The Young T.S. Eliot and Alien Cultures: His Philippine Interactions

Tatsushi Narita

Article originally published in The Review of English Studies, Vol. 45, No. 180 (Nov., 1994), pp. 523-525

A young T.S. Eliot visited the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904

IN recent years, cross-cultural matters have been rapidly increasing in importance as one of the new key concepts for interpreting the socio-cultural complex. It would be worth while accordingly to seek to re-evaluate one of the greatest poets of the modern world in such terms, and in particular in the light of the new biographical evidence which has been accumulated about his visit to the 1904 World Fair at St Louis. As a boy of 10, in 1898, T. S. Eliot launched a periodical entitled ‘The Fireside’. In the ‘Editorial’ section of its eleventh issue, he showed his strong interest in an aspect of the modern Asian fate, that is, the contemporary history of the Philippines in the midst of the Spanish-American war. He writes that ‘our’ special correspondent says that the flag of the Philippines appears something like this; then follows a picture of the Philippine flag apparently drawn by a childish hand.’ The newspaper report marks the memorable moment of Philippine independence from Spanish rule. It is noteworthy that the boy was in those days engrossed with the new developments concerning the Philippines. This must have led him to assign to himself the role of the photographer-correspondent. In another ‘Editorial’, he comments on Emilio Aguinaldo (the Filipino independence leader).2 As a precocious, self-appointed reporter of the war, he delved deeply into the history of independence. Six years later, at the age of 16, Tom Eliot again encountered the Philippines. When the St Louis World Fair was held in 1904, native peoples were invited all the way from the Philippines. The young Eliot visited this Philippine Exposition, held jointly with the Fair, and witnessed how native Filipinos led their own lives. Most importantly, he visited ‘the sensational Igorot Village’.3 The Igorot in those days were known for curious customs, including the practice of eating dogs; they walked the Exposition site with no clothes other than their traditional loin-cloths, which drew the attention of a local women’s society.4 The young Eliot must have witnessed all this.

In the following year, Eliot wrote a significant short story entitled ‘The Man Who Was King’. At first sight, it is merely a sea story concerning a South Pacific island called Matahiva.s But a close reading reveals a surprising facet: the contact of the West with an alien, primitive culture. It is certainly true that the story is full of caricatures concerning the backward nature of Matahiva. But it is ‘Cap’tn’ Magruder, who expresses contempt for the natives, that is caricatured as a more or less bombastic and very unreliable character. Moreover, as we follow the plot of the story, we find that the Matahiva people are shown as capable of making reasonable decisions. Whereas they first inaugurate Magruder as their king because of his being ‘strangely dressed’ and his ‘whitish color’, they decide to dethrone him because he turns out to be incapable of acting as effectively as their former king. The Matahiva people, we are shown, are discerning enough to perceive Magruder’s incapacity as a man and successfully to dethrone him. Basically, the story conveys a deep sympathy for the indigenous culture of the Matahiva people.6 It would seem that the future poet thought deeply about the nature and meaning of different cultures. He must have reflected upon the incongruities arising out of the contact of the Igorot people with what St Louis stood for as part of Western civilization. Part of that reflection is incorporated into the short story of 1905. Yet it has long been maintained that it was only during his Harvard graduate years that Eliot developed his interest in primitive cultures.7 Such a view assumes that he was incapable of developing an interest in primitive cultures in his own, personal terms. Instead, too much emphasis has been placed on the academic aspect of his interest and on his Harvard period to the exclusion of his earlier years. The encounter of the young Eliot with the Philippines is perhaps one of the most striking incidents of his brief life in St Louis. For one thing, the twofold meeting enabled him to write the short story; for another, it is the earliest sign of his intensive concern with primitive cultures in comparison with Western civilization. We have too long occupied ourselves with the intellectual and academic influences on Eliot and thereby have established a too rigid, too monolithic picture of the poet. It is time that we examined Eliot not only in hemispheric terms but also in global, multicultural terms.


1 ‘The Fireside’, preserved at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, No. 11, p. [5]. 2 Ibid, No. 6, p. [11]. 3 See T. Narita, ‘Eliot and the World’s Fair of St. Louis: His “Stockholder’s Coupon Ticket”‘ (original in Japanese, with outline in English), The Nagoya City University Studies in Social Sciences and Humanities (Nagoya, Japan), 26 (1982), 1-24. 4 For some of the reasons why the Philippine Exposition visit was important, see T. Narita, ‘Fiction and Fact in T. S. Eliot’s “The Man Who Was King”‘, N & Q 237 (1992), 191-2.5 ‘The Man Who Was King’, Smith Academy Record, St Louis, 8 (1905), 1-3. Whereas Eliot’s poetical juvenilia have often been reprinted, his juvenile short stories, including ‘The Man Who Was King’, have never been. Eliot scholars who mention the story invariably speak of it as a sea adventure. Lyndall Gordon, for example, makes only a passing remark, saying that Eliot made ‘proud use of sailing jargon’ (Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford, 1977), 7). 6 In the sub-plot we are told that not long after the captain visited Matahiva, the French invaded it and built a post there. They educated the natives, the precocious author writes, so that they are ‘civilized but not interesting’. 7 See J. B. Vickery, The Literary Impact of ‘The Golden Bough’ (Princeton, 1973), 236-7, and W. Harmon, ‘T. S. Eliot, Anthropologist and Primitive’, American Anthropologist, 78 (1976), 792-811.



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