"Time future contained in time past": Departure for America

27 Jan 2020 4:03 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

As the summer of 1932 draws to a close, Eliot prepares himself to leave England and the life he has known for the last eighteen years. The coming break occasions looking both forwards and backwards. He worries about how Vivienne will take his departure—whether she will try to prevent him from leaving or perhaps be happier without him. He reflects that living with someone who constantly seeks to distract herself with other people has not been healthy for him; he hopes that in America he will have more opportunities for solitary meditation and normal social interaction with friends of his own (as it turns, there was to be more of the latter than the former). On the eve of his departure in September, he worries how he will feel when he leaves: terrified of the outside world, like a man who has been in prison or the hospital for a long time? 

The journey to America carries Eliot into the past of his childhood and youth and forward to an unknown future; in both, Hale plays a starring role. Although the details are not set, he has committed to visiting her at Scripps for a few days at the end of the year, as part of a cross-country tour that will also take him to St. Louis and Minneapolis. (Despite not wanting her to be in Cambridge, he is very eager to see her for a short visit.) On August 18, he writes that although he has more intimate knowledge of her than of anyone else, he realizes he has had few conversations with her, and that when they meet, it will be as if they are meeting for the first time as adults. This letter contains a significant new piece of information: Eliot states that he and Hale have known each other since childhood, and he dates their first meeting to 1905. Biographers have placed their acquaintance no earlier than 1911-12, after his return from Paris; but, naturally, Eliot spent time at the Hinkleys’ house when he first came East as a teenager to attend Milton Academy. Hale may not have been a person of importance to him before the 1913 “stunt show” in which they played parts in Eleanor’s adaptation of Emma, but he definitely recalls knowing her earlier.  He writes that as a child (of seventeen?), he was too shy to converse with her, and she with him. This does not rule out the possibility that her influence may precede the usually accepted date of 1912, potentially bearing on any of his early poetic compositions. 

In Eliot’s first two weeks in America, he marks two milestones in their relationship. He has promised Hale that one of his first acts after arriving in Cambridge will be to call her on the telephone, and after overcoming several logistical obstacles, the long awaited conversation takes place on October 9. He describes himself to her in his next letter as nearly speechless with excitement, awkwardness, and fear of his own emotion. It was difficult to talk to her without being able to touch her hand. No words could have expressed his feelings or the momentousness of the occasion, but now he thinks he could learn to be quite natural with her on the telephone. The other milestone is retrospective. He casually drops the information that he has been to Chestnut Hill, a village six miles west of Boston, to dine with Leon Little and his wife. She responds by asking him if he was aware where he was that evening. Yes, he replies, all too aware, and it was painful. I kept my eyes down, so I don’t know whether we passed your old house or not, and this time I went by car, not by tram. I have been over the events of the past so many times in my mind, he writes, that now I can only survive by thinking of the present and the future so far as it brings me to you. 


  • 27 Jan 2020 4:56 PM | Sara Fitzgerald
    Thanks for yet another insightful report! Reading through the letters, I became curious about learning more about the cost of telecommunications in that era. I know in my own family, an interstate or intercontinental phone call was thought to be very expensive in 1968, much less 1932. At times Eliot and Hale relied on cables for faster, more reliable communications , but cables could also be viewed by others when they were delivered, so they talk about the need to be circumspect, in case someone else was the one to receive it. There was also concern about making sure they received a response to a difficult letter before writing the next one. Not exactly on your topic, but your note about the importance of the telephone call led me to share these thoughts. Too bad they did not have access to Skype!
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  • 27 Jan 2020 6:40 PM | CR Mittal
    //Eliot states that he and Hale have known each other since childhood, and he dates their first meeting to 1905.//

    Wow! In A COOKING EGG the poet had lamented the loss of Edenic innocence:

    “But where is the penny world I bought / To eat with Pipit behind the screen?”
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    • 27 Jan 2020 7:43 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      "A Cooking Egg" is one of the poems he tells Hale to read, in his second letter, because it concerns her.
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      • 27 Jan 2020 8:10 PM | CR Mittal
        Oh yes, you’d pointed that out, Frances.
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      • 28 Jan 2020 10:44 AM | Sonetka
        I wonder if she took note of the line "I shall not want Pipit in Heaven."
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        • 28 Jan 2020 11:41 AM | CR Mittal
          Implying thereby that he wanted her here on earth?
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  • 27 Jan 2020 9:31 PM | CR Mittal
    The first para is compelling - Eliot emerging from a trauma as it were.
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  • 28 Jan 2020 8:50 AM | CR Mittal
    Looks like GERONTION too were addressed to Hale:

    I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
    Since what is kept must be adulterated?
    I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
    How should I use it for /your/ closer contact?

    In the light of the epigraph to A COOKING EGG:
    ‘By the 30th year of my life, I have drunk up all my shame’.
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  • 28 Jan 2020 9:10 AM | CR Mittal
    Looks like GERONTION too were written with Hale in mind.
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