New catalogue: Stephen Spender archive

The catalogue of the Stephen Spender archive is now online.

Stephen Spender at the B.B.C., n.d.

Stephen Spender at the B.B.C., n.d.

Sir Stephen Spender (1909-1995), poet, playwright, author and critic, was the longest surviving member of the ‘Auden Group’ (Oxford poets Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden and Cecil Day-Lewis and the Cambridge-educated novelist Christopher Isherwood).

Although he studied at Oxford, at University College, Spender ultimately failed to take a degree and moved, with Isherwood, to the more sexually liberated Weimar Germany, starting a three year relationship with a former soldier called Tony Hyndman (1911-1980). Isherwood’s experience in Germany was worked into his novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which was famously made into the film Cabaret (1972), starring Liza Minnelli. Spender meanwhile, wrote The Temple (finally published in 1988) which was unpublishable at the time due to its homosexual content.

Moving back to England, Spender flirted with joining the Communist Party, and was briefly involved in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side as a writer and delegate. In December 1936, he married Inez Maria Pearn (1914–1977), a modern languages postgraduate at Oxford. By 1941, they were divorced and Spender married Natasha Litvin (1919-2010), a concert pianist, with whom he had two children.

Disqualified, by health and age, from military service in World War II, he became a London fireman with the Auxiliary Fire Service while also co-editing the literary magazine Horizon with Cyril Connolly (1903-1974). After the war, Spender earned a living in colleges across America as a lecturer and university professor. From 1965 to 1966 he served as the poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (effectively the U.S. Poet Laureate) and alongside his teaching, he worked as co-editor of the monthly magazine Encounter from its inception in 1953 to its funding scandal in 1966-7, when it was revealed that the magazine had been subsidized by the C.I.A., at which point Spender resigned. He also continued to publish poetry, drama, novels, short stories, essays, literary criticism and journalism right up to his death in 1995, and was well known for his autobiographical works, including World Within World (1951).

Beyond his writing and teaching, Spender campaigned against censorship and the persecution of writers, founding the Writers and Scholars Educational Trust, which became Index on Censorship. He was knighted in 1983.

A longtime member of the literary establishment in the UK and the USA, Spender’s archive includes a rich correspondence with hundreds of notable people, from J.R. Ackerley to Virginia Woolf, and not least with his wife Natasha Spender. It includes long sequences  of correspondence with W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot (mainly photocopies of originals held by U.S. archives), and also sequences of original correspondence with Cecil Day-Lewis, Christopher Isherwood and his partner, the artist Don Bachardy, as well as Spender’s good friends Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Brodsky and John and Rosamond Lehmann. His correspondence also recounts the implosion of his editorship of Encounter. Another feature are numerous notebooks and loose draft material for Spender’s poetry and other literary works.

See also the Dictionary of National Biography entry for Spender; Stephen Spender, the Authorized Biography by John Sutherland (2005); and the National Register of Archives for a list of institutions across the U.K. and the U.S. holding Spender archival material.

Leave a Reply