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Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines
New York 1999

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Auden is exhaustive without being exhausting. Beautifully written, the reader effortlessly learns about the poet’s life and work: his peccadilloes and profundities; his lusts and losses; his travels and thoughts; his wit and wisdom. Davenport-Hines smoothly integrates into his narrative and chronology Auden’s letters to friends and lovers, reminiscences by people who knew or met Auden from the famous to the obscure, psychological analysis, and literary criticism. He has read widely and deeply in Auden and in the literature about Auden. Many would have been swamped by the quantity of the material, but Davenport-Hines assimilates and selectively applies it in creating a coherent and convincing tale. In places, in fact, the book reads like a novel in its nuanced description of personalities and their clashes. Thus the account of Auden’s initial meeting with the love of his life, Chester Kallman, in Brooklyn at a mutual friend’s house, has the earmarks of a Jane Austin or Henry James story. Auden is novelistic, too, in its ability to describe a scene as in the evocation of the athletic sexuality of Fire Island in its early days as a queer (a word Auden liked to use) Mecca.

I am not an Auden authority, but from the extent to which Davenport-Hines deconstructs critical and personal attacks on Auden, the poet elicited contempt from many in the English intellectual establishment. They viewed him and his work through the prisms of his expatriation to the United States and the flaunting of his homosexuality. Davenport-Hines aims to counter these views; to create an Auden who will go down in posterity as a great poet and a good man. In this he succeeds and displays in the process a genuine and touching respect for his subject and his achievements. (Another reason perhaps why he produced such a superb study.)

Nietzsche said that there are no facts, only interpretations, and Davenport-Hines invariably emphasizes the positive. Auden’s slovenliness and disgusting habits (most repugnant of all, he picked and ate his snot in front of others) somehow emerge as charming eccentricities. His obsessive scheduling explains his literary productivity rather than indicating a rigid personality. Promiscuously sleeping with young men on two continents (sometimes paid, sometimes not) and the occasional woman does not describe a person trading on fame but is recounted as a neutral observation.

It is a mark of Davenport-Hines’ success in creating his humane Auden, however, that I am prepared to accept his interpretations of Auden’s behavior. I am thoroughly convinced, that is, by the portrait he paints. This is the case in part because I appreciated the careful and thorough scholarship of Auden. Indeed, just as I came to respect and like Auden from this biography, I developed a fondness for its author because of the generous and goodhearted spirit that shined through his words. Another reason I am disposed to Davenport-Hines’ Auden is because we desperately need heroes not created by TV talk shows or PR firms but by authentic achievement and prolonged and unstinting encounter with self and society.

Like Lawrence, another prophetic figure who abandoned England, Auden feared the looming threats to individual freedom inherent in the modern world. He was a fierce individualist, an earlier commitment to socialism and a later gravitation toward Christianity notwithstanding. He never ceased pitting his brilliance and emotional intensity against a world increasingly framed by mediocrity and machines. In this constant struggle Davenport-Hines finds a nobility of character (and I agree). A remark by Pavese included by Auden in the 1962 collection of aphorisms he edited with Louis Kronenberger reflected Auden’s view. “Every luxury must be paid for, and everything is a luxury, starting with being in the world.”

Auden was determined to seize as much happiness as possible while also acknowledging sorrow as an inescapable aspect of the human condition. He had more than his portion of both and, as Davenport-Hines demonstrates, made memorable poems from each. Auden is an entertaining and heartening biography which, like Auden’s work itself, demonstrates that serious ideas can be presented with a delicate and accessible touch.

Reviewed by Jerry Bass


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