From Publishers Weekly
Hailed as a major poetic talent when T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber published his first book, Poems, 1933,
Stephen Spender (1909–1995) was a close friend of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, sharing in his youth their bohemian gay lifestyle. Although Spender outlived most of his famous peers, his name remains inextricably linked with the 1930s. Sutherland (Reading the Decades
), a professor of modern English literature at University College London, draws on unparalleled access to Spender's private papers and makes subtle use of his autobiography, World within World
. Sutherland's intimate and admiring portrait reveals a disarmingly honest, gentle Spender. Beginning with an engrossing account of the poet's oppressive Edwardian childhood, Sutherland charts Spender's travel, writing and relationships with seamless attention to detail and deals unfussily with Spender's change in sexual persuasion, sparked in 1934 by a passionate affair with Muriel Gardiner, a spy for the socialist underground in Vienna, and continuing with Spender's long, happy marriage to pianist Natasha Litvin. Briefly a Communist, Spender throughout his life participated in liberal causes, from crafting antifascist propaganda during the Spanish Civil War to assisting with the formation of UNESCO. By middle age he was a celebrated cultural statesman. Shrewd, laconic and beautifully paced, Sutherland's portrait of a poet and his luminary circle will absorb all readers of 20th-century literary history. 36 b&w illus.
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Despite his versatility as a man of letters, Stephen Spender never lacked for hostile critics, and even his friends could not resist twitting him: Cyril Connolly once gibed that there were two Stephen Spenders—one "an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot," the other a clever operator who was "shrewd, ambitious, aggressive and ruthless." Sutherland, an able advocate, portrays Spender as a decent and unfairly maligned figure whose early success as a poet in the thirties was a "cross he bore all his life." Still, Spender moved easily in transatlantic intellectual circles, a footloose lecturer, broadcaster, and evangelist for liberal ideals during the Cold War years (although tainted by a scandal concerning the C.I.A.-funded journal Encounter, where he served as co-editor). Sutherland's authorized biography takes Spender's literary achievement as a given, but his close readings of the poems don't quite persuade one that Spender was a writer of the first rank.
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