Report on the 43rd Annual Meeting of the International T. S. Eliot Society

by Patrick Query

The Parkway Hotel may have gotten a new name, and some of the restaurants on Euclid Avenue may have changed, but it would take more than such changes to uproot the International T. S. Eliot Society from its St. Louis home. The Society convened in person from 23-25 September, 2022, the first time since 2019 that its members had been able to “take the air, in a tobacco” or any other collective “trance, / Admire the monuments, / Discuss the late events, / Correct our watches by the public clocks. / Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks” or other beverages in or alongside the Fathmans’ swimming pool. How good it was to be back, and just in time for the centenary of The Waste Land

Uncomfortable heat in St. Louis preceded the conference, but by the first day of activities, things had cooled off to the point that some participants even asked for the windows of Washington University’s Hurst Lounge to be closed. Peer Seminars this year were led by Charles Andrews (Eliot on Peacemaking, War, and Reconstruction), Kevin Rulo (The Waste Land at 100), and—in a virtual meeting in keeping with the newly robust online life of the Society—Ronald Bush from Oxford University (Reading Eliot with Ronald Bush). New President John Whittier-Ferguson welcomed attendees, and the first panel featured a dazzling  paper from Tony Cuda on the theme of belatedness in Eliot’s poetry, here The Waste Land. Speaking of dazzling, Julia Daniel followed in virtual form with a presentation on “The Waste Land in the Anthropocene” after which no one will think of cigarette butts, empty bottles, or silk handkerchiefs in the same way again. Caylin Capra-Thomas followed beautifully with a paper on “Environmental Agency in The Waste Land.” Suddenly, the 100-year-old poem felt brand spanking new.

With her new residence near the Fathmans, Frances Dickey has expanded the Eliot empire in St. Louis’s Central West End and situated herself in the very heart of the landscape that forms the substance of her recent work. Her paper opening Session 2 encouraged us to understand the by in “Death by Water” not as by means of but rather in the same sense as in her title, “Death by the Mississippi,” that is, death alongside water. Dickey focused on The Waste Land  and “Gerontion” as poems in part elegizing Eliot’s late father, who did indeed die by the Mississippi. Asa Zhang followed by taking the audience far indeed from the shores of the Mississippi to “Late Republican China” in a paper detailing the first Chinese translation of The Waste Land, in 1937, by Luoroi Zhao. And Michael Webster treated the same audience to a consideration of “Impersonality and Violation in the Poetry of Eliot and Mina Loy.” Eliot’s Thames may sweat oil and tar, but Eliot hardly outdoes Loy, “Whose rivers run no fresher / Than a trickle of saliva.”

After a break it was time for the 43rd Annual T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture, presented this year by preeminent modernist scholar Douglas Mao, Russ Family Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Mao warned the audience that his lecture, “The People of 1922,” would contain no jokes and might even be depressing. His themes of spiritual drought, original sin, and punishment were not exactly merry ones, but there was, perhaps surprisingly, nothing depressing about following Mao in an extended consideration of the people who appear in The Waste Land. In doing so, we learned that people like them–and like us–can choose something other than misanthropy or exile. We can choose to wait, together, for grace. The Society has been graced by Memorial Speakers distinguished, decorated, and delightful over the years. These waters all met in Doug Mao, who not only delivered a memorable lecture in the Hurst Lounge but made a splendid companion and colleague over the course of the long weekend.

Between Mao’s lecture and the final event of the first day was the traditional reception. You had to get to them quickly, but the fried ravioli were a treat. The day ended with an exclusive screening of the new documentary T. S. Eliot: Into The Waste Land, directed by Susanna White and produced by Rosie Alison with Oxford Films for the BBC. Featuring prominently in the documentary are Frances Dickey, Vivien Eliot biographer Ann Pasternak Slater, and T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale biographer Lyndall Gordon. It would be difficult to overstate the sea change that has resulted in an Eliot industry long dominated by men, and that once scoffed at the ideas of Gordon, coming to center on the work of Gordon, Dickey, Pasternak Slater, and other women and on the lives of Vivien Eliot and Emily Hale. Nor should we overlook the significance of this industry’s being newly represented to the public in a prestigious film project entirely helmed by women.

Saturday morning began with concurrent panels, upstairs and downstairs in the St. Louis Woman’s Club. Downstairs, Josh Richards made a convincing argument concerning Eliot’s interest in and surprising sympathy for Distributist economics, as promoted in England by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Steven Cullinane also took us into comparatively uncharted territory, with an entertaining and enlightening discussion of “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” Wyndham Lewis, and the supplanting of tragedy by satire in modern letters. Yangsoon Kim continued the important work of restoring Emily Hale’s presence to the Quartets—a poem filled with “other echoes” of Eliot’s relationship with Hale. Upstairs, in front of a wall featuring portraits of all 51 Presidents of the Woman’s Club, Sara Fitzgerald presented her research into original Eliot biographer T. S. Matthews. Like Fitzgerald, Ethan Shea had to operate without adequate audiovisual apparatus, and like Fitzgerald he managed not only to keep his countenance and remain self-possessed but to do a bangup job. His talk focused on The Waste Land in relation to early film techniques and technologies. Curtis White followed by outlining a long view of “Eliot’s Consistent Desire for Pure Poetic Speech” from “Prufrock” to Little Gidding

We reconvened as one group downstairs for Session Five. Cecile Varry supplied another look into her ongoing work on Eliot and the body–this time the eyes–and Christopher McVey followed neatly with a consideration of bodies that refuse to die: “Zombie Theory and The Waste Land.” The formidable Charles Altieri rounded out the panel with a heady and unscripted discussion of “Eliot’s Interest in the Concept of Experience as Context for The Waste Land.” Lunch followed, upstairs in the ballroom, where the tables fairly fizzed with cheery and enlightening chatter. Fed and refreshed, we gathered again downstairs for Session Six, which featured a pair of papers on religious themes. Nathaniel Hill spoke on “Eliot’s Incarnational Ethos for Wartime,” and Michael Sutherlin discussed the “Aesthetics of Conversion” in Eliot’s frequently overlooked “Salutation.”

After the usual technological scrambling, a virtual connection to Edinburgh, Scotland was established with Robert Crawford, author of the two-volume Eliot biography, the second volume of which was published only a few months earlier. Making only his second appearance in St. Louis, and first since 2005, Crawford spoke movingly of the good, the bad, and the anti-Semitic in Eliot After The Waste Land. Putting down his lecture notes, he ended by sharing his new original poem, “The West Land: An Annotated Global Warning,” dedicated “to Jahan Ramazani, il miglior critico.” Hearing this poem, even via Zoom, must be counted among the greatest highlights of any meeting of the Society. It was all the group could do to shake themselves back into conference mode for some Q & A. 

The day had still more in store. “Eliot Aloud,” an annual tradition, was an unusual treat this year, taking place at the Link Auditorium, at the corner of Westminster Place and Taylor Avenue. The building was commissioned in 1908 to accommodate the growing Wednesday Club, formerly the Shelley Club, founded in 1889 by Charlotte Eliot and others. The auditorium was the perfect venue for staging another unprecedented highlight of Society meetings: a collective reading of The Waste Land, with over twenty readers taking turns at the podium. Different voices, indeed. The Link is an architecturally intriguing and historically important building with the potential to expand further the reach of the aforementioned Eliot empire. It would be reckless to haruspicate or scry anything in the lone falling tree branch that damaged the trunk of one Society member’s car parked out front. These were neither daemonic nor chthonic powers. The tree was pretty old.

What better way to conclude such a rich day than to descend on the Fathmans’ house for the traditional party? In addition to the usual merrymaking and music, this year’s gathering featured Waste Land cake (which tasted much better than it sounds) to celebrate the centenary. Had Melanie Fathman not lamented the fact, no one would likely have noticed that the frosting flowers intended to be hyacinths looked more like bluish roses (or something). Whatever their genus, they had the undeniable look of flowers that are looked at only briefly before being eaten with disposable utensils. The pool was open and in use by a small handful of dedicated Phlebians. Dedicated and hardy: The water, I am told, was colder than usual. No matter the water temperature, the atmosphere at the Fathman place is the very definition of warmth. No site, new or old, will ever match the charm, style, and family feeling of the Fathmans’ or the generosity and grace with which Melanie and Tony welcome the Society year after year.

One learns something about one’s Society colleagues on the final morning of the annual meeting. Although the start time is usually the same as the day before, the sun seems to rise somehow earlier on the morning following Fathmania–brighter, too, in the annex of the First Unitarian Church. Attendees tend to arrive with varying degrees of twinkle in their eyes, and telling degrees of relative patience and good humor with which they wait for the coffee to brew. Once all is in place, though, the space has a settling and gathering effect, into which the final presenters of 2023 spoke.

Two Society board members had important updates: Frances Dickey on the T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, looking for a new Co-Editor (a position subsequently filled by Craig Woelfel, with Kevin Rulo as Book Review Editor); and Tony Cuda on the new digital platform for the Complete Prose, practically ready to launch (and subsequently launched). The final panel of the weekend began with a fascinating paper by Steve Pinkerton on “Reading Ralph Ellison through Eliot.” This was followed by Aakanskha Virkar’s brilliant exploration of the relationship between Eliot’s “Triumphal March,” Nietzsche, and Max Klinger’s bizarre sculpture of Beethoven which, after hearing Virkar’s analysis, does look unmistakably like the figure of Coriolanus described in Eliot’s poem. The last panelist, Didac Llorens Cubedo, has just finished editing, with Fabio Vericat, the Spanish translations of Eliot’s plays and is currently at work on a collection of essays concerning Eliot and drama. He presented a paper on Eliot’s “Striving Toward the Condition of Drama,” which included a useful table outlining the various categories of voices in The Waste Land.

The only thing that remained was to announce award winners. These included Isabelle Stuart, winner of the Annual Award for her seminar paper “Reading Eliot Aloud”; Steven Cullinane, winner of the Fathman Award for his essay “‘When Tragedy Is Away’: Eliot’s ‘Eeldrop and Appleplex’ and Lewis’s ‘Inferior Religions’”; David Chinitz and Frances Dickey, recipients of Distinguished Service Awards this year; and Chris Buttram, Nancy Gish, and, in absentia, Michael Coyle and Cyrena Pondrom, recipients of Distinguished Service Awards honored last year virtually but this year in person. Next year, the International T. S. Eliot Society will meet at Harvard University, from 22–24 September. In addition to our scholarly offerings, we are planning a Sunday trip to visit the Eliot family’s summer home and environs in Gloucester as well as an Eliot-focused walking tour of Cambridge on Saturday morning. The Call for Papers is now available here.

By John Whittier-Ferguson

John Whittier-Ferguson is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and is the current president of the International T. S. Eliot Society