Although many of the authors that we have studied this semester saw fit to express what they considered the Modern artist's relationship to tradition should be, two authors stand out because they explicitly say what they felt it was. These two authors Are T.S. Elliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent", and Alain Locke in "The New Negro". Elliot and Locke use different definitions of the word "tradition" and address a different group of people in their particular works. Elliot uses the word tradition to speak of the great body of literature that has been produced in and around Europe as he addresses critics and artists. Locke uses tradition to define how Negro Americans have been viewed by white Americans, and by themselves, as he writes his cultural manifesto to America.
Elliot finds it important before discussing the Modern artist's responsibility to tradition, to expose certain fallacies that many people hold concerning tradition. He found that most critics did not really use the word "Except in a phrase of censure…. If otherwise… with the implication…. Of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction" (1405). Critics were in effect using tradition only to describe something quaint and archaic. The problem with this view is that it creates the misconception among the general public that good poetry is not at all related to anything that has been done before, and it must instead be something entirely new to be good.
This misconception was especially destructive because it caused people to ignore the influence of great writers of the past upon contemporary ones. Elliot states that "…in critical writing we tend to look for what is original in a piece of work if we like it, so therefore do not pay attention to what elements are traditional" (ibid.). Further, he states that "One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else" (ibid.). The task of the modern critic when studying a piece of a work should not be limited to finding out how a poet is different, but also in finding out how he is like the writers that came before him. By doing so it should be discovered that there is continuity in literature. As Elliot says "…if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously" (ibid.).
A Modern writer, however, should not limit himself to the imitation of his predecessors. As Elliot states, "If the only form of tradition… consisted in blindly following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, 'tradition' should positively be discouraged" (Ibid.). So, the modern writer, though not ignoring the past, should endeavor to create something new. He can only do this by acquiring a "historical sense", or in other words, if he wants to be an important writer that can stand the test of time, he must write "not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country" (1405-1406). Thus, when he writes he can not ignore the fact that the time that he is living in, and the subject matter that he chooses to write about, did not evolve in a vacuum. There is a definite foundation that he is building upon, if indeed he is a good writer.
Elliot believes that the contemporary views of what the word "tradition" meant are incorrect. He states that "…a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional" (1406). Thus, being traditional does not mean that the artist is simply parroting the past, but instead has a real understanding of it, and a facility with using it to create something new. When speaking of the true artist Elliot states, "…his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists"