TS ELIOT’S HOME TO BE TURNED INTO WRITER RETREAT
T.S. Eliot, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “The Waste Land,” was born in St. Louis in 1888. He left the U.S. for England in his 20s and ultimately adopted British citizenship. Eliot, however, 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 the house was not only largely intact and beautifully restored, but up for sale. In December, they bought it for $1.3 million — and plan to turn it into a center and writers’ retreat. It will also be used as a location for symposia on Eliot or poetry; and as a learning center about poetry for schoolchildren. It is planned to be operational by mid-2016.
The acquisition comes as part of a small wave of events uncovering local influences on the Modernist poet. On April 6, an exhibition was unveiled at Harvard University, where Eliot attended college and graduate school. It celebrates the 100th anniversary of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” There is also 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.
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 Weber.
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. 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 Harvard 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 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.
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.
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 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. A representative of the T.S. Eliot Foundation commented, “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.”
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