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Stephen Spender: A Literary Life

Stephen Spender: A Literary Life

by John Sutherland
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,


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 Featuring 36 unpublished photographs, Stephen Spender: A Literary Life throws light not only on this supremely gifted writer, but also on the literary and social history of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
… let there be no mistake, a very good book, and one rich with anecdote and historic re-creation, whether of Spender's life as a London firefighter during World War II or of the whole sorry business of Encounter and its handlers. John Sutherland is a powerhouse researcher -- he singlehandedly produced The Stanford Guide to Victorian Fiction -- and he is also a distinguished professor at University College London and a fixture on the reviewing scene in Britain. Moreover, he knew Spender slightly in his own younger days.
— The Washington Post
Daniel Swift
QWith Stephen Spender: A Literary Life, Sutherland wholeheartedly gives Spender's life back to him. Sutherland is an academic who has written scholarly studies of the Victorian publishing industry and several literary biographies; he is also a regular contributor on popular culture to The Guardian and The London Review of Books. He is a creative and oppositional scholar, and, blessedly for a literary critic, has a sense of humor. His biography of Spender is, the cover announces, authorized, and in the acknowledgments Sutherland thanks Spender's widow Natasha for the help she gave, ''often in the spirit of a co-author.'' This is the life, we are encouraged to believe, that Spender would have wished.
— The New York Times
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.
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. Agent, Victoria Hobbs. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Stephen Spender was one of a generation of Oxford-educated English writers, including W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who sought to revolutionize literature in the 1930s. In this official account of his life, written by his former colleague Sutherland (University College London), emphasis is appropriately placed on the 1930s, when Spender came to prominence writing prose, short stories, criticism, and journalism in addition to his politically charged poetry. He was as experimental in life as in art, as evidenced by his bisexuality and his loyalty to left-wing Socialist causes. In later years, he remained no less controversial, renouncing his allegiance to communism in an essay in his 1950s The God That Failed and resigning as editor of Encounter magazine in 1967 when it was discovered the journal was secretly funded by the CIA. Sutherland draws heavily on Spender's own 1951 memoir, World Within World, particularly when documenting Spender's childhood, as well as on the poet's private papers. This most thorough biography of Spender's life to date is recommended for larger public and academic collections.-Ben Bruton, Murray State Univ., KY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An excellent account of the British poet's life, particularly strong on his personality, literary friendships, and political activism. Sutherland (Modern English Literature/University College London) had the cooperation of Lady Spender, who provided access to her husband's unpublished papers. But the biographer is as frank as his subject was. Spender wrote openly in World Within World and other nonfiction works about his homosexual relationships, his brief flirtation with the Communist Party, and other youthful adventures that a different sort of elder literary statesman would have glossed over. Stephen Spender (1909-95) believed like his lifelong friends W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Isaiah Berlin that honesty was a moral and an artistic imperative. Sutherland emulates this candor as he traces Spender's trajectory from an unhappy childhood (chronically ill mother; gifted, overwrought, underachieving father) through the golden years of the 1930s, when he roamed restlessly across Europe (including disillusioning engagement in the Spanish Civil War) and achieved early fame with Poems, 1933, to his mid-20s discovery of heterosexuality and his happy second marriage to pianist Natasha Litvin in 1941. The postwar years get equally evenhanded treatment as Spender became a strong voice for anticommunist liberalism and, through his involvement in the magazine Encounter, an unwitting recipient of CIA funding through the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Spender resigned in 1967 when he learned the truth). Sutherland appreciates Spender's poetry without spending much time analyzing its particular qualities; he's content to quote from others and devote most of his pages to his subject'smanifold social and professional activities in England and America. The poet comes across as a warm and charming man, affectionate and loyal to his many friends without overlooking their faults, and deeply devoted to his family. It often inspires skepticism when a dying world figure states, "At the end of my life I feel that my wife and children have been the greatest happiness to me," but with Spender you believe it. Pays fitting tribute to a man who was as admirable as he was gifted. Agent: George Lucas/Inkwell Management, on behalf of Victoria Hobbs/AM Heath
From the Publisher
"John Sutherland has written a superlative biography. He has combined tact with a straightforwardness like Spender's own. His study also challenges the misconceptions that have surrounded Spender since the 1960s. Sutherland emphasizes that he was not like the other poets of his time with whom he is so often grouped. Spender is—and I think will remain—very much his own man and his own poet."—John Bayley, New Statesman

"Masterly.... Vibrant, humane, anecdote-packed."—John Carey, Sunday Times (London)

"His lucid and affectionate biography reminds us of the astonishing range of Spender's literary and extra-literary achievements. And it traces the Spenderian manner—the holy foolishness, relentless networking, stubborn liberalism, and saintly forbearance—back to its roots."—Blake Morrison, Guardian

"It is a model of its kind: thoughtful, knowledgeable, and thoroughly engaged, both with Spender and the landscapes through which he moved." —D. J. Taylor, The Independent

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Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and he is also Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology. He writes a regular column for the Guardian and contributes reviews to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.

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