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.
“As a scholar his rank is high,” wrote Charlotte Eliot of her 16-year-old son to the headmaster of Milton Academy, “but he has been growing rapidly, and for the sake of his physical well being we have felt that it might be better for him to wait a year before entering on his college career.” Eliot had already been accepted at Harvard, but his mother preferred that he endure another year of preparatory school. At Milton he was infantilized because of his frailty, the only boy forbidden to play football or swim in a nearby quarry pond. But at the same time he was expected to reflect his family’s ambitions with achievements of immense precocity. Only a few years later, when Eliot began to buck the family’s notions of what constituted achievement, declining to defend his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, his mother would show that she understood the newly professionalized world of higher education as well as she understood the benefits of fresh pajamas: “The Ph.D. is becoming in America, and presumably also in England, almost an essential for an Academic position and promotion therein. The male teachers in our secondary schools, are as a rule inferior to the women teachers, and they have little social position or distinction.” Eliot, who by this time was living in England, did not return to Harvard to receive his degree, despite having written a dissertation that the philosopher Josiah Royce declared the work of an expert, despite the Harvard philosophy department having made it clear that a position in its ranks awaited him.
Instead, in 1915, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood, only two months after having met her at a punting expedition in Oxford, and he embarked on a precarious career as a poet and journalist. Vivien was at this point everything her husband was not—vivacious, performative, unpredictable—but her high-strung energy disguised a neediness that drained the marriage emotionally and financially. Eliot supplemented his literary work first with teaching at High Wycombe Grammar School and later with a full-time position in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyds Bank, where he would help settle the financial fate of Europe in the aftermath of World War I. In 1920 he published The Sacred Wood, a work of literary criticism so influential in England and the United States (where it became the foundation of the New Criticism) that Eliot created the taste by which he himself was judged for the next fifty years. Then, in 1922, he published a long poem on which he had been working for some years, at first intermittently and finally, after a breakdown in 1921, with great fervor. “To her the marriage brought no happiness,” remembered Eliot of his first wife. “To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”