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W. H. Auden disapproved of literary biography. Or did he? The truth is far more equivocal than at first seems apparent. There is no denying he delivered himself of such unambiguous pronouncements as ‘Biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste.’; and that he asked for his friends to burn his letters at his death, but, against that, Auden himself often reviewed literary biographies and normally with enthusiasm. Moreover he argued for biographies of writers such as Dryden, Trollope, Wagner and Gerard Manley Hopkins as their lives would tell us something about their art.
Humphrey Carpenter himself nicely summarizes Auden’s ambiguity on this question. ‘Here (referring to literary biography), as so often in his life, Auden adopted a dogmatic attitude which did not reflect the full range of his opinions, and which he sometimes flatly contradicted.’
Although the biography was not authorized it did receive the co-operation of the Auden Estate which gave permission for letters and unpublished works to be quoted. The result is a biography that was widely praised on first publication in 1981 and which continues to hold its own. Now is the obvious time to reissue it with the character of Humphrey Carpenter playing an important role in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. In his introduction Alan Bennett writes ‘When I started writing the play I made much use of the biographies of both Auden and Britten written by Humphrey Carpenter and both are models of their kind. Indeed I was consulting his books so much that eventually Carpenter found his way into the play.’
‘Carpenter is a model biographer – diligent, unspeculative, sympathetic, and extremely good at finding out what happened when and with whom . . . admirably detailed and researched study.’ John Bayley, The Listener
‘an illuminating book; full of information, unobtrusively affectionate, it describes with unpretentious elegance the curve of a great poet’s life and work’ Frank Kermode, Guardian
‘sharpens and usually lights up even the most canvassed parts of the Auden life and myth . . . a deeply interesting book about a deeply interesting life’ Roy Fuller, Sunday Times
‘ . . . the story of a remarkable man told by one of the best living biographers’ David Cecil, Book Choice
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