On A Pen Pal

Thomas Stearnes (T.S.) Eliot was one of the 20th Century’s greatest poets. Born in the United States and choosing to live most of his life in the UK as a British citizen, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. His lasting reputation rests on two major works, The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This reputation was further enhanced by his plays (a handful of Tony Awards) and his groundbreaking literary criticism.

What few people realize is that Eliot had a relationship with an unlikely pen pal, a man named Julius, over the course of several years later in his life. Eliot and Julius were near the same age, and they wrote each other letters expressing great admiration for the other, but they never really spoke in the writing about their respective jobs. Julius was not in the literary game, you see, so the pair of pen pals didn’t seem to have that much in common. Yet, they wrote several warm and interesting letters to each other in the early 1960s.

With Eliot living and London and Julius making his home in California, the letters made their way slowly between the two men. They even exchanged photos through the letters. “I had no idea you were so handsome!” Julius teased Eliot in reply after receiving the poet’s picture. When Eliot received his picture of Julius, he quickly dashed off a response: “This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall…” These two men, from vastly different walks of life and from divergent backgrounds nevertheless felt a kinship because of the gratitude each felt towards the other that pen and paper were taken up and heartfelt words were exchanged.

Because of the obvious connection these two correspondents had, because of the frankness of their opinions about many subjects both profound and sometimes profane, the letters make for interesting reading. For example, Julius didn’t really know or pay much attention about Eliot’s family life. He once signed off a letter saying, “Give my best to your wife–whoever she is at the moment” (Eliot had been married twice before). Julius also often referenced his Jewishness knowing that Eliot had a reputation for being at least tacitly anti-Semitic. And, not being completely understanding of Eliot’s socially conservative attitudes towards most topics (or, perhaps, not caring), Julius also told the poet to not be shy about writing to him about his views on sex. “Confide in me about it,” he told Eliot. The famously prim poet did not honor that request. However, he did express a desire to meet Julius and his wife if the couple were ever to make their way, as the British say, across the pond.

One day, Eliot received a letter that Julius would indeed be coming to London on business. Eliot quickly wrote an answer and invited his fellow letter writer for dinner one evening in London at Eliot’s house. In a letter written to one of his brothers the day after the dinner, Julius described the meeting. It turns out that both men seemed to be underwhelmed when meeting face to face. Julius wanted to impress his famous pen pal, so he read and re-read The Waste Land and memorized some of Eliot’s poems. He recited portions of them to Eliot at the dinner, but the poet merely smiled. Eliot, for his part, tried to ask Julius about his work, but Julius wasn’t interested in re-hashing his life. “He asked me to call him Tom,” Julius reported to his brother. “And, since I never liked the name Julius, I asked him to call me Tom as well,” he added.

But isn’t that type of joke something you’d expect from Groucho Marx?


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