Yesterday, the below tweet about T.S. Eliot becoming “honorary sheriff” of Dallas County got as much viral attention as a tweet about a Modernist poet is likely to get in 2021. It’s not a joke, but it is funny: Here’s the buttoned-up author of “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” wearing a cowboy hat and a grin that could only be described as both rootin’ and tootin’.
TS Eliot in a cowboy hat shortly before becoming honorary sheriff of Dallas County, TX, 1958 (not a joke) pic.twitter.com/pMYsm15XPK
— David Hering (@hering_david) June 3, 2021
The tweet’s more right than wrong, but barely. It is at the very least incomplete. This bothers me enough that I am now writing this blog post on a Friday to tell you about how one of the 20th century’s greatest poets picked up a Stetson and a badge in Dallas.
That is Eliot in the picture. He did come to Dallas in April 1958, when he spoke to an audience of 7,000 people at what was then just called the SMU Coliseum, according to a contemporaneous article in the Dallas Morning News. (Can you imagine any poet, even an Eliot-level poet, packing out what is now Moody Coliseum today?)
He was, however, named an honorary “deputy” sheriff, rather than sheriff. Small, but crucial. We’re talking about the difference between Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife here. Here’s correspondent Don Freeman in the April 26, 1958 edition of the DMN, on Eliot’s reading at SMU:
The rain beating on the roof once got so noisy that Eliot exclaimed, “The competition is considerable.” Once he stopped to let the rain have a full solo.
In his introductory remarks, he noted with relish that he had been made an honorary citizen of Dallas and a deputy sheriff during his visit here.
He thought it was funny that he, a deputy sheriff, should be reciting poetry.
By the way, Deputy Sheriff T.S. Eliot killed. Standing ovation, according to the paper.
It’s a good story, and it deserves a better viral tweet. Like this slightly less viral tweet from last year, courtesy of the T.S. Eliot Foundation, which includes an un-cropped, less blurry photo of Eliot in his cowboy hat along with the detail that he got a badge to go with his Stetson. It also makes clear that the picture was taken weeks after he was named a deputy sheriff, not “shortly before.” As it should be. You don’t put on the cowboy hat until you’ve earned it.
T. S. Eliot with his sister, Marion at a family gathering in May 1958.
Eliot is wearing the Stetson hat he was given, together with a sheriff's badge, when he was made an honorary sheriff in Dallas, Texas a few weeks earlier. pic.twitter.com/rOguXUjgvD
— T. S. Eliot Foundation (@eliotfoundation) May 17, 2020
Moral of this blog post? Don’t believe everything you see on the internet. Unless you see it at D Magazine Dot Com. Also, read more poetry.