Eliot at EAAS 2022, and Eliot’s Future

The 34th European Association for American Studies (EAAS) Conference was held at the Madrid campus of the UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia) during April 6-8, 2022. To mark the centenary of The Waste Land, “Wastelands” became the meeting’s overarching theme, encompassing the various possible approaches to Eliot’s poem, and also the metaphorical aptness of its title, from capitalism in all its ferocity to the ageing body in all its frailty.

Seven panels on Eliot (comprising some thirty papers) examined the Waste Land as a symbolic or mythical space, as well as its presence in works by other American authors, and its relevance in an age of environmental awareness. The programme also included a plenary lecture by David E. Chinitz, “Does T. S. Eliot Have a Future?,” and a recital, “Then Spoke The Waste Land: Songs and Fragments”.

Chinitz undertook a prospective exploration of Eliot’s status in the near future, considering a number of factors: his enduring reputation as a “cultural bigot,” the transformation of reading and access to culture/literature/information, the demise of classical/humanist studies, and the revisionist refashioning of university curricula excluding a canonical or historical sensibility. Could the study of Eliot survive such a changing context? Will Eliot’s work soon cease to make sense to readers and students lacking the inheritance of the “Tradition” to which Eliot continually referred?

The recital “Then Spoke The Waste Land” presented textual fragments grouped by theme (“the city,” “dry desolation,” or “distant spirituality”), and coupled with musical pieces selected from The Waste Land´s myriad allusions and evocations, ranging from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”. The aim was to enhance the poem’s fragmentation, musicality and subtle humour; its contrasts of voices and scenes, of high and popular culture.

Spoken excerpts were taken from Eliot’s letters, or from works by contemporaries such as William Carlos Williams, whose vindication of a transparent modernist poetry was seriously compromised by the success of The Waste Land – as he admitted in his Autobiography, “I knew that in certain ways I was defeated”. Conversely, Williams praised Eliot’s attempt to reach a wide audience through comedy written in verse resembling natural speech.

With Eliot’s drama in mind, we could consider two variations on the question in Chinitz’s title: does T. S. Eliot’s drama have a future?; Would Eliot, the poet who thought of drama as the culmination of his career, feel “defeated in certain ways”? Even in the present, Eliot’s plays are rarely taught or performed. They draw on classical models and have a fundamentally Christian orientation – in that respect, they are diammetrically opposed to the educational trends outlined above. They have, however, accessibility which exceeds that of many Eliot poems. Curious readers, students and even audiences of the future may perhaps be permitted to discover, and rediscover, their worth.