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Stephen Spender: A Literary Life Hardcover – January 6, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0195178166 ISBN-10: 0195178165 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

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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From The New Yorker

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.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (January 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195178165
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195178166
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 2 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,036,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Michael Squires on June 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
A figure who flourished in the Thirties, Stephen Spender is mostly forgotten today. Yet he possessed sufficient tension in his life - cultural, familial, sexual - to make him an appealing biographical figure. John Sutherland's account succeeds in identifying the man's essential qualities, especially his integrity as good friend and skilled artist; his tenacity in the face of hardship; and his ability to balance earning a living with writing brilliantly. But the book's enviable success comes at a cost. Written without much distinction of phrase and without the gift of brevity, unshapely in its organization, and sometimes badly edited, the book loses vitality as it slowly unfolds. Here's an example from page 170: "She was a colleague of Humphrey's and Margaret Low's (Humphrey's future wife) best friend at the Architectural Association." Sentences like it are not uncommon. Still, if one is willing to skim the dullest portions, the book's extensive research illuminates Spender's gifts and exalts his fierce commitment to a literary life. In many ways the choices Spender made seem very modern.
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