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Reading “The Waste Land” with the #MeToo Generation

Women’s March, New York City, 2018. Photograph by Alec Perkins. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 1. Women’s March, New York City, 2018. Photograph by Alec Perkins. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I did it again.

In Tuesday’s class, my undergraduate literature students were wrapping up a great discussion of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961). We’d had a rigorous look at Brexit and Scotland, on the changing status of girls’ education in the 1930s, on Free Indirect Discourse, and on what might be meant by a treatise of Moral Philosophy entitled, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace.”  “Any further questions?” I asked. With five minutes on the clock a student somewhat reluctantly raised her hand: “Aren’t we going to talk more about the fact that in this novel an art teacher is sexually assaulting a 15-year-old student?”

T. S. Eliot with his sister and cousin in 1934. Photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell.
Fig. 2.  T. S. Eliot with his sister and cousin in 1934. Photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Of course I know that is part of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Just as I know that in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915), Richard Dalloway brutally forces a kiss on young Rachel Vinrace, undermining her sense of self and security perhaps for the remainder of her short life. I know about Fern’s “easy” eyes in Cane (1923), which explain why, “when she was young, a few men took her”; about Connie’s anal assault in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928); about James Joyce’s “heroic nastiness” (according to Richard Ellmann) in depicting Bloom’s voyeuristic masturbation while watching young Gerty MacDowell in “Nausicaa.”[1] It’s not that we don’t discuss these various kinds of assaults in literature classes; we do. In a class on Beloved (1987) or Sanctuary (1931), for example, the theme of sexual brutality against women cannot and will not be ignored. But for many of these other texts, brutality against women seems a side note, a plot device, a narratological tick, a given aspect of modernity and changing gender roles in the twentieth century. Assaults and harassment against women in literature: it’s just a notion I am used to, and, perhaps, along with Humbert Humbert, I don’t always portray it as wrong. It certainly wasn’t taught to me that way: I memorized “Leda and the Swan” in high school for an assignment and remember more compassion for swans than for girls. Even as a feminist scholar, I fear I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the pathos of “My Last Duchess” hanging on the wall.

1940s Classroom. Photograph by Russell Lee. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 3. 1940s classroom. Photograph by Russell Lee. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

My students who live in the age of Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, however, are often enraged, and, insistently, they are taking me to task for my blind spots. It’s as if my classes are acting out the undergraduate version of what occurred with the feminist roundtable at the Modernist Studies Association conference in Columbus this past November. The topic—“Do We Need a Feminist Roundtable?”—asked, somewhat sheepishly, if, in the posthumanist age, feminism may have gone the way of typewriters and landlines. Is it still really vital? The response by conference attendants (needing to drag additional chairs in from other rooms to participate) answered a resounding YES to this question. In the #MeToo Era, feminism has been revitalized, even as it interrogates its own historical shortcomings and theoretical limitations. Post-structuralism, complicity in the neoliberal ravaging of global economies and the environment, racism, classism, and homo/transphobia, have all, often rightly, smeared feminism’s reputation, and complicated its pedagogical effectiveness.[2] “But,” as Jessica Bennett declares in The New York Times: “the #MeToo moment has become something larger: a lens through which we view the world, a sense of blinders being taken off.”

I’ve organized this pedagogy cluster, “Reading ‘The Waste Land’ with the #MeToo Generation” both because of the simultaneity of the “new Eliot” and the #MeToo Era, and, more importantly, because of a pressing sense that it is also time for our blinders to come off about the way we teach “The Waste Land.”[3] First, Eliot studies are undergoing a renaissance. With the death of Valerie Eliot (T. S. Eliot’s widow) in 2012 and the publication of over a dozen new volumes of Eliot’s poetry, prose, and letters in the subsequent years, the time is ripe to interrogate the nearly fifty-year hold of the Eliot estate on the poet’s reputation. Eliot went from a heyday of popularity after winning the Nobel Prize in 1948 (14,000 people crammed in to hear him give a public reading in 1956) to a nadir of dislike (that one is harder to place temporally—maybe with the publication of T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism [1995], which explored Eliot’s prejudice, or Carole Seymour-Jones’s biography Painted Shadow [2001] and the film Tom and Viv [1994], which portrayed the breakdown of his first marriage and his wife’s institutionalization). Yet interest in Eliot, even if only as a kind of synecdoche for Anglo-American High Modernism, continues and grows, so that Cynthia Ozick’s declaration in The New Yorker that “we do know for certain that we no longer live in the literary shadow of T. S. Eliot” still smacks of wishful thinking over thirty years later. Rachel Sanger Buurma’s and Laura Heffernan’s recent PMLA article, investigating Eliot’s extension lecturing courses and their influence on his most famous critical pronouncements from The Sacred Wood, testifies to the persistent interest in Eliot’s status as a poet, critic, and teacher.[4] In the current Eliot renaissance, there are six volumes of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot available with two more to come, seven volumes of the letters (only reaching the year 1933!) and new editions of his poems and plays. Many materials in these volumes are published for the first time (such as Eliot’s love poems to Valerie, his second wife) or available for the first time outside of restricted archives. As Ronald Schuchard, the general editor of the complete prose, has estimated, nearly 90% of Eliot scholarship has been written without knowledge of 90% of what Eliot actually published in his lifetime. The T. S. Eliot Letters to Emily Hale Collection at Princeton University Library, called one of the “best known sealed literary archives in the world” will soon be opened, on January 2, 2020. Finally, there are also the two volumes of The Poems of T. S. Eliot edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, the long awaited “new text” of Eliot’s complete poems, which appeared in 2015. This “new Eliot” awaits scholarly appraisal.

Yet simultaneously, for me, the old Eliot is changing rapidly, as students interrogate “The Waste Land,” this quintessential High Modernist text, with new eyes in the #MeToo Era. Because of its canonicity, the frequency with which it is taught on college syllabi across the world, and because of its famous difficulty and openness to interpretation, “The Waste Land” acts as a kind of test case of how the #MeToo generation can change the way we read.[5] Indeed, teaching “The Waste Land” over the past decade has markedly changed, both because students have access to sources of allusions at their fingertips through technology, but also, more recently, with the reconsideration of sexual abuse and sexual harassment on campuses made visible through the #MeToo protests. From Title IX officers at universities to the #SayHerName movement, from pussy hats to battles over transgender bathrooms, our students are more sensitized to and informed about the battles that rage over gender, sexuality, intersectionalism, and power than they were just a very short while ago.[6] The first time I heard “The Waste Land” called an “abortion poem” I thought I had misheard my student; now I hear it frequently (and convincingly) called a poem that stages and performs racial and gender violence and investigates trans* experience. My own teachers directed me away from Lil to Philomel to Nightingales and Keats—our students want Keats, but also to discuss, really discuss, the assault of the typist.

Cover of the Boni and Liveright edition of “The Waste Land,” 1922. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 4. Cover of the Boni and Liveright edition of The Waste Land, 1922. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Empathy, Tiresias’s key characteristic, is offered here in these essays as a model reading practice. It was also what Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, emphasized over a decade ago in her work with black young women in the South: “Empowerment through Empathy” worked, she declared. A victim herself of sexual violence, she argued that “the most succinct way to show empathy” and to enable change was to simply state: “MeToo.”  About a year ago, when the nation was reeling from the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the actress Alyssa Milano, in an effort to show that sexual violence and assault were not merely the purview of the rich and famous, tweeted: “Suggested by a friend: If all women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” She had 55,000 replies in 12 hours and 85 million mentions within a month. We are all familiar with the names now associated with sexual harassment allegations in politics and entertainment, including Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, R. Kelly, Matt Lauer, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and in academia, too, with scandals at Stanford, NYU, and Columbia within the last 6 months alone. In the field of literature and theory, a recent letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education demands that Judith Butler step down as President Elect from the MLA after she signed a letter protesting the allegations against Avital Ronell, while another article in the same publication asks “Should we still cite the scholarship of serial sexual harassers?” While we have a sitting American president who mockingly tweets that we need to all be “very gentle” because we’re in the “#MeToo” generation, my students want less evasion, and more direct conversation about how our canonical authors have addressed sexualized violence.[7]

I asked my contributors to consider: how has reading “The Waste Land” changed for the #MeToo generation? How is sex connected to violence, ritual, and power in the poem? Why is Tiresias, “Old man with wrinkled female breasts,” the primary source of knowledge in the poem, and how should we now understand Eliot’s claim that what Tiresias sees is “the substance of the poem”?[8] How does the poem formally confront sexualized violence, through its allusions, section breaks, and lyric fragmentation? What do the notes to the poem direct us to see? Eliot first called the poem, “He do the police in different voices”: which voices do we hear, believe, and emphasize when we teach it?

The following contributions, in more or less programmatic ways, answer these questions and suggest how we can be more direct about power, sexuality, and reading practices when we teach “The Waste Land.” With startling new readings (is the “hyacinth girl” a depiction of a traumatized assault victim? Does the word “No” resound throughout the poem?), they help us to read the poem afresh. They show that the poem invites these #MeToo conversations through repeated allusions and retellings of stories of rape and through the discomfort it animates in the reader’s mind and body. They ask us to interrogate the boundaries between the text and the collaborators producing the text. Importantly, by examining our students’ diverse responses to the text (when they come from marginalized communities or reject the gender binary), they show the ways our classroom conversations continue to prove Eliot’s relevance, even when knowledge of the historical suffering of the First World War is no longer a given. The pieces gathered here aim to give voice to scholars at different moments in their teaching careers (from graduate students to emerita) as well as to depict the challenges facing scholars who are teaching at diverse types of institutions (from R-1 Universities to women’s liberal arts colleges to community colleges). I hope these voices can inspire and challenge the methodologies of our modernist classrooms.[9]

I’d like to conclude with my own question about reading Eliot with the #MeToo generation: Has the “new Eliot” scholarship kept up with what we are discovering in the classrooms with our students?  Do the new volumes of Eliot’s poems, prose, and letters, change the way students confront the poem? And, more provocatively, how do the new poetry editions open up new avenues for our students to take on these questions—and how do they, in perpetuating certain traditionalist structures of power, stifle the conversations students are eager to have? 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.  And yet, familiar with their controversially generous annotations, I looked up “pills,” for example, and was shocked to see practically nothing annotating, “It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said” (line 159). Ricks and McCue note that “Before the age of the Pill, dangerous remedies were available under the counter,” and add “Partridge gives ‘bring it away’ as a 20th-century slang for ‘effect an abortion.’”[10] By what principle of editing does “chitter chatter” or “fishermen” or “metropole hotel” or “automatic hand” receive extensive (arguably excessive) annotation but “pill” merit practically none? Editing shows our values—what we think is important for scholars to know and for students to learn, and also our history, what we have valued in the past. What does it mean when “pills” means almost nothing? Ricks and McCue’s headnote to “The Waste Land” section ends on a paean to Pound and cites the laborious work of Valerie Eliot in preserving the drafts, but, as so often before, nearly silences the other collaborator in the composition of the poem, Vivienne.[11] The editors reintroduce into the authoritative text of  “The Waste Land” one line—“(The ivory men make company between us)”—that Eliot had deleted in deference to Vivienne (line 137a).[12] Why was this line added back into the authoritative text and how does it diminish Vivienne’s contributions to the poem? These new editions of his poetry provide so much essential information. Yet they simultaneously 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. One major source of this vibrancy and provocation is the presence of sexual violence in “The Waste Land.”

I’ve asked the contributors to all provide a key word, central to the #MeToo movement, to ground their remarks. Here, therefore, with Voice, No, Discomfort, Silence, Boundaries, Time, and Fluidity, we share our experiences of “Reading ‘The Waste Land’ with the #MeToo Generation.”


First, I would like to thank my Villanova students for their energetic contributions to this debate. Second, I’d like to thank Frances Dickey and the organizers of the 2018 International T. S. Eliot Society conference at Emory University for their support of our original roundtable.  

[1] Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Liveright, 2011), 21, and Richard Ellmann, Ulysses on the Liffey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 133.

[2] For more on the urgency of avoiding feminist “complacency” see the “Modernism and Feminist Praxis” Print Plus cluster. Carrie Preston’s “Fluidity” contribution here highlights the continued problems of true intersectional feminism for the #MeToo movement.

[3] These essays of course build on earlier feminist Eliot scholarship. See in particular Lyndall Gordon, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000); Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot, ed. Cassandra Laity and Nancy K. Gish (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Cyrena Pondrom, “Conflict and Concealment: Eliot’s Approach to Women and Gender,” in A Companion to T. S. Eliot, ed. David E. Chinitz (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 323–34; Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Gender,” in T. S. Eliot in Context, ed. Jason Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 295–304.

[4] See Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “The Classroom in the Canon: T. S. Eliot’s Modern English Literature Extension Course for Working People and The Sacred Wood,” PMLA 133, no. 2 (2018): 264–81, and also Ronald Schuchard, “T. S. Eliot as Extension Lecturer 1916–1919,” The Review of English Studies 25, no. 98 (1974): 163–73.

[5] “The Waste Land” is ranked 105 in all texts taught on college syllabi according to the Open Syllabus Project.

[6] Title IX protections are changing as I type. Betsy DeVos is currently rewriting the Title IX guidelines from Obama Era legislation, reducing liability of universities and bolstering rights of defendants. The backlash against the #MeToo era is well underway.

[7] See also the open letter to the “James Joyce Community” signed by over 100 scholars, about rampant sexual harassment and abuse in the Joyce industry, now published in “The Modernist Review.”

[8] T. S. Eliot, The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Collected and Uncollected Poems, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), line 219, n218.

[9] I encourage you to provide additional perspectives by contributing to two works in progress: 21st-Century Eliot and #MeToo Modernisms.

[10] Ricks and McCue, 1:639.

[11] Wayne Koestenbaum’s famous discussion of hysteria and Pound’s and Eliot’s work together undergirds later discussions of collaboration in The Waste Land manuscript. See Wayne Koestenbaum, “‘The Waste Land’: T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound’s Collaboration on Hysteria,” Twentieth Century Literature 34, no. 2 (1988): 113–39.

[12] Ricks and McCue quote Valerie Eliot’s edition of “The Waste Land” facsimile, which states that “This line was omitted at Vivien Eliot’s request” (1:637). Their textual history tells a slightly different story, however, when it quotes the note by Eliot himself: “Line omitted from published text, at Vivien’s insistence” (Ricks and McCue, 2:382, emphasis added). Because Eliot “restored it, from memory” in June 1960 (according to Valerie), once added it on a copy in 1936, and re-inscribed it into a notebook for Valerie in the late 1950s, Ricks and McCue add it back into the authoritative text over Eliot’s own standard Faber edition. More justification for this editorial decision—arguably the most controversial “correction” in the new Poems—is warranted, as is its relationship to a tale of two wives.