Edward Mendelson

Edward Mendelson teaches English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the author of Early Auden, published last year.

Diary: Three Joyces

Edward Mendelson, 27 October 1988

The fight over the new Ulysses, like all academic arguments over commas, is a fight between two ideas of human nature, two visions of judgment, two images of eternity.

Loose Canons

Edward Mendelson, 23 June 1988

Frank Kermode’s History and Value reads the literature of the Thirties as ‘a love story, almost a story of forbidden love’. The story is usually told in political terms, but the characters and actions in Kermode’s version and in the conventional version are the same: the poets and novelists who hoped to serve a proletarian revolution that would abolish their privilege and consume their class. In the received version of the ‘Thirties myth’, the middle-class writers who took up left-wing views succeeded only in deceiving themselves and betraying their gifts. In Kermode’s counter-myth, these writers braved a dangerous passage across a social and psychological frontier in the hope of offering their work and their lives to a class that, to them, was a strange and wondrous Other, the image and agent of apocalyptic power. Their border-passages were transgressions. They violated social and artistic tabus. Transgression always evokes pious horror among those who, in Auden’s words, ‘would rather be ruined than changed’. But these transgressions were acts of conscience, imagination and love.

An American Romance

Edward Mendelson, 18 February 1982

Old Glory – the book written by Jonathan Raban – is an altogether different book from the Old Glory that was praised in the reviews, but it is no less wonderful for that. The book the reviewers wrote about does not exist at all, except as the ghost of an intention. This phantasmal Old Glory is the book which Raban originally planned to write, and which he expected would be little more than an elegant travel diary: the record of a passive drifting journey down the Mississippi in the track of Huckleberry Finn. As he reports in the first chapter of the published version, he dreamed, long before he set out, that

Post-Modern Vanguard

Edward Mendelson, 3 September 1981

Christopher Butler’s survey of post-war literature, music and painting maintains a judicious critical distance from its subject. Readers who wish a more direct report from the front lines of the avant-garde should consult a new anthology, Collective Consciousness: Art Performances in the Seventies, edited by Jean Dupuy. This documents the work of almost two hundred avant-gardists from Europe and America who displayed their most advanced work at a gallery in New York and wrote explanatory statements for inclusion in the book. Despite the large number of participants, the level of inspiration and accomplishment is remarkably uniform. One artist, no better and no worse than the rest, supplied a colour film of a naked man scrabbling about in a forest. Another showed a videotape of himself bowing solemnly to the camera. A third tacked up a scrap of paper that read, ‘Look in the mirror as I fuck you up the ass, the pain on your face is my freedom, your tears are the drops of my manhood,’ and waited for angry women to tear it down. The established justification for this sort of thing is the thought it supposedly provokes in the audience. But the most thought-provoking sentence in the book was not written by any of the participating artists. It is the matter-of-fact statement printed in large type on the copyright page: ‘Publication of this book was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, a federal agency.’


Bunting and Biography

9 January 2014

Michael Hofmann seems to doubt that Basil Bunting was industrious enough to submit an article on Spanish politics to the Spectator while stuck on Tenerife. Bunting’s lucid and energetic piece appeared in the number dated 24 July 1936. He had two further pieces in the Spectator on 18 and 25 September 1936, both of them book reviews about exploration and travel.

That’s what Wystan says

Seamus Perry, 10 May 2018

What​ became of his face? In his memorial address Stephen Spender, who had known Auden since they were undergraduates, contrasted the young man, Nordic and brilliant, with a ‘second image...

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Mark Greif’s​ book is a bracingly ambitious attempt at a ‘philosophical history’ of the American mid-century, a chronological account of writers and their ideas. It begins in...

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Uncle Wiz: Auden

Stefan Collini, 16 July 2015

Auden​ loved aphorisms, extracts, notes, lists. It was not just the shortness of short forms that he approved of: he liked their refusal of system even more, their acknowledgment that...

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In a poem from the early 1960s, ‘On the Circuit’, W.H. Auden describes himself as ‘a sulky fifty-six’, who finds ‘A change of meal-time utter hell’, and has...

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With Slip and Slapdash: Auden’s Prose

Frank Kermode, 7 February 2008

Auden more than once explained that his business was poetry and that he wrote prose to earn his keep while pursuing that ill-paid vocation. Luckily he had another powerful reason for writing...

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What Kind of Guy? W.H. Auden

Michael Wood, 10 June 1999

‘That is the way things happen,’ Auden writes in ‘Memorial for the City’, a poem Edward Mendelson dates from June 1949, ...

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Ian Sansom, 17 July 1997

W.H. Auden’s first published book review appeared in the Criterion in April 1930, and his first sentence cuts a dash: ‘Duality is one of the oldest of our concepts; it appears and...

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Dog Days

Stan Smith, 11 January 1990

The Helensburgh and Gareloch Times for 1 July 1931 reports that, at the Larchfield School Speech Day, ‘the boys entertained the company with two little plays, and their clever acting and...

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Auden Askew

Barbara Everett, 19 November 1981

There is an academic myth (vaguely Victorian in feeling but probably, like most Victorian principles, dating back a half-century earlier) that scholars study facts whereas critics make it all up...

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