September 26, 2012

Of Love Songs, Baseball, and Sausage Grinders: Celebrating T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway

Written in the aftermath of Joseph Conrad’s death in 1924, Ernest Hemingway’s tribute in the Transatlantic Review’s Conrad Supplement included this sentence: “If I knew that by grinding Mr. [T.S.] Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return and commence writing, I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.”

Hemingway was 25. Two years earlier, in a November 8, 1922 letter to Ezra Pound in response to Pound’s touting of Eliot’s groundbreaking work, The Wasteland, Hemingway suggested that if Eliot “would strangle his sick wife,” sexually assault “the brain specialist” treating her, and “rob the bank” (Eliot was a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank at the time), “he might write an even better poem.” Below this broadside Hemingway added a brisk, cynical disclaimer (“The above is facetious”) that leaves the toxic mixture on simmer.

“A damned good poet and a fair critic,” Hemingway says of Eliot decades later in a July 9, 1950 letter to columnist Harvey Breit. In case you think he’s mellowed, Hemingway is only warming up. In fact he’s in one of his favorite metaphorical modes, pitching “high and inside,” to see if he can “turn a hitter’s cap around.” Next paragraph he’s saying “some of us write and some of us pitch but so far there isn’t any law a man has to go and see the Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot from St. Louis where Yogi Berra comes from.” The free-association reference to the New York Yankees’ catcher is what prompts the reference to Eliot the poet and critic, and then this: “but he can kiss my ass as a man and he never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.”

Today being T.S. Eliot’s 124th birthday, it’s hardly the occasion to be documenting his fellow midwesterner’s epistolary boorishness. But there’s another, more local occasion. Next month Hemingway and his novel, The Sun Also Rises, will be the subject of several events at the Prince
ton Public Library capped by an October 25 talk by Sandra Spanier, co-editor of Volume One of the Cambridge University Press edition of Hemingway’s letters (see story this issue for details).

Play Ball

If Hemingway can use tropes from the National Pastime as a means of measuring character, manhood, and literary ability, why not follow his example? Baseball may also help me demonstrate why my fondness for Hemingway and his work endures, undiminished, in spite of his personal flaws and phobias, and may even explain why I’ve never warmed to Eliot, whose essays and poetry have been among the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.

Okay, let’s look at Eliot the player. As a pitcher, he would specialize in offspeed stuff, with a killer curve and a knuckleball so devious and outré that hitters tie themselves in knots trying to follow it. Better yet, let’s make him a position player. Forget that ill-natured crack about his abilities with the bat, I see the deceptively fragile St. Louis Kid as a solid .300 hitter with sneaky power and a Mr. October reputation for performing in the post-season clutch, like the game-tying grand slam he hit in the last of the ninth inning of the 1922 World Series; you knew The Wasteland was out of the park the instant Tom Terrific connected. The Kid’s one big drawback was very big indeed, however; he lacked color. The sports writers did what they could, with their catchy nicknames, but it made no difference. Before, after and during the game, Eliot kept to himself. In the locker room, he was a one-man monastery.

This is where the big guy from Oak Park wins your heart. Injury-prone, yes, but with an eye that was the envy of Joe DiMaggio. A master bunter and a lifetime .330 hitter (as he once described himself), he could hit to all fields and his line-drive home runs cleared the wall straight and true. Best of all, he loved the game, ready to talk about the ins and outs
of it forever, recollecting key plays with such fondness that he made kids all over America want to grab their mitts (or pens, pencils, typewriters) and head for the nearest diamond. Granted, he drank between innings, delighted in high slides (he kept his spikes razor sharp), fought with umpires, opponents and teammates, roared when he won and raged when he lost. Sure, he said hideously offensive things about other players, but you knew that stuff ate him up, made him crazy, until the July morning in 1961 when he could no longer play through his injuries.

Let Us Go Then

T.S. Eliot’s poetry simply turned up one day in the room my parents called the study. Nobody, no parent, no teacher presented Eliot to me and said, “You must read this.” I was a sophomore in high school, where literature was confined to a textbook created by “educators.” It’s possible that my Medievalist father, who had no interest in Eliot beyond his High Church leanings, left the Collected Poems in plain sight for me, the way he used to do when pretending to make Classic Comics appear by magic.

Easily the coziest room in the house, the study had a roll-top desk, a day-bed by the window, and a wall of books. My departure for the new world took place on a grey midwinter afternoon, mist in the air, snow on the ground. Settling back on the daybed’s heaped-up pillows, I started reading. The first two lines instantly took me in, the poet’s spectral hand beckoning me aboard, and so began the reading journey that still continues:

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky….”

In popular music, specifically rock and roll, that’s called a hook, and it’s a great hook, as irresistible as John Lennon’s, “Let me take you down,” from “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Was Lennon echoing Eliot? Probably, though he might not have known it, just as the Beatles might not have known that Sgt. Pepper would be compared to The Wasteland.

Getting back to the idea of Eliot the player, if he was on the mound and you were at the plate, the next pitch, where the evening is compared to “a patient etherised upon a table,” is unhittable. You just watch it go by with your mouth hanging open. What was that? Where did he get it? Is it even legal? A literary spitball? And a few lines later, after the “muttering retreats,” “cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants,” he reads your mind about the  impossible line he just pitched you, saying, “do not ask ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”

That second “Let us go” leads you to the stanza that seals your fate. Never mind baseball, it’s witchcraft when the poet waves his wand and turns “the yellow smoke” into a cat rubbing its back and its muzzle “upon the window-panes” and licking “its tongue into the corners of the evening.” The first time you read what the “yellow smoke” does is as close as you ever come to loving Eliot, as it makes “a sudden leap, / And seeing that it was a soft October  night, / Curled once about the houses, and fell asleep.”

Then everything changes and the Harvard scholar looms at the ghostly lectern, no more to be loved than a distant voice serving “visions and revisions” with “toast and tea.” By now the poet is miles away, but still in possession of this normal, baseball-playing, girl-crazy, red-blooded American 15-year-old’s unworthy attention, with lines never to be forgotten (“When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall”) and smooth, sensuous imagery (“Arms that are braceleted and white and bare” and “in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair”) as J. Alfred “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock approaches his fate. At this point the original excitement has faded, and the last lines about growing old and the mermaids singing and the “chambers of the sea” where “human voices wake us, and we drown” make the schoolboy reader edgy and uneasy. Outside the window it’s gone from dusk to night, and he’s thinking of the pretty young mother across the street who’s dying of cancer.

When Less Is More

I just finished reading the last 15 pages of The Sun Also Rises, where Hemingway’s impotent protagonist Jake Barnes (“I got hurt in the war” he tells the prostitute when she puts her hand between his legs) encounters a fate not unlike Prufrock’s. After the drunken fireworks of the fiesta at Pamploma, Jake is very much alone. By all rights, he should be glad to be on his own. He decides to go to San Sebastian because “it would be quiet there.” He takes the train, stops at a hotel he knows, unpacks, has lunch, goes for a swim, all his movements crisply documented in Hemingway’s less-is-more prose. He sees a boy and a girl out on a raft, she’s laughing at the things the boy says, she’s undone the top strap of her bathing suit and is “browning her back.” Jake says nothing about what seeing this does to him but Hemingway makes you feel it, making you care about Jake in his aloneness far more intensely than you ever did for Prufrock, so that when Jake dives deep, “swimming down to the bottom,” it’s as if you’ve followed him into the undercurrent of Hemingway’s art: “I swam with my eyes open and it was green and dark. The raft made a dark shadow.”

Summoned to Madrid by Brett, the woman he loves and who loves him, hopelessly, Jake once again goes about the business of living, relating the incidental details that make you hurt for him, and all without a single nudging word from the author, who vicariously enjoys the big meal and the three bottles of wine at Botin’s while never letting you forget that it’s all death and denial and we know Jake is doomed as he reports how he got from the train to the hotel and how he consoled Brett, who is recovering from a failed romance. The conversation that ends the novel mirrors the one the thwarted lovers had at the book’s beginning, both times in a cab, sitting close to one another, she saying, “We could have such a damned good time together,” he saying, as the car slows suddenly, pressing her against him, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Hemingway’s love song comes to an end more desperate than Eliot’s. But it’s the pitcher poet who provides the perfect epitaph, closing out the game, a scoreless tie.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing
to me.