Yesterday the Times Literary Supplement published a short, incisive piece of literary criticism by T.S. Eliot that had never before seen the light of day. The essay, titled “The Contemporary Novel,” was promised to Edmund Wilson of The New Republic in 1926/27 (things moved less quickly in those days), but the typescript, entrusted to Eliot’s mother, was never sent. It remained in her collection until now, and it will reappear in the forthcoming The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The critical edition; Volume Three – Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929.
Unlike much rediscovered literature found this year, Eliot’s essay immediately reveals itself to be a major work of literature. It begins with a premise — that the contemporary English novel shows insufficient “moral preoccupation,” evidenced by a lack of psychological depth — and proceeds with a tour of the best contemporary fiction (of the 1920s). The setup allows Eliot to kiss and slap his targets at the same time — there is nothing he loved to do more. And his targets are big and unmoving.
Take, for example, Eliot’s gleeful snubbing of D.H. Lawrence. Eliot calls Lawrence a “demoniac, a natural and unsophisticated demoniac with a gospel,” adding:
When his characters make love – or perform Mr. Lawrence’s equivalent for love-making – and they do nothing else – they not only lose all the amenities, refinements and graces which many centuries have built up in order to make love-making tolerable; they seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm.
Next, Eliot courts Virginia Woolf…
She is not only civilized but prefers civilization to barbarism; and she writes with great care, always extremely well and in one at least of the great traditions of English prose, and sometimes with astonishing beauty.
…before suggesting that her novels are merely contemporary and so lacking in the requisite moral vision.
Still, Woolf comes away relatively unscathed compared to Aldous Huxley, whom Eliot calls “the sort of writer who must produce thirty bad novels before he arrives at the good one.” Nevertheless, Eliot admits that Huxley has “a certain natural, if undeveloped talent for seriousness,” even if this talent is “oppressed” by “a gift for chic.”
But as entertaining as it is to watch Eliot burn his victims, it’s more worthwhile to find him pondering the meaning of the “contemporary” in contemporary literature — something we do too rarely today. For Eliot, contemporary literature in 1926/27 was marked by “a bewildering diversity of forms and contents” that still, as I wrote above, left little room for the (fairly conservative) moral preoccupations he held dear. Somewhat paradoxically, Eliot explained that this lack of moral preoccupation led him to the “somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times.” Part of the reason for this, we can surmise from his conclusion to the piece, is that contemporary literature of the time wasn’t dramatic enough. “Now the structure of Henry James’s books is dramatic,” Eliot writes. “Conrad’s, in spite of some appearances, are not dramatic. And the contemporary novel is not dramatic.” What’s the link between dramatic structure and probing, moral literature? Your guess is as good as mine.