Before Auden and Isherwood
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Published in: January-February 2020 issue.


Poems Written Abroad: The Lilly Library Manuscript by Stephen Spender
Edited by Christoph Irmscher
Indiana U. Press. 160 pages, $34.66


IN AMERICA, at least, Stephen Spender (1909–1995) has had the ill fortune to be the least well known of that trio of British writers who rose to prominence in the 1930’s and whose works have lasted well into our own time. The other two were W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who not only settled in the U.S. but found the scope and openness of their new home to be so congenial that they first became fine American writers and then internationally acclaimed ones. The trio held fast for so long because they all had longevity, they remained close friends over the decades, and they were known to be gay, which during most of the 20th century meant having to stick together.

            Spender’s Selected Poems of 1953, covering over two decades of his work, was proof of his importance in the U.S. and preceded by several years a similar collection of Auden’s work. Two years earlier he had published his autobiography World Within World, full of intimate portraits of Bloomsbury and other British literary circles, and actually pretty much anyone making a name at the time. The book wasn’t at all insular but included international names like Sartre, Gide, Neruda, and Malraux. A wonderfully readable work, it gained a new kind of fame years later when Spender sued novelist David Leavitt for copyright infringement in his novel While England Sleeps (1993), taking him to a British court that forced Leavitt to rewrite his novel (reissued in 1995). A new edition of World Within World came out in 1994.

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Felice Picano’s latest fiction is Justify My Sins: A Hollywood Novel in Three Acts (Beautiful Dreamer Press).