List; at the same time, Pound got the Society of Authors to give Joyce a modest subsidy. Unlike most writers who are obsessed with promoting their own work, Pound cared less for the individual self, least of all his own, but excitedly championed good writing regardless of who wrote it. “It is tremendously important”, he wrote in an early essay ‘A Retrospect’, “that great poetry be written, it makes no jot of difference who writes it.”

Unlike Pound, however, most writers, driven no doubt by common vanity that compels the self to advance its claim to uniqueness, would prefer that they should be the ones to be noted as the singular creators of the great literature of their time. Not receiving attention at the highest level where the quality of language and stylistic originality — the formal organisation that alone transforms any expression into a work of art — are the only criteria by which to be evaluated, many writers are content to be judged as contributors to a secondary category if that would get them known. There were several new categories after the Second World War: black writers, women writers, and, after the dissolution of the British Empire, Commonwealth writers. Consequently, many a ‘minority’ writer received conspicuous attention who otherwise would have remained neglected; publishers eagerly took on the latest emancipated group and marketed its books as the significant literature of the time only to let it perish in order to promote the next trend, so that reputations rose and fell like a seismic needle reacting to a succession of tremors, with each liberating movement seeming to strike like an earthquake that mostly created a cloud of dust and left a few ugly cracks behind. But again, while there was no dearth of writers eager to join the trendy crowd on the fashionable boulevard, there were always those who turned away to their own quiet alley. Elizabeth Bishop was a notable example of the latter: at the height of the feminist movement in the early 1970s, she refused to be included in anthologies of women’s poetry, famously saying, “Literature is literature, no matter who produces it.”

Perhaps the newer generation of writers, clamouring for attention and hungry for publicity, will seize any opportunity to be talked about. Which writer today would decline if offered to have his or her portrait on the cover of Time magazine as did William Faulkner in 1954? Five years earlier, Faulkner had resisted being the subject, like Hemingway had been before him, of gossipy adulation in Life magazine. When he reluctantly agreed to let Life do an article on him, Faulkner insisted (in a letter to Malcolm Cowley) that there be “no photographs, no recorded documents”, and added, “It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” He wanted, he wrote, both his obituary and the epitaph on his gravestone to be the one sentence, “He made the books and he died”.

Faulkner so hated what Life proceeded to publish that he absolutely refused to be on the cover of Time. One of the most striking documents in the history of literary biography is the long telegram Faulkner sent to Bennett Cerf, his editor at Random House. When Cerf tried to persuade him to agree to a cover story in Time by saying that a large sum of money was to be made by such publicity, Faulkner wired back: “let me write the books. let someone who wants it have the publicity”, went on to say that he would never consent to having his picture on the cover of Time, and then added the most astonishing statement: “estimate what refusal will cost random house and i will pay it.”

Samuel Beckett was another very private person who hated biographical publicity. At the time when his biography by Deirdre Bair came out, my American publisher, who was Beckett’s friend, told me that he happened to visit Beckett in Paris and asked him if he’d read it. Beckett answered that he’d received a package which he suspected contained the book and that, without opening it, he had thrown it into the rubbish chute.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 4th, 2017