Stephen Spender: A Life in Modernism

David Adams Leeming, Author
David Adams Leeming, Author Henry Holt & Company $27.5 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8050-4249-8
Reviewed on: 11/01/1999
Release date: 11/01/1999
Paperback - 978-0-8050-6508-4
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Spender (1909-1995) was the longest-lived and certainly the most ""clubbable"" (to use a quaint English phrase) of the modernist English poets who made their names in the early 1930s by rebelling against the genteel Georgian school. His contemporaries included W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice and C. Day Lewis. Spender was a considerable poet, though he lacked the range and brilliance of Auden; and, as this study makes clear, he was a consummate literary politician. Spender loved the company of those he called, in a famous line, the ""truly great,"" and assiduously cultivated them throughout a long life. This made him a remarkable literary editor (at Encounter, which, unfortunately, turned out to be sponsored by the CIA); all he had to do for a star-studded table of contents was call his friends for contributions. He was also an industrious lecturer, an indifferent novelist and the author of one of the better intellectual memoirs, World Within World. This book caused a stir in the closing years of the poet's life when he sued David Leavitt for fictionalizing material from it about one of his many homosexual encounters. Bringing suit seemed an odd thing for this endlessly agreeable and accommodating man to have done--though some (like Auden) suggested that the apparently dreamy, friendly Spender had a much tougher, more ruthless side than he cared to show. This is a perfectly adequate traversal of a life of some significance, but depending as it does entirely on letters and journals, with no interviews or secondary sources, it is rather colorless, its few anecdotes dutiful rather than sparkling. (Sept.)
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