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“The future holds more than the past has yielded”: T. S. Eliot’s Invention of Tradition and the St. Louis Exposition of 1904


This essay offers a new interpretation of T. S. Eliot’s central concept of tradition by reading “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in light of the representation of America’s conquest of the Philippines at the 1904 World’s Fair held in Eliot’s hometown of St. Louis. Against the stated ideology of the modern—which dismisses tradition as the inevitable cost of an ever-progressive modernity—Eliot recuperates the notion of tradition by showing how it is always engaged in a dialectical relation to the present. In this way, Eliot resists both the primitivism that reifies tradition as an unchanging realm of ancient values and the notion of historical progress intimately tied to the development of imperial capital. Furthermore, Eliot’s notion of tradition is fundamentally transnational—albeit limited in scope to Europe—which highlights the constitutive relationship between nationalism and the concept of development embedded within the discourse of progress. Modernist tradition becomes, in this account, a way to resist the historical ideology of the developing American empire.

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