History of the Society

Where We Start From: Tradition and the T. S. Eliot Society

This essay was written in 2014 by David E. Chinitz and published in T. S. Eliot, France, and the Mind of Europe, ed. Jayme Stayer (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015). It is reproduced here—with additional notes and minor edits—by permission of the editor. Sources in the Works Cited list are linked.

Founded in the 1980s as “a living and continuing memorial” to Eliot, the Society has about 180 members, two thirds of them from North America, the rest from twenty countries from the United Kingdom and continental Europe to Japan and South Korea, with intermediary stops in Eastern Europe, India, and the Middle East.

Though based in the United States, the Eliot Society had an international dimension from its beginning. The Society originated in the determination of a talented and enthusiastic immigrant, Leslie Konnyu, to have a monument to Eliot erected in the city of the poet’s birth. Born Könnyü László in Tomási, Hungary, Konnyu (1914–1992) had fled the Soviet occupation of his homeland and had been living in St. Louis since 1949, drawn to the city both for its immigrant community and because of his partiality for Eliot. Originally a teacher, he made his living in the United States as a cartographer; he was also a published poet and the author of books on Hungarian and Hungarian-American literature. Although he commissioned, at his own expense, a sculpture of Eliot by fellow immigrant Andrew Osze, hoping to persuade his adopted city to accept this tribute to Eliot as a gift, his efforts were repeatedly thwarted by bureaucratic indifference.

In 1983, however, Konnyu’s activities yielded unanticipated results when they came to the attention of Jewel Spears Brooker through a short article in the Tampa Tribune. Her interest piqued by the story of his frustrated exertions, Brooker, who taught in the English Department at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, reached out to Konnyu. She discovered that for several years he had been leading a discussion group of local— which, for Konnyu, meant international—friends who met annually in his living room to discuss Eliot’s work. After examining her scholarship, Konnyu invited Brooker to join this group (in which membership was then conferred by invitation) and to deliver the 1984 keynote. Following her address, which was given in the public library, a Hungarian pianist of Konnyu’s acquaintance entertained the audience with tunes from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, then a brand-new musical, and Konnyu took up a collection to pay Brooker’s plane fare.

Joining forces with Konnyu, Brooker energetically built up the St. Louis group into a large and vibrant society, using her own money and contacts to send out notices and personally recruiting Eliot scholars such as Grover Smith and Ronald Schuchard as well as younger academics. Over the next several years she courted major scholars for the annual keynote address (officially the “T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture”) and worked with the St. Louis group to formalize the association. The T. S. Eliot Society was legally incorporated on December 2, 1986. Its beginnings in a collaboration between an aficionado and a scholar established a pattern for the Society that has persisted for three decades.

In 1988 the Society put on a major international program to mark Eliot’s centennial. Without grants, and with minimal institutional support, Brooker and Konnyu managed to bring together exhibits, musical and dramatic performances, poetry readings, and presentations by Cleanth Brooks, Michael Yeats, Russell Kirk, A. D. Moody, George Bornstein, and many others. When a star for Eliot was added to the St. Louis Walk of Fame the next year, Konnyu accepted the recognition on the poet’s behalf. He died three years later and did not live to see his original dream fulfilled in 2010 with the erection of a bust of Eliot (by another immigrant sculptor, Vlad Zhitomirsky) at the intersection of Euclid and McPherson. The Writers’ Corner established there by the Central West End Association commemorates two other denizens of the neighborhood, Tennessee Williams and Kate Chopin, together with Eliot. The T. S. Eliot Society contributed to the Eliot sculpture using monies that had been set aside at its founding and earmarked for just such a use. The Society has in fact maintained Konnyu’s tradition by supporting the establishment of public memorials several times, lobbying successfully in 1998 for a historical plaque at 4446 Westminster Place, Eliot’s adolescent home in St. Louis, and funding the restoration in 2007 of the northwest window in St. John’s Church, Little Gidding.

For its first decade and more, the Eliot Society met annually in St. Louis on the weekend closest to the poet’s September 26 birth date. The first break in that pattern came in 1999 with a meeting in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the young Eliot had passed the summers with his family. This successful visit to the site of The Dry Salvages led naturally to an ambitious plan to bring the Society across the Atlantic to tour the scenes of the remaining three Quartets. In June 2004, the annual meeting convened for a week in London, with excursions by bus to Burnt Norton, East Coker, and Little Gidding. 

Proximity drew to this London meeting British and continental scholars who had never ventured to the American Midwest. One of these, the French modernist scholar William Marx, joined the Eliot Society again in St. Louis the following year and suggested the idea of a future meeting in Paris, which he generously volunteered to host. This invitation created an irresistible opportunity to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Eliot’s formative year in Paris, 1910–11. A July 2011 meeting in La Ville-Lumière eventuated.

As it has since the days of Jewel Brooker’s leadership, the Eliot Society takes seriously its mission to encourage scholarship on Eliot. An allied organization of the Modern Language Association, the Society has sponsored panels at the MLA’s annual convention on such topics as “Eliot and Transnationalism,” “Eliot and Violence,” and “Eliot, H.D., and New England.” The Society has likewise been active in organizing panels at the American Literature Association’s annual conference and at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900.  

The Society’s own annual meeting provides many opportunities for discussion of Eliot’s life, work, and thought through panels, peer seminars, lectures, banquets, and performances. Attendance is typically between 50 and 60, although the 2011 meeting in Paris drew over 80 participants. The highlight of the annual meeting is the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture, given each year by an eminent academic or poet. Past speakers have included, for example, the scholars Michael Levenson, Marjorie Perloff, Jahan Ramazani, and Helen Vendler; the poets Geoffrey Hill and Carl Phillips; and, in Eliot’s own mold, such poet-critics as Robert Crawford and James Longenbach. The Memorial Lecture remains, as Leslie Konyuu first conceived it, free and open to the public. 

Time Present, the Society’s newsletter (published thrice annually until the move to web-only publication in 2022), included news, book reviews, abstracts of conference papers, an annual bibliography, and other information of interest to Eliot scholars. The newsletter was mailed to the Society’s members; back issues are archived, for public and scholarly use, here and in the “resources and projects” section of our website. The website publishes relevant news and information on the Eliot Society and its activities and helps publicize Eliot-related activities taking place around the world—for example, the production of one of Eliot’s plays in New York, or the planning of a conference in Edinburgh or Florence.

Perhaps Leslie Konnyu’s most lasting bequest to the institution he founded—one that goes back to the early gatherings in his living room—is a pervasive atmosphere of congeniality that endures even now in the Eliot Society’s activities. It is probably because of that warmth that many scholars who intended to come once to the annual gathering in St. Louis have found themselves returning regularly for years. Although this quality suffuses the Society’s intellectual proceedings, it shows through especially clearly in such after-hours traditions as the Saturday-night sing-along—at which selections from Cats are now strictly forbidden—and late-night cocktail parties. As the original cadre of St. Louisans in Leslie Konnyu’s circle diminishes, the Eliot Society is undergoing a period of generational transition. Though its practices will inevitably evolve, one hopes that the hospitable and rather boisterous spirit of its early years will continue to pilot the Society through a future in which it finds itself, as Eliot himself counsels, “still and still moving.”

Works Cited

Brooker, Jewel Spears. “Winking Back at the Stars.” T. S. Eliot Society News and Notes 16 (1992): 1.

Életmu” [Oeuvre]. Könnyü László hagyatéka Tamásiban [Legacy of Leslie Konnyu in Tamási]. Tamási Cultural Centre, 2003. Web.

Smith, Grover. “The T. S. Eliot Society: Celebration and Scholarship, 1980-1999.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1999. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale, 2000.