W. H. Auden was one of the major literary personages in New York in the 1940s. He was highly influential on his contemporaries, but he was also representative in some ways of the intellectual and political journey that many of his contemporaries took over the course of the latter thirties and 1940s. To oversimply quite severely, Auden in the 1930s was, like very many of his contemporaries, a committed anti-fascist and quite sympathetic to Marxism–attitudes that are reflected most famously in “Spain,”
his poem about the Spanish Civil War. The poem called all good people to commit themselves to a world historical conflict that might involve (as the poem’s most notorious line put it) “necessary murder.”
By the time the 1940s began, however, Auden had mainly left these ideas behind. (For a bit more detailed version of this story, see this older post.) When he came to New York in 1939 to begin a more or less permanent exile in the city, he turned toward an existentialist Christianity that emphasized the importance of sin, guilt, and faith and a related interest in the subversiveness and independence of art. Basically, Auden suggested that in the most valuable art, humanity wrestled with problems of faith and sin that tended to be papered over elsewhere in modern culture. This attitudes, which grew more forceful over the course of the 1940s, seemed in Auden’s view part of an important doubtfulness toward the threatening force of state power and the ideologies that supported it.
As we discussed last week, that new attitude is outlined in a comic fashion in “Under Which Lyre”–the poem in which Auden encourages his readers to subscribe to The New Yorker. (For a very nice short essay on the context in which Auden delivered this poem, see this piece by Adam Kirsch.)
But Auden’s new sensibility is worked out more seriously in the more renowned poems “In Mememory of W. B. Yeats” and
“September 1, 1939”.
Auden’s expression of these views overlapped with those of contemporaries like Mary McCarthy, who moved in circles that overlapped with the poet’s, as well as of the historian and political polemicist Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and the hugely influential theologian Reinhold Neibuhr. Probably the single best, short treatment of this history can be found in the introduction to Thomas Hill Schaub’s American Fiction in the Cold War. If you are curious about the intellectual and poltical context McCarthy, Auden, Niebuhr, and Schlesinger shared, I recommend this short essay very highly.