“The last academic honor that I coveted”: T.S. Eliot and Washington University

On July 17, 1953 accomplished poet and literary critic T.S. Eliot wrote to former chancellor of Washington University and Nobel prize winner Arthur Holly Compton to thank him for acting as host during Eliot’s St. Louis stay.  Eliot visited the city in June of 1953 to receive an honorary doctoral hooding from Washington University.

“An honorary degree from Washington University,” Eliot told Compton, “was the last academic honour that I coveted.”

Eliot was sensible of his family’s long history with the institution: he told Compton one of his central goals during the visit was to “pay homage” to his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, founder and third chancellor of Washington University. (click here for full transcription)

T.S. Eliot to Arthur Holly Compton, July 17 1953. Arthur Holly Compton Personal Papers (WUA00171) Series 3, Box 17, Folder 50: D - E, 1953-1954.

T.S. Eliot to Arthur Holly Compton, July 17 1953. Arthur Holly Compton Personal Papers (WUA00171) Series 3, Box 17, Folder 50: D – E, 1953-1954.

Eliot remained friends with the Comptons for many years, despite settling in London after moving to England in 1914. In a second letter held by Special Collections dated 20 August 1653, Eliot writes to Compton to lament missing the former chancellor’s visit to London. Both letters hint at the important St. Louis and wider international academic networks that were crucial Eliot’s early scholarly formation and his social and intellectual life as an accomplished literary figure. (click here for full transcription)

“All I can say is to express my regrets, and best wishes for the rest of your tour, and say that I shall very much look forward to seeing you and Mrs. Compton next June.

Yours very sincerely,

T.S. Eliot”

T.S. Eliot to Arthur Holly Compton, August 8 1953. Arthur Holly Compton Personal Papers (WUA00171) Series 3, Box 17, Folder 50: D - E, 1953-1954.

T.S. Eliot to Arthur Holly Compton, August 8 1953. Arthur Holly Compton Personal Papers (WUA00171) Series 3, Box 17, Folder 50: D – E, 1953-1954.

More about T.S. Eliot and Washington University

T.S. Eliot was born on this day (September 26th), in 1888.

The young Thomas Stearns Eliot was a pupil at the Smith Academy, a Washington University-affiliated preparatory school. He later continued his studies in literature, classics, and philosophy at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford University. The celebrated author of such poems as The Wasteland, Eliot’s high school works published in Smith Academy’s periodical showcase the role St. Louis played in his early academic formation. Of particular note among his early works is “The Man who was King,” a short story reportedly inspired by a young Eliot’s visit to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

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During Eliot’s 1953 visit, the family assembled at “the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Camburn Martin, 22 Joy Avenue, Webster Groves, 63119.” June 1953. Eliot Family Collection, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 2: Eliot family photographs, 1953; 1967.

During Eliot’s 1953 visit, the family assembled at “the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Camburn Martin, 22 Joy Avenue, Webster Groves, 63119.” June 1953. Eliot Family Collection, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 2: Eliot family photographs, 1953; 1967.


This post is part of an occasional series, “Special Delivery – Letters from the WUSTL Archives and Special Collections.”

For more information about the letters and documents displayed here, or in general about Special Collections please contact us.

 

About the author

Lisa Lillie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis.