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

In 1956, Emily Hale (1891-1969) donated 1,131 letters from T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Nobel Laureate in Literature (1948), to the Princeton University Library, together with mailing envelopes and enclosures, when they existed, as well as selected printed items. Dating from 1930 to 1956, the T. S. Eliot Letters to Emily Hale (C0686) are the largest single series of the poet’s correspondence and among the most best-known sealed literary archives in the world. Hale was a Boston-born college teacher of drama and actor, who was the poet’s oldest friend and for decades his secret love, confidant, and muse. Lyndall Gordon has observed about their relationship,”Emily Hale was exempt from low desire. Though not ethereal herself, and not in the least silent as a teacher of speech and drama, she became his model for silent, ethereal women in Eliot’s poetry.” From 1933 to 1946, Gordon adds, Emily Hale “provided a chaste love that could be sustained, it seemed, indefinitely.” Karen Christiansen wrote (2005), “Eliot’s relationship with Emily Hale, which was kept a secret for more than three decades, certainly shows his reticence about intimacy. Eliot knew Hale most of his life and wrote that he’d been, unawares, in love with her when he married Vivien.” By agreement between the Library and Hale, the letters have remained closed in the Manuscripts Division for more than sixty years, and are scheduled to open in January 2020. Of course, it is not unusual for donors to close, seal, or impose other restrictions on access to papers and archives. In 1940, for example, Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh donated selected papers (C0697), which by agreement would remain sealed until both had passed, allowing the papers to open in 2001.

Hale’s interest in the Princeton University Library grew out of conversations with two friends: Professor Willard Thorp (1899-1990) and his wife Margaret Thorp. Willard Thorp was a professor of English at Princeton and a founder in 1942 of what became Princeton’s American Studies Program. He actively supported Library efforts to acquire modern literary archives, including the papers of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Class of 1917, which began to arrive at the Library early in 1943. 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. At least I asked him this spring if he had any preference for the deposit of the correspondence and he said ‘no.'” 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 Princeton received the letters in November 1956, Alexander P. Clark organized and filed them chronologically in legal-size Manila folders and a dozen Fibredex blue document boxes, of the type used in the Manuscripts Division from the 1940s to 1970s. On 14 December 1956, Clark counted the letters in order to facilitate appraisal of the letters for tax purposes. The initial appraisal was done for the 1930-32 letters by the New York autograph dealer Emily Driscoll. In time, the blue boxes were covered in heavy wrapping paper, wooden boards, and steel bands for additional security. The gift was formally accessioned on 12 December 1956 (AM 15768) as the “E Collection.” Additional gifts from Hale were received over the next dozen years, including Eliot’s inscribed copies of particular books, which are cataloged in the Library’s online catalog; and two typed Eliot letters of 1930, donated in 1967, which are now in the Emily Hale Collection (C1294). The two single-spaced typed letters are on Faber & Faber letterhead and are entirely literary in content. For this reason, they 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 would not be available for study until January 2020, and that has been the official policy ever since then. This provides sufficient time for proper arrangement and description of the letters, possible conservation treatment, and other work that must be done before the official opening on 2 January 2020. The Library will produce digital surrogates to make it easier for multiple researchers to study the letters in the Reading Room at the same time during regular visiting hours. Note: Eliot’s writing remains under copyright until 2036.

The collection will be of incalculable importance for Eliot scholars and other students of modern literature. The recently published volume of The Letters of T. S. Eliot (2019), vol. 8, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Hafenden, largely concerns his working life as an editor and publisher, 1936-38. The opening of the letters will finally resolve over a half century of scholarly speculation about their content, which even inspired Martha Cooley’s novel The Archivist (1998). The letters should offer a wealth of detail about the literary world, as well as new insight into Eliot as a person. 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.

T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale in summer 1946, when she was performing in Dorset, Vermont (C0896).


Eliot-Hale Sealed Letters