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biography was not authorized it did receive the co-operation of the Auden Estate which gave permission for letters and unpublished works to be quoted.
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October 19, 2011
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