Maybe some of the sloppy thinking about and kneejerk reactions to the word "tradition" stem from adverse reactions to Eliot's 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and also to his later rather different and more controversial opinions. That essay, in any case, was an act of literary journalism, appearing in the avant-garde little magazine, The Egoist, which, as Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding tell us in the introduction to their new book, T.S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, was a "reincarnation of the feminist fortnightly The New Freewoman, and clearly no citadel of authoritarian or patriarchal values." And as Jan Gorak has said (quoted in this book), Eliot, "a figure often blamed for our current canonical malaise, on several occasions attacks canons on the same grounds for which he now finds himself attacked: the grounds of exclusion and repression... No less than Edward Said or Jonathan Culler, Eliot associates 'canonical' with blind submission to unquestioned authority, the confusion of living guides with classical dodos."
Moreover, as Frank Kermode points out in the foreward, when Eliot refered to "tradition," he did not mean something that everybody gets for free, whether they want it or not. Instead, what Eliot actually said is that "Tradition... cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour." Of course, maybe it's the labor that bugs people, too.
Fascinatingly, Marjorie Perloff, in her essay here, discovers that Duchamp of all people held a greater interest in Eliot's ideas than most have realized. As Kermode, always pithy, says, "there was bound to be some reciprocal influence between the revised notions of tradition and the anti-passeistes who needed to reject them."
A timely book, given the blogospherical commentary of those [borrowing again from Kermode] "whose passion for the present requires the destruction of the past." Among the essays most interesting to me are Stan Smith's on "transgression" and the individual talent... Clive Wilmer's on "the later fortunes of impersonality," in which he argues that (in the editors' summary of his piece) even Plath's "confessional" works "are not ultimately dependent upon autobiography for their success..." Perloff's, already mentioned, and Jason Harding's look at ego and The Egoist, which has an epigraph from Harold Rosenberg: "In art, the decision to be revolutionary usually counts for very little. The most radical changes have come from personalities who were conservative and even conventional."
Now that the past has been misread and deconstructed, the reverse of that last sentence seems strikingly and dishearteningly true.