The T. S. Eliot Foundation today made available—online and free-of-charge–all of the 1,131 letters that the Nobel-Prize-winning poet wrote to Emily Hale, his secret American muse, over the course of nearly three decades. The posted materials also include a small number of letters from Hale that were found in the Eliot home and not among that those that Eliot had arranged to be destroyed.
The letters had been embargoed at Princeton University Library for fifty years after Hale’s death in 1969. When they were first opened on January 2, 2020, researchers had to travel to the library to read and transcribe them, and were not permitted to make copies. Then, within a few months, access to the letters was restricted again when the library was forced to close its doors because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But scholars who were able to review any of the letters found them astonishing—both in the depth of the emotions that Eliot expressed and the range of topics he wrote about.
Lyndall Gordon, author of The Hyacinth Girl, a new book about how the women in Eliot’s life impacted his work, commented: “To read Eliot’s letters to Emily during the thirties and early forties is to enter poems in the making. His letters to her grant a new lens: here is an Eliot who is intensely ardent.”
Robert Crawford, author of Eliot After The Waste Land, observed that in the letters, Eliot “comes through as a much more emotional and passionate person than people have given him credit for. The letters to Emily give us a remarkable insight into Eliot.”
Eliot himself brought more attention to the letters by arranging for Harvard University’s Houghton Library to release a letter he wrote on the same morning that Hale’s letters first became available. In his letter, Eliot disavowed the suggestion that he had ever loved her, saying his love was that of “a ghost for a ghost.” That description, scholars concluded, was, in Gordon’s words, “untrue, flagrantly so.” Eliot’s letter also confirmed that he had arranged to have the bulk of Hale’s letters destroyed.
When the letters’ embargo ended in 2020, Eliot’s publishers had planned to publish them in a print volume, edited and annotated by John Haffenden, who worked on most of the nine previously published volumes of Eliot letters, covering the years through 1941. But the sheer number and length of Eliot’s letters to Hale would have necessitated two volumes, at academic press price points. It was later announced that they would be made available for free to the public at https://tseliot.com/, a website managed by the Eliot Estate and Eliot’s publisher, Faber & Faber.
Dan Linke, who served as interim director of the Princeton Library’s Special Collections when the Eliot-Hale letters were first opened, said that the library had at least two or three visitors a day reviewing the collection before the library had to close. Since the library reopened, he said, the number of visitors continues to the put the letters “in league with our other highly used collections.” Those include the papers of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and the personal library of Jacques Derrida, an Algerian-born French Jewish philosopher and critic. The Eliot-Hale collection, he said, “is still holding its own.”