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#MeToo and Modernism

#MeToo, Eliot, and Modernist Scholarship

Each generation brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demands upon art, and has its own uses for art.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Frontiers of Criticism”[1]

In 1994, when I was an undergraduate English major in California, I had the opportunity to interview Adrienne Rich, whose poetry was the subject of my senior thesis. I was nervous. I wanted to know about the influence of T. S. Eliot upon her poetry. Ever courteous, looking me in the eye, Rich was definite. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, his New Critical impersonality, and his declared self-definition as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion,” had made him dangerous, dated, or, at best, irrelevant to Rich at this moment in her life.[2] While she had been “raised in the school of Eliot,” now, as a radical lesbian poet, she found that “Eliot was useless to me.”[3]

Today, two and a half decades after my conversation with Rich, do Eliot’s poems have any better chance of speaking to young poets, scholars, students, and readers? Should Eliot, who in 1957 married his secretary, 38 years his junior, now, in the era of #MeToo, be “cancelled”? Eliot’s posthumously published racist verses, particularly in the aptly titled The Columbiad, may be reason enough to topple his still-towering status. Among the many insights the antiracist movement has to offer, surely one of them is that the secure perch of a monumental figure like Eliot on our syllabi might be perpetuating white supremacy, an ideology we profess to abhor.

And yet the classroom discussions I have had with my undergraduate students about The Waste Land, for the past ten years, continue to raise essential questions about modern poetry and the discipline of English—which was the reason I decided to edit the “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” cluster here on Print Plus.[4] Many of my students are becoming more, rather than less, riveted by Eliot’s writing. The poem hasn’t lost its power to shock, though in new and different ways, fulfilling Eliot’s assertion that I use as my epigraph, that each generation “makes its own demands upon art.” Students born in the 1990s see their own experiences of sexual violence, economic precarity, and racism refracted in Eliot’s fragmented war-torn verse. The Waste Land’s visceral displays of violence against women, often in shards from a literary past or seemingly torn from overheard scraps of dialogue, are perhaps the most driving focus of class discussion, especially in the past few years in the midst of the #MeToo era. Eliot’s lyric voice combined with his immensely influential yet clearly idiosyncratic critical pronouncements make him a literary figure who continues to intrigue, inspire, and baffle. Who is this voice of authority and how did he help to shape the way we for so long understood what was meant by the literary canon? In many ways Randall Jarrell’s “future” has come to pass:

Won’t the future say to us in helpless astonishment: “But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry?  Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions?”[5]

The disjunction between Eliot’s critical pronouncements and his poetry opens up a space to discuss how canons are formed, whose voices are heard, and what we want to read going forward. Eliot’s wildly inventive language influenced the modern poets in his wake and his criticism articulates a powerful paradigm for literary instruction. Rather than cancel Eliot, we can examine his (and the English profession’s) accountability.[6]

But how and in what context do we teach The Waste Land today? When I wrote the prompt for the set of position papers on “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” I knew that I, and my invited contributors, might be making ourselves vulnerable to criticism. On the one hand, I feared that other Eliot scholars might find our readings deviated too far from Eliot’s own intentions; on the other, I worried that feminist activists might find our readings co-opted a Black feminist social justice movement for ivory tower scholarship on a (the?) conservative, white, male writer. In fact, the response (both to the initial round table and the suite of essays here, on Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus platform) has been resoundingly positive. Rewardingly, professors are teaching our essays, adding them to the robust canon of scholarly work on Eliot and on #MeToo and helping our students to see why The Waste Land (even for readers in the twenty-first century) continues to challenge and reward.[7]

The responses collected here build on, critique, and redirect our conversation about modernism and #MeToo, and about The Waste Land and its representations of women and racialized and sexualized violence. The ramifications of the Coronavirus for intimate partner violence have made ever more urgent the need to highlight sexualized violence in our literary canon. At the time of this writing, according to the WHO, the global pandemic of Covid-19 has infected 33,249,563 and killed over 1,000,000 with vastly disproportionate high mortality rates for Black populations in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It has also led to 20% rise in domestic violence during quarantine in the 193 member states of the United Nations, with such a high rate of abuse that the UN has labeled domestic abuse the “shadow pandemic” of 2020. If the #MeToo movement had made strides to publicize sexual harassment and violence, quarantine and social isolation has locked victims back in with abusers. Women, LGBTQ* individuals, and children are the primary victims of such abuse. We think, therefore, that scholarship on sexualized violence, a key component of #MeToo, is even more urgent than it was before the global pandemic.

But other than this agreement over the need to discuss sexual violence in the wake of Covid, the nine responses collected here stand on their own, as with the other “responses” to the earlier Print Plus cluster, and they represent the arguments of the individual writers. The first three responses focus on pedagogy, wondering how—and if—to teach Eliot now. Lesley Wheeler discusses teaching with the #MeToo cluster, and specifically addresses the question I echo above: is it time to move Eliot off the syllabus if “modernism is premised on racism”? Anita Patterson contends that teaching Gwendolyn Brooks alongside Eliot helps students to simultaneously “confront” his powerful critical influence on Brooks and modernism’s racist legacy of “White Writing.” By investigating repetition—of scenes of violence, of inarticulate female voices, of formal devices—Cécile Varry demonstrates that teaching The Waste Land can transform the classroom into Sara Ahmed’s “scene of feminist instruction.” The next three responses focus the #MeToo lens on the literary critic, using #MeToo to examine our theoretical assumptions and critical methodologies as modernist scholars. Layne Craig and Aimee Wilson critique key tenets of the #MeToo moment in its popular guise: its ableist assumptions and its ephemerality. While Craig demands that we avoid reenacting historical marginalization of disabled sexualized bodies, Wilson ask how we can meaningfully take a cultural movement to rethink our critical practices in concrete terms. Drawing from Princeton's newly opened archive of letters from Eliot to Emily Hale, Frances Dickey examines how the unequal power relation between Eliot and Hale is inscribed into The Waste Land and onto her role as muse. Finally, the last two writers specifically respond (as do I, below) to a particular instance of patriarchal critique: Christopher Ricks’s response to the original cluster in the journal Essays in Criticism. Using Ricks’s response as just one among many attempts to silence feminist voices, Carrie Rohman urges us to return to Rebecca West’s story “Indissoluble Matrimony” and the silencing of her heroine Evadne, as a case study for the ways that #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements illuminate a modernist text. Finally, Erica Gene Delsandro rounds off these responses with a call to “generous thinking,” to a renewed commitment to learning from her students and readers and to acknowledging privilege and blinders as she enters her classroom and puts pen to paper in 2020.

Why Pills Matter

It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)[8]

Christopher Ricks, Professor of the Humanities at Boston University and the former Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, the eminent editor of Tennyson, Housman, and Eliot, has already voiced his “response” to the cluster, and he is very angry. In a twelve-page review essay in the October issue of Essays in Criticism—a journal for which he is the Book Reviews Editor—Ricks ridicules both me and the #MeToo generation he believes I speak for. He defends his new edition of Eliot’s poems and treats my critique of his work with vitriol and disdain.[9] Putting aside the ad feminam attacks for now, I’d like to clarify the stakes of our argument and explain why our #MeToo cluster was and remains an urgent intervention in Eliot studies. We are in a “New Eliot” era, that is clear, and there are two points that are still worth highlighting. First, it matters that Ricks and Jim McCue omit a useful note on “pills” in their meticulously edited volumes of Eliot’s poems: it matters for Eliot scholarship going forward. Second, and more importantly, particularly in light of the opening of the Emily Hale collection at Princeton, Ricks’s tone, his attempt to silence feminist critique, is a tactic that illuminates not just “his” problem with “me,” but a structural problem of white male privilege in the academy.

Eliot now is Eliot new. It must be. He cannot be defined by his own self-crafting, his voice from beyond the grave, his widow’s long care of his estate, or by critics who mock new readings of Eliot’s work. If Eliot is to matter to us and to our students, then he must speak to our times. Our scholarship must be provisional and receptive to criticism as we imagine how newly available archives—and new perspectives—shape both Eliot and modernism. A senior male scholar who calls a critic “shameful” and “perverse” for daring to quibble with his annotations—that is, Ricks writing in response to me—participates in the very logic of patriarchy that our essays seek to examine. By thwarting new voices and new approaches, Ricks threatens to solidify Eliot’s place in the canon of dead white men and hit yet another nail into the coffin of modernism.

As a scholar of Eliot and of modernism, I am indebted to Professor Ricks: his edition of Inventions of the March Hare, in particular, taught me how to read Eliot’s juvenilia, and his T. S. Eliot and Prejudice helped me to understand Eliot’s skeptical voice. The two new volumes of the poetry are also clearly a labor of love and, as I wrote in the introduction to my piece, “The new Ricks and McCue volumes of Eliot’s verse total nearly two thousand pages of carefully annotated texts; the editors present sources and allusions that will benefit Eliot readers for generations to come.” Yet, I also observed, some of the editorial decisions, such as the cursory annotation to abortifacients, work towards “perpetuating certain traditionalist structures of power.” Clearly, an editor cannot annotate every word in a poem, but these editions take a maximalist approach to annotation, providing literary sources, textual history, allusions and echoes from other texts—a staggering 876 pages of commentary to the 346 pages of Eliot’s words in the first volume. The editors also, in accordance with one of Eliot’s own strictures of literary criticism, provide “facts” that later readers might not have at their fingertips—“But it is fairly certain that ‘interpretation,’” Eliot writes, “is only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed.”[10] My point was succinctly this: Ricks’s and McCue’s annotations provide more “facts” for some references and fewer for others, and, notwithstanding the value of the new volumes, the lack of facts offered by Ricks and McCue on the topic of  birth control and abortion pills matters. It is a crucial oversight in annotating The Waste Land for twenty-first-century readers.

A simple comparison of sources from the examples Ricks himself cites in “To Criticize the Critic” proves my point that these editions are not consistent in the kinds of “facts” they provide. The lines about the pills from “A Game of Chess” are:

But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.

You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.

(And her only thirty-one.)

I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,

It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.

(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.) (155-60)

My original #MeToo piece wondered about the terse annotations to “pills” in a scene that connects the violence of abortion and childbearing to that of war. Nearly a century after the poem was written, our students need to know how risky and illegal it was to get an abortion in 1922 and that for a working-class woman this would mean shame (at best), death (at worst). This dangerous global history of illegal, backroom, and off-label abortifacients and birth control, particularly in light of recent developments at the United States Supreme Court, must be clearly annotated. In his response to me, Ricks notes that for “Pills” the editors give us some textual history of the line and a reference to the nineteenth-century poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes, in addition to the following statement (which I quoted): “before the age of the Pill, dangerous remedies were available under the counter. Partridge gives ‘bring it away’ as twentieth-century slang for ‘effect an abortion’” (639). But that is the entirety of the annotation Ricks and McCue provide. In contrast I pointed to the Metropole hotel (“To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / And perhaps a weekend at the Metropole” [63]), as an example of fuller annotation. Here, the textual annotations include sources stretching from French poetry, to a contemporary novel, to Eliot’s friend John Hayward’s memories of a music hall song celebrating the hotel’s salacious reputation. Most importantly the “Metropole” annotation also includes a fact from a contemporary Baedeker about the cost of the Brighton hotel (“the most expensive”) and information from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from November 26, 1972 including the year the Metropole hotel in St. Louis was built (1912) and its clientele (prostitutes). Another example I provided of fuller annotation than “pills” is to “automatic hand” (“she smoothes her hair with automatic hand,” (64)) where the editors offer fascinating annotations regarding William James, Francis Herbert Bradley, and Arthur Symons, but also an OED definition and several references to Popular Science Monthly, explaining, for example, what contemporary science Eliot may have had in mind: “Popular Science Monthly, May 1920: ‘An automatic hand of metal reaches down into the ground and clutches the beets’” (668). For the reader who cares about these lines (me, for one!), these annotations are invaluable. They give the reader (and her students) both suggestive sources and the requisite facts.

What are the Wild Waves Saying? Advertisement for Beecham’s Pills (1887)
Fig. 1. What are the Wild Waves Saying? Advertisement for Beecham’s Pills (1887)

These same facts are what the “pills” annotations fail to provide; Ricks’s claim that his notes usefully direct us to a poem beautifully begs the question.[11] Another kind of note might show that while abortions had been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1803, abortifacients were widespread, and often included poisons, particularly lead, that were extremely dangerous to women’s health.[12] The ingestion of diachylon or lead as an abortifacient was a common and dangerous method, particularly after an outbreak of lead poisoning in Sheffield in the 1840s inadvertently led to many miscarriages. Lead poisoning is specifically visible in the mouth, causing teeth and gums to turn bluish black—remember, Lil’s problem is that she needs “a nice set” of new teeth (60) —and the plumbism caused by ingestion results in fevers, fits, insanity, blindness, paralysis, and even death.[13] Advertisements for “miracle cure pills,” the preferred euphemism for abortifacients, were widespread (fig. 1). Beecham’s, which sold over a million a day at the turn of the century, were widely used as abortifacients, often taken in high dosages or in combination with other dangerous remedies like lead. This advertisement for Beecham’s, depicting two young women walking by the seaside as a ship sails out to sea in the background with the words, “What are the Wild Waves Saying? Try Beecham’s Pills,” was a barely coded abortifacient advertisement, as one young woman advises and consoles another whose boyfriend has sailed away.[14] These facts about “pills” would be very useful in understanding Lil’s predicament, as would the fact that an article bemoaning that literature “will never be as popular as Beecham’s pills” appeared in The Nation in 1918, the same years Eliot was contributing.[15] Eliot’s own comments on birth control and disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church’s ban of contraception might also be important.[16] One other historical point about “pills” that might shed light on interpretations of Lil: many scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sexuality and reproduction agree that those working-class English women (unless Roman Catholic) who took pills and herbal remedies to “bring it off” or to “bring on” their period would not consider their actions illegal or immoral (particularly in the case of repeated births, like Lil’s) and they would not have used the word “abortion.” That term was strictly for a surgical procedure.

If Ricks can consult a Baedeker about a hotel and Popular Science Monthly about an “automatic hand,” why not give us some sort of historical and scientific knowledge about pills? This neglect speaks volumes about the kind of knowledge Ricks and McCue prioritize. It’s ludicrous to suggest that the echo of a nineteenth-century poem provides an adequate, let alone substantial, annotation for a termination-of-pregnancy pill. It is exactly what I meant when I wrote that some of the annotations “fossilize Eliot into a petrified vision of the aged New Critical scholar-poet, which stifles much of the vibrancy and disquieting provocation that my students find in his work.” Although this is only one small detail, it points to the general trend to cite arcane potential literary allusions and echoes, rather than to annotate scientific, historical, or popular culture in their new editions, which makes Eliot seem very alien from his (or our) time and place. Perhaps a future edition of The Waste Land will build on Ricks’s and McCue’s but include both new knowledge gained from the Emily Hale correspondence and more factual data about female reproductive health options in 1922. What could be more important to our understanding of a poem that places front and center the infertility of modern land and life?

He Do the Police in Different Voices

In “To Criticize the Critic” Ricks treats my introduction to a suite of essays by seven scholars as though it were a full book review of his edition of the Poems. This category error may account for some of what he derides about my own style, and also for some of his rhetorical excess. After all, he spends twelve pages tearing apart one paragraph of my introduction, neglecting to address its larger claims: he never even considers whether Eliot has changed with the #MeToo generation, our central claim and a point for discussion. That one paragraph of my introduction leads Ricks to produce a dozen angry pages also suggests that this “review” is about more than my critique of the pills annotation. “To Criticize the Critic” is exactly that, a critique of me: I dared to question, and that is the problem. In his role as Eliot gatekeeper, Ricks strives to demonstrate my stupidity in order to show that I had no right to question his edition.

Ricks makes much of two errors in my piece: “Fisherman” rather than “Fishmen,” a typo produced by autocorrect, and another in which I wrote “chitter chatter” instead of “chatter.” He states that my article is mere gossip (“malicious chitter chatter” (476)) because I cannot be bothered to check citations. The addition of “chitter” was my mistake, a transposition of a line from Virginia’s Woolf’s The Voyage Out that I was using as the epigraph for an article on Wittgenstein and Woolf: “Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter—fish and the Greek alphabet.”[17] Woolf’s Helen is attempting to explain to young Rachel that Clarissa Dalloway’s conversation is mere nonsense. But Rachel hasn’t understood this, or cannot understand this, because she has been traumatized by Richard Dalloway’s kiss, an unexpected assault that undermines her sense of self for the remainder of her short life. I heard the echo of another #MeToo moment while writing about Eliot and #MeToo. Did my mistake actually justify Ricks’s label of “shameful carelessness” (477), or was that just useful so that he wouldn’t appear too desperate in his defense of his edition? I think it’s also important to note that many other scholars have already criticized his edition, both in print and in lectures at the T. S. Eliot International Summer School and the International Eliot Society. And these critiques (all from men) have often been more totalizing than mine: What made my comments so egregious?[18]

In closing, therefore, I’d like to return to the tone of Ricks’s tirade, its extraordinary display of anger and aggression. I don’t have space to quote all of the insults he hurls (there are so many) but his culminating quotation from A. E. Housman sets the standard. I’m fairly certain he implies that I inherited my stupidity from my mother’s womb and that I failed to do my homework and should therefore learn to keep my mouth shut. My introduction to our group of essays did intend to be provocative. I would have been interested to read his scholarly discussion of his editorial choices, but his readings are in bad faith. Despite what Ricks implies, I obviously knew that “A Game of Chess” contains a reference to an abortion; I was merely taken aback to hear the whole Waste Landthe Great War poem—reduced to the phrase “an abortion poem.” He insinuates that I don’t know how or won’t bother to read his full critical apparatus, though of course I had read the pages he points to, and they do not answer my questions (e.g., explaining Beddoes but not Beecham’s). His refusal to acknowledge any possible different point of view about scholarly annotation is, to use his word, reprehensible. More importantly, he fails entirely to engage with the aim of our project which sought to open the door to new and underrepresented voices and approaches to Eliot’s poetry; in fact, he ignores those essays altogether. Did he, to use the lash he repeatedly whips at me, “take the trouble” to even read them? Eliot scholarship deserves better. Modernist scholarship needs better. Perhaps, like Adrienne Rich, we are ready to move on from these canonical figures altogether. Either way, I encourage readers of Modernism/modernity to go read Ricks’s response—his performance of outraged male grievance makes the case more clearly than I could have imagined for why both the original set of essays and the responses collected here are necessary.[19]


[1] T. S. Eliot, “The Frontiers of Criticism” in On Poetry and Poets (London: Macmillan, 2009; [lecture given in 1957]), 114.

[2] “Preface” to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, vol 3, ed. Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli, and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 513-14, 513.

[3] Interview with Rich, November 14, 1994. Rich repeats this idea in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), 194.

[4] I teach at a mostly white and affluent Catholic University. For important distinctions, please see Ria Banerjee’s discussion of the experience of teaching The Waste Land to her community college students who are mostly first generation college students of color.

[5] Randall Jarrell, The Third Book of Criticism (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 314.

[6] For ideas about accountability and cancel culture with regards to modernist texts and authors, I am grateful for the discussions of the 2019 MSA Toronto seminar on “Modernism and #MeToo,” which I organized with Anne Fernald.

[7] I’ll cite just one among the responses: “Thank you for your essays. I had one of the most productive discussions I’ve ever had of the poem.”

[8] T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” The Poems of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 159-160. 

[9] Christopher Ricks, “To Criticize the Critic,” Essays in Criticism 69 (4): 467-479.

[10] T. S. Eliot, “The Function of Criticism,” The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: The Perfect Critic, 1919–1926, vol. 2, ed. Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 465.

[11] The lines which he cites as providing useful annotation to “pills” are: “Squats on a toad-stool under a tree / A bodiless childfull of life in the gloom, / Crying with frog voice, ‘What shall I be? / Poor unborn ghost, for my mother killed me / scarcely alive in her wicked womb. / What shall I be?” (635).

[12] For discussion see Simon Szreter, Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain, 1860-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception, 1800-1975 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), and Cara Delay, “Pills, Potions, and Purgatives: Women and Abortion Methods in Ireland, 1900-1950,” Women’s History Review 28:3 (2019), 479-499.

[13] A. Khalil, “Lead Poisoning,” British Dental Journal, 206, 608 (2009).

[14] Geoffrey Davis, Interception of Pregnancy: Post-Contraceptive Fertility Control—Emmenology Revisited (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974).

[15] H. M. T. “The World of Books,” The Nation (June 22, 1918), 314.

[16] In “Thoughts After Lambeth,” Eliot praises the Anglican Bishops who are “right and courageous to express a view on the subject of procreation radically different from that of Rome” and only wishes the document more firmly encouraged the laity to seek spiritual advice from their pastors (often in conjunction with “medical men.”). T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts after Lambeth,” The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: English Lion, 1930-1933. vol. 4, ed. Jason Harding and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 223-250, 230.

[17] Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, ed. C. Ruth Miller and Lawrence Miller (Oxford, UK: Shakespeare Head Press, 1995), 75.

[18] Steven Ellis's review of the Ricks and McCue volumes in Modernist Cultures and Mark Ford's in the London Review of Books raised questions about the scope of the edition and the extent of the source-hunting annotations, while David Chinitz, Jason Harding, and Steven Matthews have all lectured on issues with the edition.

[19] For further discussion of the relationship between modernism and #MeToo scholarship see Alix Beeston, “Working the Trap” and the entire cluster on “Modernist #MeToo and the Working Woman,” Feminist Modernist Studies 2:3 (October 29, 2019). I would also like to thank my current and previous research assistants, Carson Schatzman and Nicholas Manai, and my friends and colleagues who have read this draft.