Over the last decade, #MeToo and the work of activists like Tarana Burke have brought attention to tacitly permitted sexual exploitation on university campuses and in work environments both on and off the clock. As #MeToo transformed the world around me, rumors I had come across in my scholarship regarding a poet laureate from nearly two centuries ago took on new significance.
I often read the scholarship that constitutes new modernist studies wondering, as Virginia Woolf’s narrator did in A Room of One’s Own, whether the author “has a pen in [their] hand or a pickaxe.” For Woolf, an attention to pens and pickaxes derives from her acute understanding of anger and its potential to transform an author’s writing.
In her essay “Silence,” in the original cluster, “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation,” Nancy K. Gish adroitly theorizes the habit of silencing women, noting that “women are not simply individual images from many ancient texts but a series of the silenced.” This reminder of collective silencing resounded for me in profound ways—I am part of this series of the silenced—but I could not have predicted that the very cluster would be used to perpetuate further attempts at smothering women’s voices. In this connection, Christopher Ricks’s recent diatribe against Megan Quigley is both dismaying and revealing.
On January 2, 2020, T. S. Eliot announced from the grave that he and Emily Hale never had sex and that marrying her would have killed the poet in him. At the New York Times, the arts and culture piece on Eliot scheduled for January 9 was bumped up to breaking news. Always the canny publicist, Eliot controlled the narrative of the day on which his 1, 131 letters to Hale were opened to view at the Princeton Library.
“What should we do with the art of terrible men?” asks Emily Nussbaum in I Like to Watch. Reading this book reignited my anger over #MeToo. Nussbaum asks a question that was inescapable in the fall of 2017. The question is difficult, in part because it frames a complex set of issues as resolvable with a single answer. To get an intellectual handle on the question, I had to lay out the nesting-doll questions hidden inside the big one. Two of them are the focus of my essay: what is the role of literary criticism in the era of #MeToo? Do modernist critics have distinctive responsibilities or knowledge pertaining to #MeToo? My answers to these questions emphasize praxis: what those of us working in the field of modernist literary studies can do to ensure the lessons of #MeToo aren’t forgotten. Modernist scholars assume many roles, of course. The essays in the cluster “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” address the implications of #MeToo for modernist pedagogy. This essay complements the cluster by directing our attention to a different (though sometimes overlapping) role, that of the literary critic. I outline in practical terms some of the implications of #MeToo for modernist criticism in the hopes that such concrete thinking will spur conversation about ways to embed the lessons of #MeToo in our critical practices.
In the original “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo Generation” Modernism/modernity cluster, Erin Templeton suggests an imbrication of gender and mental disability foundational to the creation of The Waste Land through her analysis of Vivien Eliot’s contributions to “A Game of Chess.” Templeton observes that as Eliot’s incorporated Vivien’s marginal notes, the poem came to “[feature] material traces left by an actual female hand.” More specifically, though, such traces are left by a disabled female hand, the hand of a reader and collaborator for whom experiences of gender, sexuality, and mental and physical health were inextricably linked. Following on Templeton’s work of making visible the corporeality of women as characters and creators in modernist literature, this essay applies a #MeToo framework to canonical modernist narratives in which sexual abuse and disability collide.
“I did it again,” confesses Megan Quigley at the beginning of her introduction to “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo generation.” Teaching is, of course, an art of doing things again: we repeat assignments, advice, corrections; we repeat our own mistakes and the prejudices we’ve absorbed from our education; we reflect, revise, and begin again.
The anger, as well as hope for meaningful change, brought about by the recent Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism and inequality call attention to a growing need for classroom conversations about literature and social justice. Teaching poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and T. S. Eliot together in the same course affirms the enduring relevance of Eliot’s high modernism and, by highlighting the tragic consequences of racism as well as gender inequality, illuminates how the #MeToo generation can change the way we read Eliot.
In the fall of 2019, I taught an advanced undergraduate course I had not offered for three years: “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Even in previous versions called “Modern Poetry,” my agenda was to decenter the version of modernism handed down to me; in this project I felt fellowship with feminist scholars I read as a graduate student in the early nineties. Decentering involved, at the time, remixing white female experimental poets into the company of male modernist giants.
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. While she had been “raised in the school of Eliot,” now, as a radical lesbian poet, she found that “Eliot was useless to me.”