How a Chicago editor set T.S. Eliot on the path to a Nobel Prize

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In the autumn of 1914, Harriet Monroe prepared a manuscript for the typesetters of Poetry, a magazine she edited in what had been the front room of a mansion at 543 N. Cass St. in Chicago. Since then, the street has been renamed Wabash and its mansions replaced by high-rises, even as the verses Monroe marked up in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” became immortal.

In her memoirs, Monroe suggested she could have guessed that they were so fated.

She wrote in “A Poet’s Life.”:

“When ‘Prufrock’ reached us via our Foreign Correspondent, its opening lines—

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table—

Nearly took our breath away.”

But the author of the poem, T.S. Eliot, recalled it differently. He wrote that his literary career might have been stillborn if it hadn’t been hyped to Monroe by a mutual friend, the poet Ezra Pound.

“It was owing to his efforts that poems of mine were first published and but for his encouragement at an early period I might have abandoned the writing of poetry altogether,” he wrote in a 1938 collection of his work.

However the publication came to be, it was in a repurposed mansion on Chicago’s Near North Side that T.S. Eliot was set on a course that would make him the preeminent — indeed, The Poet — of the 20th century.

An example of how beloved he was: In the 1950s, a classmate of mine climbed up the backstairs to peek into a window of the Hyde Park apartment where a University of Chicago professor was hosting Eliot. She was desperate to know what The Poet ate for breakfast.

Eliot then had myriad undergraduate disciples, as Cynthia Ozick recalled in a 1989 New Yorker essay: When T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature, “he seemed pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary, fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon,” wrote Ozick, a novelist and critic.

He might never have enjoyed that status.

Monroe wasn’t overly eager to publish Eliot. Her plate was full: She earned her living as a freelance art critic for the Tribune and “Prufrock” wasn’t wowing rival editors.

In addition to Pound pushing to get it printed, Conrad Aiken had offered the poem to English publications. Eliot, Pound and Aiken had known each other at Harvard University before becoming expat poets in Europe.

Aiken’s solicitations received harsh reviews. When Harold Monro, editor of Poetry and Drama, encountered lines like —

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas

— he pronounced Eliot’s poem “absolutely insane,” according to literary gossip at the time.

(Despite their similar names, Monroe and Monro were not related. He ran London’s Poetry Bookstore.)

Eliot’s poem is akin to a soliloquy: A speech delivered by an actor who steps out of character to speak directly to the audience. “Prufrock” is the muffled protest of an otherwise undistinguished man frustrated by an unremarkable life.

I grow old ... I grow old ...

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled

Monroe at first was playing it safe. Getting Poetry started was a long shot. Why risk it by overinvesting in what Pound touted as the first truly modern poem?

Pound argued that publishing it would bring her fame, which may have struck a resonant chord.

“I cannot remember when to die without leaving some memorable record did not seem to me a calamity too terrible to be borne,” Monroe said, according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

By 1894, she’d achieved a bit of fame with a $1,000 commission to write a poem celebrating the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s first world fair. When the New York World printed it without her permission, Monroe sued the newspaper and was awarded $5,000, according to biographical material about her on the Poetry Foundation website.

As her sister married the distinguished architect John Wellborn Root, Harriet Monroe moved in cultivated, well-heeled circles.

She wrote Root’s biography, and the three of them lived together. Harriet never married, and the sisters continued to share a household after Root’s death in 1891.

When Monroe received Eliot’s poem, the two sisters and her sister’s daughter lived in a spacious apartment at Rush and Ohio streets. They regularly entertained visiting literati.

Monroe knew what doors were worth knocking on when she founded Poetry.

When the magazine’s first issue appeared in October 1912, Monroe wrote: “In order that the experiment of a magazine of verse may have a fair trial, over one hundred subscriptions of fifty dollars annually for five years have been promised by the ladies and gentlemen listed below. "

All of this was in the background as Monroe decided whether to publish Eliot’s poem. But Pound doubled down when 1915 arrived and he had yet to see “Prufrock” in print.

“Do get on with that Eliot,” he admonished Monroe in April. He was the magazine’s foreign correspondent, in recognition of his eye for spotting new talent.

“Prufrock” finally appeared in the June 1915 issue of Poetry, tucked in like an afterthought, behind other contributors’ poems and collectively labeled: “I Sing Of My Life As I Lead It.”

Monroe’s decision paid off.

While the Tribune had welcomed Poetry, it also reported that New York was contemptuous of a cultural upstart in the heartland. But Chicago quickly became the home of the literary avant-garde, thanks to Monroe’s magazine, and the Tribune reported in 1923:

“Poetry is a more familiar mistress today than in Victorian times,” Monroe said in a lecture at the Medill School of Journalism. “Like the modern girl, she has discarded corsets and furbelows, and aims to be simple, natural and athletic of body and soul. Thus she has more points of contact with the modern reporter’s idea of literary distinctions.”

I can testify to that. From Ozick’s essay onward, critics have announced that T.S. Eliot’s day has come and gone. Yet whenever I walk down the block of Wabash Avenue where Monroe edited “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I hear faint echoes of Eliot’s lamentation:

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …