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In a long letter from T.S. Eliot to John Quinn, dated July 9, 1919, one finds the following:
I am sorry to say that I have found it uphill and exasperating work trying to impose Joyce on such “intellectual” people, or people whose opinion carries weight as I know, in London. He is far from being accepted, yet. I only know two or three people, besides my wife and myself, who are really carried away by him. There is a strong body of critical Brahminism, destructive and conservative in temper, which will not have Joyce. Novelty is no more acceptable here than anywhere else, and the forces of conservatism and obstruction are more intelligent, better educated, and more formidable.
How very nice it is to read such phrases as “He is far from being accepted, yet,” and “I only know two or three people, besides my wife and myself, who are really carried away by him.” Ha-ha, one thinks. For there is great retrospective pleasure of seeing the individual vindicated by history. This is pretty plain, but there is also the practical pleasure of seeing how the individual, in literary history, is always making a mark despite, and often on behalf of, better things and people. Here, Eliot and Quinn were doing their little part, one piece of the job of enjoying art. Being loud about it, when you like it, matters a good deal, it turns out (and sure, it helps to have a good voice).
Quality is the key to any serious literary endurance, yes, but friendship is underrated as a critical tool. Anyone can write a blurb extolling, adverbially, the “fearlessly brilliant” and “daringly brave” (?) qualities of some someone’s latest something. But not everyone will write and circulate defenses of under-known works and undervalued artists, try to raise cash for the strapped genius, advocate in public and push in private for the virtues of the great but obscure.
Eliot did, and Pound, and Ford, and Quinn, and a great many more. We forget, now and again, in the careerist whirl of the weird little business that is made of writing, how much altruism there is among those who do this sort of work. Half the fun comes in passing the literal or figurative hat when one believes in the virtues and virtue of something rare. “Critical Brahminism” (not to say profligate moronism) meets many, merry dooms.
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”