T.S. Eliot’s old summer home may become writers’ retreat
You don’t have to spend your whole life in New England to earn a spot on the roster of famous New England writers. Robert Frost was born in San Francisco. Boston native Edgar Allan Poe sneered at the city and spent most of his life in other places. Still, the city immortalized him last fall with a statue across from Boston Common.
T.S. Eliot, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “The Waste Land,” generally doesn’t show up on our mental list of hometown literary heroes. Born in St. Louis in 1888, he left the United States for England in his 20s and ultimately adopted British citizenship.
But Eliot spent his formative childhood summers in a wood-shingled, seven-bedroom seaside house on Gloucester’s Eastern Point, built for his family in 1896. Last year, the heads of the T.S. Eliot Foundation, a British nonprofit, were surprised to learn that the house was not only largely intact and beautifully restored, but up for sale. In December, they bought it — and plan to turn it into a center and writers’ retreat that will link Eliot’s legacy to the place he loved as a child. “It seemed to make perfect sense for Eliot to own his cherished summer home again,” said Clare Reihill, a director of the foundation, in an e-mail.
The acquisition comes as part of a small wave of events uncovering local influences on this foremost Modernist poet. Starting April 6, an exhibition at Houghton Library at Harvard University, where Eliot attended college and graduate school, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The same month will see the American release of “Young Eliot,” the first in a projected two-volume biography by Robert Crawford, which gives new attention to Eliot’s years in Gloucester and Cambridge. Together, these projects amount to a reclamation of a writer who never felt entirely at home anywhere, but whose writing is infused with the natural and cultural landscape of the Massachusetts coast.
Championed by Ezra Pound, Eliot published “Prufrock” in Poetry magazine when he was just 26 . Through “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets,” he established a somber, lyrical style that mixed contemporary references into more formal, religiously inflected lines. He also wrote essays, plays in verse, and the playful rhyming poems of “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” the basis for the musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
A few of Eliot’s works make direct reference to the North Shore. One poem in “Four Quartets” is “The Dry Salvages,” referring to a set of weather-blasted rocks off Rockport. His sequence “Landscapes” includes a stanza about Cape Ann: “O quick quick quick, quick hear the song-sparrow, / Swamp-sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper-sparrow / At dawn and dusk,” it begins.
Still, even after a year at Milton Academy and college at Harvard, he never felt fully anchored in the region. “Eliot lived his life as a fish out of water,” said Carey Adina Karmel, the curator of the Houghton Library show. Though his father was a St. Louis brick manufacturer, they were descended from the same Boston clan that produced Harvard president Charles William Eliot. But Thomas Stearns Eliot found the association uncomfortable. He felt, as he wrote in 1928, like “a New Englander in the South West, and a South Westerner in New England.”
Eventually he would leave both places for good. He stayed in England, marrying two British women in succession, abandoning his native Unitarianism for the Anglican Church, and taking British citizenship.
But Eliot seems to have unabashedly loved the house in Gloucester, to which the family returned each summer. “When I come home after the war I should like to be able to go straight to Gloucester,” he wrote to his mother from London in 1917. He learned to sail there, and was fascinated by the birds, the smell of the pines, and the rugged lives of the sailors who braved Cape Ann’s waters. The big, breezy house, tucked between bulky stone outcroppings, with a wraparound porch (now partly glassed in) and a huge attic to play in, seems like it would have captured any child’s imagination.
Dana Hawkes, an expert on animation art and entertainment memorabilia for the British auction house Bonhams, sold the house to the foundation after living there for 16 years. She and her husband, the late Jerry Weist (a comics expert and the founder of the Million Year Picnic store in Harvard Square), fell in love with the house even before they knew about the Eliot history. “I didn’t know about him extensively,” she said, on a recent walk through the house. “When I moved here, I started reading up on him.”
The house was much unchanged since Eliot’s day, but it was “a wreck,” Hawkes said. “We just wanted to take the original bones and clean it up.” Today, it has a modern kitchen and bathrooms, but you can see traces of the wealthy Victorian family with seven children that built it for seaside comfort, with imposing brick fireplaces and spacious closets. Hawkes said that they found the word “Harvard” and a skull and crossbones painted in the attic — perhaps dating from the days of the Eliots.
After her husband’s death in 2011, Hawkes decided to sell the house. In London, meanwhile, the proceeds of a major Christie’s sale of the effects of Valerie Eliot, Eliot’s devoted and much younger second wife, had yielded a new charitable fund, the T.S. Eliot Foundation. “We had a long and niggling doubt that we weren’t doing enough in America to keep Eliot’s name alive,” Reihill wrote in an e-mail.
Then a colleague sent the fund’s trustees the listing for the Eastern Point house. Reihill had had no idea it was still standing, “in almost exactly the same condition in which it was built.” She said, “We were moved by the idea of using Eliot’s money to buy back the house his father had built in 1896 — and moved also by the irony of Eliot’s money buying back the house of parents who had doubted his decision to stay in England and become a poet.”
In December, the sale went through for $1.3 million, slightly below the asking price. Reihill said the foundation envisions the house as a writers’ retreat, hosting five poets, essayists, or playwrights at a time; as a location for symposia on Eliot or poetry; and as a learning center about poetry for schoolchildren. They hope to have it operating by mid-2016.
Karmel, a doctoral candidate at the University of London, describes herself as “very excited about the potential” of the Gloucester house. That seaside landscape can help readers vividly understand Eliot’s “pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” she said. In a similar spirit, she will lead a Boston-area walking tour on April 8 pointing out local references in “Prufrock.”
Eliot scholars have always been aware of his background here, noted Christopher Ricks, a Boston University professor and Eliot expert who will be speaking in connection with the “Prufrock” exhibition. Despite Eliot’s ambivalence, Ricks said, he “did love this part of the world. He writes very beautifully about it.”
And yet Hawkes, who lived in that house for so long, said that British colleagues of hers couldn’t believe she lived in T.S. Eliot’s house, while “for Americans it doesn’t have the same effect.” With the presence of the foundation in Gloucester, that could begin to change. As Reihill said, “The house, we hope, will serve to remind Americans that this great poet, perhaps the greatest of the 20th century, is one of their own.”