Rare & Beautiful

Rare & Beautiful: How Walker Evans Read T.S. Eliot

An unassuming-looking book links two icons of 20th-century art

By Anne Quito, Superscript September 25, 2013

A touchstone for two titans of American modernism, Walker Evans’s personal copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” testifies to the special connection between the photographer and the poet. Evans, the prodigious photographer of the Great Depression, aspired to be a writer and ardently admired Eliot, only turning to photography as a “left-hand hobby.” With the connection between writers and photographers clear in countless Designers & Books contributors’ lists, Anne Quito spoke to Heather O’Donnell of Honey & Wax Booksellers about this forgotten gem for the second installment of our “Rare & Beautiful” series.

Walker Evans’s personal copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The poem was first published in 1922

Anne Quito: Among all the extraordinary books in your shop, why did you single out this volume?
Heather O’Donnell:
I like the book because Eliot and Evans are such influential figures in the history of American modernism, yet you don’t immediately think of the two of them as connected. On the book, Evans wrote, “New York/March 1926,” which dates his purchase of the book to the month before he left New York for Paris to try his hand at becoming a writer. But Evans had a hard time in Paris and struggled with writer’s block. In his writings, he confessed, “I’d done a lot of reading and I knew what writing was. And if I tried to do it, what I did was ludicrous and I threw it away and blushed.” He admired the modernists, including Eliot, and hoped to follow in their footsteps. I think it’s amazing how they’re linked through this single artifact.

AQ: How do you think Eliot influenced Evans’s work?
For his first published images that appeared in Creative Arts in 1930, Evans borrowed a line from Eliot and captioned the final photograph "Hurry up please, it's time," the insistent last call of Eliot's bartender in "The Waste Land." Clearly, the reading of this book stayed with him. It’s notable how Evans pulls in this phantom from his literary past and makes Eliot a part of his first photo essay.

“Hurry up please, it’s time.” Evans borrowed a line from Eliot and used it as a caption for his first published photo essay, “Mr. Evans Records a City’s Scene." Photo: Lunchroom Window, New York. 1930 © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A page from Evans's copy of "The Waste Land"

AQ: Do you think there are similarities between Eliot’s and Evans’s artistic approach?
Most people would probably say that there’s no common thread between their sensibilities. Evans is famous for these straightforward portraits and classically composed images—nothing tricky, no weird angles. Eliot, on the other hand is known for creating elaborate pastiches in his writing. "The Waste Land" is packed with quotations from the eastern and western tradition, lots of word play. But that said, I have to say that a lot of Eliot’s most memorable lines are the simplest: “To Carthage then I came. Burning burning burning burning… April is the cruelest month...” In the same token, Evans gives you a deceptively simple photograph but actually has command of the whole canon and history of composition. He created images of roadside gas stations that looked like Doric temples from the classical tradition.

Roadside Gas Station with Miners' Houses Across Street, Lewisburg, Alabama, 1935, © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

AQ: Why do you think this book is overlooked?
It’s often overlooked because it’s a small unassuming-looking book. It’s not necessarily the most visually stunning volume on the shelf. As a visually modest book, I think this makes it more special than some of the lavishly produced books out there because it has this singular, special provenance.

Heather O’Donnell is the founder of Honey & Wax Booksellers, a rare and antiquarian bookstore based in Brooklyn, New York. Its second catalogue featuring books with special provenance and association copies is forthcoming in October. 

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