In 1956, Emily Hale arranged for a trove of 1,131 letters to be sealed and warehoused at the Princeton University Library. She revealed very little about their contents, other than that they had been written by the famous poet, critic, and dramatist, T. S. Eliot. Under the terms of her donation, the letters were not to be unsealed until at least fifty years after the death of one or both of the correspondents.
At the beginning of 2020, the letters were unsealed. While a few Eliot scholars had speculated that they would reveal a love affair, nobody knew for certain what they contained and none fully anticipated the scope of their revelations. Eliot and Hale had carried on an epistolary romance for more than a quarter century after the poet professed his love to Hale in 1930. They rarely saw each other in person, but in his letters Eliot spoke bluntly about his life and work, including many of his most celebrated poems.
Emily Hale described the nature of their relationship in a lengthy handwritten commentary unveiled with the letters:
Eliot arranged to have his own version of events released concurrently from his papers at Harvard.
The implications of the Hale archive for Eliot Studies and for the study of modernist literature generally will be far-reaching. More than a year later, scholars are only beginning to unravel them. In this episode of The American Vandal, Matt Seybold talks with three who were among the first to visit the archive at Princeton’s Firestone Library.
Frances Dickey is Associate Professor of English at University of Missouri. She has served The International T. S. Eliot Society in numerous roles, including President (2016-2018). She is currently co-editor of the T. S. Eliot Studies Annual. She also co-edited the third volume of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, covering the years 1927-1929, and The Edinburgh Companion to T. S. Eliot & The Arts (2016). She was, as she discusses in the episode, the first in line to read on January 2nd, 2020, and her blog for the Eliot Society was the first platform to circulate revelations from the archive throughout the scholarly community. It remains a must-read. She has also since published several essays and commentaries about Eliot and Hale (see the bibliography for this episode below).
Megan Quigley is Associate Professor of English, Irish Studies, and Gender & Women’s Studies at Villanova University. She is author of Modernist Fiction & Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, & Language (2015) and is currently co-editing a volume on revisionary approaches to T. S. Eliot, Eliot Now. As discussed in the episode, she edited a series of forums for Modernism/modernity on modernism and #MeToo (see episode bibliography below). Other recent publications can be found in Poetics Today, Ermeneutica Letteraria, and Time Present. She has held fellowships from the Harry Ransom Center (UT-Austin), The Huntington Library, The Beinecke Library (Yale), and St. Edmund Hall (Oxford).
John Whittier-Ferguson is Professor of English at University of Michigan. He is currently Vice President of The International T. S. Eliot Society and editor of their newsletter, Time Present, which has been publishing a series of commentaries: “The Eliot-Hale Archive: First Readings” (Spring 2020, Summer 2020). He has authored and edited numerous books on modernist authors, particularly Eliot, James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, most recently Mortality & Form in Late Modernist Literature (2014). Recent work can also be found in Modernism/modernity and Modern Fiction Studies. Along with our other guests, he was part of a Hale panel at the 2021 MLA Convention and, with Frances Dickey, wrote for Modernism/modernity on the thorny legal questions surrounding Hale’s donation to Princeton (see episode bibliography below).
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot (Hamish Hamilton, 1984)
Badenhausen, Richard. T. S. Eliot & The Art of Collaboration (Cambridge UP, 2009)
Bernstein, Michael A. Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (U California P, 1994)
Chinitz, David E. T. S. Eliot & The Cultural Divide (U Chicago P, 2003)
Crawford, Robert. Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2015)
Dydo, Ulla E. Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises, 1923-1934 (Northwestern UP, 2003)
Eliot, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Collected & Uncollected Poems. Edited by Christopher Ricks & Jim McCue. (Johns Hopkins UP, 2015)
Eliot, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Practical Cats & Further Verses. Edited by Christopher Ricks & Jim McCue. (Johns Hopkins UP, 2015)
Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot [8+ volumes] Edited by Valerie Eliot, Hugh Haughton, & John Haffenden (Yale UP + Faber & Faber, 2011-2019)
Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (Norton, 1999)
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1988)
Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford UP, 1977)
Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Norton, 2019)
North, Michael. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language, & Twentieth-Century Literature (Cambridge UP, 1994)
Quigley, Megan. Modernist Fiction & Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, & Language (Cambridge UP, 2015)
Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life & Art (Oxford UP, 1999)
Slater, Ann Pasternak. The Fall of a Sparrow: Vivien Eliot’s Life & Writings (Faber & Faber, 2021)
Whittier-Ferguson, John. Mortality & Form in Late Modernist Literature (Cambridge UP, 2014)