WHEN ELIOT BESTRODE THE WORLD LIKE A COLOSSUS. Kids, you have never encountered the literary prestige that T S Eliot had in 1960, the time that we were listening with some awe to Eliot reading his poetry. This essay in the Harvard Crimson from December 1989 begins: “To most poets of the post-World War II generation, T.S. Eliot ’08 came as close as a person can to divine status.” The essay later quotes the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick: “When, four decades ago…T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he seemed pure zenith, a colossus…fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon.” That is certainly how I viewed him. However, as the Crimson essay describes, Ozick had changed her mind about Eliot and had attacked him in an essay in the November 20, 1989 New Yorker. I remember reading Ozick’s essay with surprise, remembering Eliot’s reputation when I was in college.
Ozick’s essay inspired a lot of heated comment. Here is an exchange of public letters between Ozick and Hilton Kramer, apparently good friends before the contretemps. What I would note about the exchange is that Kramer, Ozick, and Robert Gottlieb, then the editor of the New Yorker, all agreed that Eliot’s reputation had suffered an “astonishing disappearance”.