Sealed Treasure: T. S. Eliot Letters to Emily Hale

In 1956, Emily Hale (1891-1969) donated 1,131 letters from the British poet and Nobel Laureate T. S. Eliot (1891-1969) to the Princeton University Library, together with related printed items and enclosures. Dating from 1930 to 1956, the letters are the largest single series of the poet’s correspondence. Hale was an American actress and drama teacher, who for decades was the poet’s secret love, confidant, and muse. By agreement between the Library and Emily Hale, the letters have remained closed in the Manuscripts Division for more than sixty years, but are scheduled to open in January 2020. The T. S. Eliot Letters to Emily Hale (C0686) are among the best-known sealed literary archives in the world. It is not unusual for donors to seal archives or impose other restrictions on access to them. In 1940, for example, Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh donated selected papers (C0697), which by agreement would remain sealed until both had passed. The papers opened in 2001.

Hale’s interest in the Princeton University Library grew out of conversations with her friends Professor Willard Thorp (1899-1990) and his wife Margaret Thorp. On 7 July 1942, Library Director Julian P. Boyd wrote to Hale, “I understand that you wish to protect the Eliot letters by placing them in a safe repository until they can be safely transmitted to their permanent home, which I assume is to be the Bodleian Library.” However, by the time Hale was ready to send the letters to Princeton, she had changed her mind about the permanent home for the letters. On 24 July 1956, Hale wrote to Thorp and promised to send the letters to Princeton “with the knowledge of T.S.E.” She told Thorp that the gift was because of “my years of friendship with you.” In a separate note, Hale specified that the letters were to be “under auspices of Professor Willard Thorp, as executor of my wishes in regard to to them; not be looked through or published [until] 25 years after my death.” Thorp discussed the gift with William S. Dix, the new University Librarian; and Alexander P. Clark, Curator of Manuscripts. By 17 November 1956, Hale had reconsidered the length of restriction, probably based on her understanding of Eliot’s wishes, and she signed a deed of gift, stipulating that the letters be kept “completely closed to all readers until the lapse of fifty years after the death of Mr. Eliot or myself, whichever shall occur later. At that time the files may be made available for study by properly qualified scholars in accordance with the regulations of the Library for the use of manuscript materials. To carry out this intention the Library is to keep the collection in sealed containers in its manuscript vaults.”

Once received in November 1956, Alexander P. Clark organized them in a dozen blue boxes in order to facilitate appraisal of the letters for tax purposes, thus allowing Hale to donate them in installments. Steel security bands were put over the boxes at a later date and remain in place to this day. The gift was formally accessioned on 12 December 1956. Additional gifts from Hale in the next dozen years, including two typed Eliot letters of 1930, donated in 1967, which are now in the Emily Hale Collection (C1294). They are entirely literary in content and for this reason were not considered personal enough to warrant being sealed with the bulk of the letters received in 1956. T. S. Eliot died on 4 January 1965 and Emily Hale on 12 October 1969. While the fifty-year restriction period should end on 12 October 2019, William S. Dix stated in 1971 that the Eliot letters be sealed until January 2020, which has been the official policy since then. This provides sufficient time for proper arrangement and description of the letters, possible conservation treatment, and other things that must be done before the official opening on 2 January 2020. The Library will produce digital surrogates to permit the number of researchers interested in studying them in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

The collection will be of incalculable importance for Eliot scholars and other students of modern literature. Their opening will finally resolve over a half century of scholarly speculation, which even inspired Martha Cooley’s novel The Archivist (1998). For information about the holdings of the Manuscripts Division on T. S. Eliot and modern literature, visit the finding aids site or contact Public Services.

Eliot-Hale sealed letters