I’ve been reading Young Eliot: From St. Louis to the Waste Land by Robert Crawford, a biography of T.S. Eliot’s life from 1888 to 1922. The period encompasses what are perhaps his greatest and best known works: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Hollow Men, and The Waste Land. For major works, only Four Quartets lies outside this period.
I knew he was born and raised in St. Louis, where I’ve lived since 1979. But he is something on a non-entity here in this city that continues to celebrate its past (it’s almost a legal requirement to know about the 1904 World’s Fair) while it tries to find new ways to sabotage its future.
Little physical evidence of Eliot remains in the city. There is the house on Westminster Place in the Central West End where his family moved when he was 16. He was only there a year before he headed off to school in the Boston area, first a year at a prep school and then Harvard. There is a medallion in the sidewalk in front of the place where the house he was born and raised in once stood.
In fact, it was this space I recently went looking for, inspired by the narrative in Young Eliot. I had a meeting with a marketing firm on Locust Street in what we call mid-town St. Louis, near St. Louis University and the entertainment district that includes the restored Egyptian Rococo Fox Theatre and Powell Hall, home of St. Louis Symphony. Five blocks east of my meeting and closer to downtown is the space that was once 2635 Locust Street, the home of Henry and Lottie Eliot and their six children, of whom Thomas Stearns Eliot, or Tom, was the youngest. His parents were 45 when he was born.
What was the home of the Eliots at 2635 Locust Street is now a parking lot. Even more, it is a fenced parking lot, replete with weeds and empty parking spaces. Crawford suggests that what was happening to the neighborhood might have contributed to the images of The Waste Land. “Waste land” could certainly describe what is there today.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
– T. S. Eliot, East Coker (from Four Quartets)
Next door was the Eliot School for Girls, founded by Henry’s father, William; over the years, it would move and change its name, eventually becoming the most exclusive school for girls in the St. Louis area. A few years ago, what was then called Mary Institute (named after Mary Eliot) merged with the most exclusive boys school, Country Day, to form MICDS, or Mary Institute-Country Day School.
Henry, Tom’s father, wasn’t associated with the school; he was vice president of a brick manufacturing company. St. Louis likely should have been called “Brick City”—much of the housing stock in the city itself is red brick. The city was once a center for brick manufacturing and sales, and Tom’s father had a significant role in it.
They were well-to-do, the Eliots were, with the home on Locust Street and a summer house in Massachusetts. But even when Tom was a child, the neighborhood was changing, becoming less genteel. Most of their well-to-do neighbors moved farther west, and eventually the Eliots did, too, to the well-appointed home on Westminster Place. That home still exists.
As boy living on Locust Street, Tom attended Smith Academy, a few blocks to the north on Delmar Avenue. The family church was the Church of the Messiah, at the corner of Locust and Garrison. It, too, was founded by Tom’s grandfather: an imposing building with a tall bell tower for Unitarian worship. It was about three blocks west of the Eliot home, and actually just over a block from where my meeting was. It would be hard to find evidence of the church that once dominated the corner; it’s now small two- and three-story office buildings. This stretch of Locust eventually became known as “Automobile Row, ” for all of the car dealerships that were located along the street.
If Eliot School and the Church of the Messiah weren’t enough, what William Eliot is best known for is the founding of Washington University in St. Louis. The university does have an Eliot Society, but it’s devoted to fundraising and named for William, not Tom. “WashU, ” as we call it, is where I earned my master’s degree. I’ve heard a number of authors speak there, including Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and foodie author Michael Pollan. (If you’re interested, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes talked of great literature; Pollan entertained the undergraduates.)
Despite the contributions of his grandfather and the business influence of his father, there’s not much of Tom himself in this city where he was born. You can find him, though, by walking the sidewalks of Locust Street and the streets intersecting it, imagining what it was like 120 years ago, with ever-present smoke (St. Louis was an industrial powerhouse), horse-drawn transportation, brick buildings, and the school next door where Tom liked to sneak and play on the playground, much to the girl students’ chagrin.
But he’s there, in the empty parking lots and the three-story building next door, which was there when he was a boy. And he took all of this with him when he went off to Harvard and eventually London. And St. Louis was there when he wrote some of the most significant poetry of the 20th century.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
– T.S. Eliot, Preludes, IV
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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