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The poet who confronted T S Eliot over his anti-Semitism

Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff was horrified that Eliot’s anti-Semitic sentiments persisted after the Holocaust

By on Monday, 3 October 2011

In 1933 T S Eliot said a 'large number of free-thinking Jews' were undesirable in a Christian society

In 1933 T S Eliot said a 'large number of free-thinking Jews' were undesirable in a Christian society

Another fascinating obituary in the Telegraph: that of the Jewish poet, Emanuel Litvinoff. Two things interested me in it: at first, the remark, “Emanuel was a bookish child in a bookless household and, like his [nine] brothers and sisters, treated the local library as his second home.” So did I, like countless others, though unlike Litvinoff I didn’t grow up in two rooms and there were books around the house. Memo to the Coalition: please don’t close the public libraries. Cut or cap the salaries of overweening local government officials instead.

The second point concerns Litvinoff’s celebrated attack on T S Eliot. The obit states: “Litvinoff admired Eliot and was inclined to forgive him for his fashionable pre-war anti-Semitism, but was horrified that he was prepared to celebrate such sentiments after the Holocaust.” In 1952 he wrote a poem, “To TS Eliot”, attacking him for his views and recited it at the Institute of Contemporary Arts where, by an unfortunate coincidence, Eliot himself happened to be present. There was a furore among Eliot’s friends, such as Stephen Spender and Sir Herbert Read, though the poet himself was heard to mutter: “It’s a good poem.”

There is no getting round Eliot’s anti-Semitism which I feel went deeper than a merely “fashionable” pre-war stance. His 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia, later published as After Strange Gods, contain the notorious sentence: “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

After the war Eliot prudently withdrew this book from circulation and never re-published it. So why did he not withdraw the equally damning poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” from his Selected Poems, published in 1948 and which Litvinoff rightly took exception to? It was still included in my own copy of his Collected Poems 1909-1962, published in 1963 and which I read that same year. Was it an oversight or did the magnitude of the Holocaust not impinge on Eliot’s consciousness?

As Anthony Julius’s book on Eliot’s anti-Semitism suggests, a very great poet can also be a flawed human being.

  • Brian A Cook

    For reasons like this, I hope to be a noble and pure-hearted human being as well as a good artist. 

  • Parasum

    “The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they
    are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate.
    What is more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of
    race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews
    undesirable.””What’s wrong with any of that ? So the Jews have suffered. So have the Palestinians – If the Jews behave like Nazis, they should be called to order for doing so; foul behaviour is intolerable whether one belongs to a people that has recently been gassed by the millions or not. The Jews have played that card too many times for it to have any value; when they behave like criminals or merely like berks, they should be dealt with accordingly. As for their own hideous conduct to others, much of it in the Bible, the less said the better. They are not special, except in their own conceit – IOW Eskimos, Red Indians, Japanese, Tongans, French & Germans (for example) are equally as special as they. If we can criticise the French or the Iranians or the Chinese, we can criticise the Jews. That quotation from Eliot could have appeared in any number of Catholic books as well – the Church has traditionally been very keen indeed on preserving unity of Church and State, and it has not favoured free-thinking. The first sentence rejects multi-culti nonsense, very wisely.  So the whole quotation is unobjectionable. I’m not anti-Jewish; merely opposed to the fetishisation of them and of their sufferings, as though no else ever suffered. The sooner the Shoah is demythologised instead of being treated as a holy event that must not be touched, reasearched, or doubted in any way, the better for public honesty and honest historiography. No-one  else’s history is treated like a sacree event which it is now blasphemy & heresy to question. The Shoah is a secular dogma – which is a thoroughly anti-historical attitude.

  • Anonymous

    Yawn!

    A poet was anti-semitic  – someone told him off.

    Church falling to pieces around us but this is a worthy discussion piece.

    Maybe it would have been if Eliot’s words were discussed as less anti-semitic and more prophetic of the argot of the modern oppressive secularising agenda in politics and academe?

    I’ll pray for the souls of Messrs Litvinoff and Eliot…

    …but until the Catholic Herald starts discussing CATHOLICISM I’ll spend my time doing more important things like defluffing the tumble dryer.

  • Paul

    You are anti-Jewish and your entire post is an attempt to express that animus in impassive seeming language. The problem is that instead of discussing one person’s anti semitism as the article does you decide it provides you with a good opportunity to argue that Jewish people aren’t as discriminated against as they claim, that the Holocaust wasn’t as bad as Jews claim, and that “the Jews” (rather than a subset of them) behave like criminals.  There is no problem with blaming members of a group for what they as individuals do wrong but I am rightfully suspicious of your blanket accusations against the entire group. I don’t know how you can write what you wrote and claim you’re not anti-Jewish.   

  • Sszorin

    Am I to understand from the tenor of your words that you are against the blanket accusations of the entire group known as ‘the Nazis’ as well, or does the privilege of having  crimes of the collective covered up by silence apply only to the Jews ? Do you condemn that the SS and the Nazis were both declared to be criminal as a group, collectively ? Why are Nazi parties banned all over Europe, when according to you there is no collective guilt ? Did you ever protest this ban ? Or are you applying a double standard, one for the Germans and another for the Jews ? That would make you a racist. Just say it openly, your supervisors the Jews do it all the time, they say that the laws of ‘goyim’ do not apply to them as they are “the people apart, chosen”.