Stephen Spender: A Literary Life

Stephen Spender: A Literary Life

Stephen Spender: A Literary Life

Stephen Spender: A Literary Life


One of the leading poets and cultural icons of the 20th century, Stephen Spender was a prominent writer, literary critic, and social commentator--and close friend of some of the best-know creative talents of his day. Now, in this penetrating biography, John Sutherland paints a vivid portrait of Spender and of the glittering literary world of which he was a part, drawing on exclusive access to Spender's private papers.
This briskly paced, compelling narrative illuminates the vast range of Spender's literary, political, and artistic interests. We follow Spender from childhood to his days at Oxford (where he first became friends with W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Isaiah Berlin); to his meteoric rise as poet in the 1930s, while still in his twenties; to his later years as cultural statesman, at home in both Britain and America. We witness many of the century's defining moments through Spender's eyes: the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Cold War, the 1960s sexual revolution, and the rise of America as a cultural force. And along the way, we are introduced to many of Spender's accomplished friends, including Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Cecil Day-Lewis, Joseph Brodsky, Lucian Freud, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. Perhaps most important, Sutherland has been granted exclusive access to Spender's private papers by his wife Natasha Spender. Thus he is able to provide a far more intimate look at the poet's personal life than has appeared in previous biographies.
Featuring 36 unpublished photographs,Stephen Spender: A Literary Lifethrows light not only on this supremely gifted writer, but also on the literary and social history of the twentieth century.


No British poet of the twentieth century has provoked a more perplexing response among his contemporaries than Stephen Spender. His name is as familiar to those who claim to know poetry as that of his great friend, W. H. Auden. Such things are hard to gauge but Spender probably remains better known than the other leading poets of the 1930s quartet, Louis MacNeice or C. Day-Lewis. Certainly more so than George Barker, Roy Campbell or Edith Sitwell – all famous in their day, now gone, or on their way, into literary oblivion.

Spender's early success, as a twenty-four-year-old poet praised (and published) by T. S. Eliot, was, in the event, a cross he bore all his life. He himself good-naturedly saw the attacks he sustained over the years as some kind of 'tax' he must pay for the huge applause that Poems, 1933 had received. Posterity was, it seemed, determined to take him down a peg or two. They never quite succeeded and they never stopped trying. But somehow his quality (and, I would argue, his literary greatness) weathered the assault.

None the less, few poets of the twentieth century have been more attacked: less for his poetry than for what it is supposed 'Stephen Spender' stands for as a poet. Much of the opprobrium against Spender can be traced back to F. R. Leavis and the 'Scrutineers' of Downing College, for whose stern generations he was the incarnation of that modern Gomorrah, the London Literary World.

Spender outlived most of his contemporaries but not, alas, his critics. Over six decades of literary and professional life his output was extraordinarily varied: he was a novelist, playwright, essayist, lecturer, broadcaster and prolific reviewer. His extra-literary activities were equally varied. Steeped from birth in Edwardian liberalism, throughout his life Spender participated in good causes. He helped preserve works of art from destruction in the Spanish Civil War; he helped advance the civic education of firemen during the Second World War; he participated in the de-Nazification of post-war German libraries; he helped get unesco off the ground; he helped found and went on to co-edit two of the most successful journals of ideas in the twentieth century (Horizon and . . .

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