Because World Within World details Stephen Spender’s life only to his thirtieth year, readers hoped for a second autobiographical volume from him, but he never wrote that volume. Possibly Journals, 1939-1983, along with Letters to Christopher, with its addenda of journal entries, were Spender’s way of adding more autobiographical information to the published material about his life.
A major portion of the journals is concerned with the period from the end of World War II (1945) to the early 1950’s, when the author was moving toward the life of editor and international lecturer that would fill much of his time in the decades ahead. Reprinted in this volume is his diary recounting the dissolution of his marriage and the beginning of World War II. This diary was consciously written for publication, as a considerable number of entries in the journal seem to have been.
Perhaps Spender, badly stung by criticism of his poetry and other writing, appreciated the journal form because it gave him freedom to express himself with little regard to maintaining the sustained form required of poetry or the novel. The Spender that emerges from this collection of journal entries is more a man capitalizing on past recognition than one who is still involved in creating new poems or exploring fresh modes of expression. As in his autobiography, Spender is dependably candid, although he is guarded in talking about his homosexual associates, identifying them quite often with single upper-case letters rather than with whole names.
Spender’s portrayals of Christopher Isherwood, Cyril Connolly (his coeditor of Horizon), Conrad Aiken, Louis MacNeice, and other literary figures are valuable and honest. His commemoration of Allen Tate is moving. The towering literary presence in the collection, however, is unquestionably W. H. Auden, with whom, as with Isherwood, Spender had a love-hate relationship.
More in the journals than in any of Spender’s other writing, readers can peer beneath the surface character that is Stephen Spender. Spender wrote in World Within World that in producing autobiography one writes of two people, the person one knows oneself to be and that person as he or she is perceived by society.
The journal form creates a dynamic not often found in autobiographical writing. The real person emerges subtly, almost unbeknownst to the author, between the lines that essentially—especially in journals that were written with an eye toward publication, as these were—depict the subject, often unguardedly, in relation to his or her setting.
In his depiction of Auden especially, Spender reveals much about himself. Auden was often an intrusive element in the Spender household, arriving without warning and demanding full attention regardless of what else was going on. Spender might have controlled that situation had he been more assertive. He assumed instead the role of victim, although he seems to have convinced himself that he did not enjoy being one.
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