Thank You, Auden!

With the publication of volumes V and VI, the Princeton edition of W.H. Auden’s collected prose is complete in almost 5,000 pages, covering over 45 years of a writing life. These final volumes cover the last ten years of Auden’s life, from 1963 to 1973. They are handsomely presented, and the helpful introductions and notes by the editor, Auden’s literary executor, form a kind of skeletal literary biography.

There’s a case for considering Auden to have been the last of a now-vanished breed, the man of letters. His name was familiar in every literate household, and even people with little interest in contemporary writing had heard of him. This was an outcome he planned while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, where he became known as a young man who liked to lay down the law. As his friend Stephen Spender tells us, a student who wished to meet Auden had to make an appointment. He would then find himself being interviewed, because even then Auden was putting together a like-minded group with a view to taking over the artistic scene in London—which, after graduating with a third-class degree and a mind well-primed with Freud and Marx, is exactly what this extraordinary young man did. His name quickly became an adjective, Audenesque.

Then, when he and his friend Christopher Isherwood left England for America in early 1939 on the cusp of World War II, thus earning themselves everlasting...

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