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English Literature/University College London) had the cooperation of Lady Spender, who provided access to her husband’s unpublished papers.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’s manifold 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.