"T.S. Eliot was never young" are the first words of Robert Crawford's diligent biography, which charts the progress of the renowned poet from his beginnings to the creation of "The Wasteland," a work that has done much to define the modern age. In "Young Eliot," Crawford offers a revisionist biography, debunking his own introductory sentence and the general impression of a dour and aged sage decrying the corruption and sterility of a secular epoch, populated by Prufrocks who lack courage and principle. No hollow man himself, Eliot, even in old age, enjoyed playing pranks with children when he was not rolling up the carpet to dance with his second wife, Valerie.
Crawford's biography has been a long time coming — not only because it is a culmination of his own lifelong study of Eliot, but also because Valerie enforced her husband's edict that no biography be written. Even so, both Peter Ackroyd and Lyndall Gordon previously produced highly praised unauthorized biographies, both of which Crawford honors.
But Crawford is the first biographer to enjoy full access to the Eliot archive, as well as permission to quote from the poet's work. As a result, he has produced the first volume of a biography that not so much supersedes Ackroyd and Gordon as it amplifies and enriches their contributions to an understanding of the man and the work.
Crawford suggests that the earlier biographers were not in a position to do justice to early Eliot because of the paucity of source material. This assertion is true to a certain extent — although in one word, "listless," the deft Ackroyd sums up what Crawford takes a chapter to say: that the learned poet/critic was actually not driven to excel as a student at Harvard.
Similarly, Gordon describes how Eliot "loafed" through the early years of his Harvard studies. Sometimes less is more.
All the same, Crawford does a splendid job of evoking Eliot's St. Louis upbringing, revealing how much of the poet's character was shaped in his early years: "For all their more recent Unitarianism, the Eliots had inherited a witch-hanging, judgemental Calvinist streak. In later life even when he tried hard not to, Tom could appear a 'Puritan ascetic.' "
"Tom," by the way, is how Eliot appears in Crawford's book, because that is what everyone in his world called him.
Even Eliot adepts will find much to savor in the new material at Robert Crawford's disposal, an impressive array of sources that he handles with care, if not always with concision.
Carl Rollyson is the author of "Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography," and "American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath."