Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell - review by Jeremy Noel-Tod

Jeremy Noel-Tod

Modern Family

Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore


Faber & Faber 455pp £30

‘The Infant Modernists’ is one of the great unwritten works of critical biography. Shiningly specific childhood experience, the oeuvres of Woolf, Joyce and T S Eliot all insinuate, lies at the heart of their sophisticated mystery. John Updike put his finger on this when he parodied Eliot’s later critical prose with an essay called ‘What is a Rhyme?’, which begins, with ponderous coyness, ‘I do not know whether all childhoods are painful. My own, or that drastically edited set of snapshots which is all that remains to me of my own, did (or does) not seem especially so.’

If there is ever an adequate biography of Eliot, it will regroup and recolour all the ‘drastically edited’ snapshots that he scattered through his writings. Whoever attempts the restoration work will find an indispensable model of imaginative scholarship in Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down. As Leavell notes, Eliot and Marianne Moore ‘were born within a year of each other in the same western city’ (St Louis; Moore was born in November 1887). This remarkable coincidence for modernist poetry, she observes, ‘may be at least a little explained by the value their grandfathers placed on education’. It is the formative experience of that turn-of-the-century ancestral imperative – New World in ambition, Old World in breadth – that the first half of this biography brings valuably

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