Thursday, 28 January 2016

Prufrock's first name

What does the 'J' stand for in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'?

Its original title was 'Prufrock among the Women'. In later years Eliot claimed to have no memory of how he came upon the name of his diffident and ageing mouthpiece.

The form of the name may reflect Eliot's habit at the time of writing his  own name as 'T. Stearns Eliot'. This was not an unusual practice in Edwardian Britain - one thinks of the flour miller and film mogul J. Arthur Rank (whose initial stood for Joseph). And Prufrock-Litton was the name of a furniture store in St. Louis, Missouri, the town where Eliot grew up, although this appears not to have any significance. Whatever prompted the Pooterish name of J. Alfred Prufrock we may never know, but here's a whimsical theory: perhaps that upper case J was simply hanging around waiting to be used - belatedly - in Eliot's 'Gerontion' (Poems, 1920) where he used a disparagingly lower case initial for 'Jew' in the notorious  lines:

          And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner
          Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp

He eventually amended this and capitalised the Jew, although it hardly renders the lines any less offensive, with their dehumanising 'squats' and 'spawned'. I suppose we have to bear in mind that the old man who narrates the poem is a mouthpiece and no more Eliot's representative than (say) Browning's Bishop Bloughram or Larkin's landlady at the Bodies.

I recall reading with great interest and mounting irritation Anthony Julius's 1995 book about Eliot's anti-Semitism , because although Julius is a very able barrister he's not much of a literary critic. (Although to be fair few literary critics could hack it at the Bar.) Julius rightly sees a more troubling anti-Semitism in Eliot's 'Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar' and while he builds a strong argument - and ultimately sees Eliot's anti-Semitism as a troubling quality rather than a disabling flaw - the case for the prosecution rests upon a couple of lines taken from a very large body of work. Troubling lines to be sure - but art should always make us uncomfortable and the fact that they continue to shock and repel is a sign of their continuing value. 

As a friend pointed out to me the other day, Joyce never capitalises Jew or Jewish in Ulysses - the main character of which is a Dublin Jew. Or jew, in Joyce's formulation.  Nobody could accuse Joyce of anti-Semitism.

But enough. This blog was prompted by a superb piece  on Old Possum by Edward Mendelson in the latest New York Review of Books. Read it here: Read it here.

Lines from 'Gerontion' © The Estate of T. S. Eliot / Faber and Faber

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