When Stephen Spender’s son Matthew was ten years old, he caught his hand in a car door. ‘The event,’ John Sutherland writes, ‘recalled other tragedies in the boy’s little life; the running over, for example, of his dog Bobby – a "rather lugubrious looking spaniel” and a present from his godmother, Edith Sitwell. Six-year-old Matthew had been disappointed by the hound’s demise not being reported in the obituary columns of next day’s Times.’
This cute narrative bagatelle turns out to epitomise something both about Spender and about the problems of writing his biography. To begin with, the past tense of ‘recalled’ indicates that it is not Sutherland who is reminded of the earlier incident. The passage, a rather spare endnote informs us, draws on an entry in Spender’s journals: the one accident ‘recalled’ the other to Spender, who took a certain pride in his elder child’s grave precocity. So Sutherland’s version is written in what one might call the biographer’s equivalent of free indirect style; only the description of the dog is given as a quotation (I’m not quite sure why; I suppose there may be spaniels who don’t look lugubrious). However, when I pursued the incident to its source in the published version of Spender’s journals, I found none of the detail of the earlier accident, merely a mention that the car-door incident ‘brought to mind so many past episodes – his dog being run over, his canary being eaten by the cat in front of his eyes’. One has to infer from Sutherland’s general practice that the detail of the earlier accident comes from material in the Spender archive, ‘currently administered by the author’s estate’, perhaps from an unpublished section of the journals, perhaps from correspondence, perhaps from some other reminiscence. But this in turn starts to make one wonder how much the ‘source’ was a writerly composition intended for the public eye in the first place. Was it Spender who added the identification of his son’s famous godparent as donor of the dog, and if so, to whom was the account addressed, implicitly or explicitly?
This passage seems to me (though not, I can only assume, to Sutherland) emblematic of two central characteristics of Spender which are bound to affect the writing of his life. The first, unwittingly reproduced in miniature in this episode, is Spender’s own unspoken certainty that happenings which bulked large in his emotional life were of public interest. The paternal egotism lurking behind such stories of infant precocity here takes a cultural form that was central to Spender’s own habitual confidence or self-importance. And the second is that, as a writer, Spender was, as he sometimes acknowledged, a constant autobiographer. In World within World, his first formal autobiography, published when he was only 42, he contrasted himself with those of his poetical peers whom he saw as responding to the world or to imperatives of their craft: ‘As for me, I was an autobiographer restlessly searching for forms in which to express the stages of my development.’ This passage, like much of Spender, is more egotistical than it knows: that each successive stage of his ‘development’ should interest him is hardly surprising, but there is always this same assurance that the world, too, needed to be kept up to date.
These two characteristics taken together put the biographer in a tricky position. The life has already, in one sense, been written (and rewritten); much of the surviving material has been fashioned for just this purpose. How much should the biographer be challenging this account, pointing to discrepancies with other items in the historical record? And how far is he to take over his subject’s own conviction about his claim on the attentions of the world? At the very least, such a subject may seem to call for a rather sceptical eye, treating the behaviour and the assumptions it expressed as material for analysis, even as symptoms, perhaps requiring a certain amount of historical distancing or sociological ‘placing’, perhaps even a dash of mildly deconstructive literary criticism (Spender, like most autobiographers, tended to betray at least as much as he declared).
Writing as an ‘authorised’ biographer makes the position trickier still. The label inevitably calls up suggestions of a Faustian pact. After all, biographers nose after ‘papers’ with a zeal that makes sniffer-dogs seem like wasters. Whoever controls the literary estate, often a surviving spouse, can offer to gratify this lust in a way nobody else can, and in return for this largesse demands – nothing at all, no restrictions, no unduly favourable account, no finger on the scale. For the eager biographer, such luck must seem almost too good to be true. And there is the added advantage that there is an authoritative source to hand against whose memory the details of far-off events and confused motives can be checked and errors of fact and interpretation corrected.
Sutherland has been fortunate in this way, as he handsomely acknowledges. Natasha Spender, the poet’s second wife, gave him ‘unfettered access to her husband’s literary and personal papers’; she also ‘contributed, often in the spirit of a co-author, to the writing of the work’, as well as pointing out ‘errors of fact, scholarship, interpretation or emphasis which I have gladly corrected’. In addition, several godparents have stood at the font to oversee this biography’s entrance to the world. Apart from help from Spender’s family and friends, we are told that the typescript was read by Frank Kermode, Stuart Hampshire, Richard Wollheim and Karl Miller, a formidable jury who, at the very least, seem likely to have ensured that a satisfactory account of the Encounter imbroglio would be given.
Faced with such difficulties and such good fortune, Sutherland has coped very dexterously. His narrative voice is excellent company; he is relaxed and accessible in his explanations, crisp and no-nonsense in his judgments, and he has a good eye for an enlivening anecdote. He writes with sympathy for his subject: his aim, as he fairly declares, has been ‘to convey the admiration I have come to feel for him, the more I have learned about his remarkable life and his distinguished body of literary work’. Spender has apparently been traduced, or at least unsympathetically treated, in previous, unauthorised biographies, and this full but still pacey account sets out to right the balance. If you are already disposed to find Spender interesting and enjoy the contemporary genre of detailed literary biography (the sort in which you can expect to find the name of the writer’s son’s dead dog), this book can be enthusiastically recommended.
Yet the Case of the Squashed Dog makes me a bit uneasy. Whose voice are we hearing in such passages? The hint of a light ironic coating to the account of the six-year-old’s reaction to ‘the hound’s demise’ may be an expression of paternal fondness, or it may come from the biographer, collusive but also smiling, perhaps more alive than I am allowing to a family style of presuming a claim on public attention. I have deliberately chosen a trivial example with which to illustrate a recurring characteristic of this biography, but the relation of Sutherland’s narrative to its sources and a consequent uncertainty about who is speaking can, as we shall see, complicate our response when weightier matters are at issue.
Although the book is not overtly argumentative, Sutherland is clearly exercised by what he regards as a puzzle: why in his lifetime did Spender, here presented as a transparently likable and gifted man, come in for so much hostile criticism? ‘Few poets of the 20th century have been more attacked: less for his poetry than for what it is supposed "Stephen Spender” stands for as a poet.’ Sutherland, following Spender, singles out ‘Leavisites’ as the chief culprits. Leavis himself could certainly be a world-class sniper and caviller, but when, having read this biography, I returned to some of his celebrated pronunciamentos about Spender, it was impossible not to recognise, amid a good deal of exaggeration and unfairness, the aptness of some of his main criticisms. ‘Keynes, Spender and Currency-Values’, an essay published in Scrutiny in 1951, provides a good example. Having launched on an interesting riff on the theme ‘the autobiographical bent is not a sign of creative power, but the reverse,’ and having detected a want of ‘literary intelligence’ in certain passages of Spender’s work – ‘the flatness of the writing’, the tendency towards ‘cliché and ineptitude’ – Leavis asked the pertinent question: ‘How, then, comes the question, did Mr Spender, with such disadvantages, achieve such confidence in himself as a poet, a critic and an intellectual? Or how (to put it another way) did he achieve recognition as such, so that for years now he has been an established value, and a major British Council export?’
Leavis found a text for his sermon readily to hand in the recently published World within World. There, Spender confesses (he rather cultivated confession as a mode) that from early in his life he wanted fame and saw poetry as a more promising route than politics, in contrast to his political journalist father: ‘But although I wanted a truer fame, I cannot deny that I have never been free from a thirst for publicity very like that of my father. Even today it disgusts me to read a newspaper in which there is no mention of my name.’ ‘Frankness’ was supposed to be Spender’s long suit, and one might read an element of endearing hyperbole or self-parody into this last sentence, but someone setting out to provide his critics with an easy target could hardly have bettered it, and Leavis, much derided then as now for the ‘puritanism’ of his judgments, was surely right that the praise lavished on the very young poet had not exactly helped to curb the self-advertising, self-indulgent strain in his writing.
Certainly, success came early and came hot. His contributions to Oxford Poetry (in 1929, when he was 20) were singled out for praise by metropolitan reviewers. During his second year at Oxford, Sutherland writes, ‘Stephen began to form contacts in the London literary world. Commissions and contracts would follow.’ His success had the fatal consequence that he was treated as a person whose views were of general significance: he published his first piece of criticism in the Spectator in August 1929 on, portentously, ‘Problems of the Poet and the Public’. Then T.S. Eliot printed four of the 21-year-old Spender’s poems in the Criterion, bestowing the imprimatur that really counted at the time. Predictably, hosannas of praise greeted his slim volume Poems 1933, published, of course, by Faber – ‘an unmistakable declaration of genius’, ‘another Shelley speaks in these lines,’ and so on.
Spender was not bashful about building on his success. As Harold Nicolson, who also helped his career, observed: ‘He is absolutely determined to become a leading writer.’ Being a ‘leading writer’, not merely a writer, mattered enormously to the young Spender, and this role required more than just writing. The success of his 1933 collection meant, as he recorded, that he soon began ‘to lead a literary-social life of luncheons, teas, and weekends at country houses’. ‘He had already,’ Sutherland tells us, ‘begun the routine of fast reviewing (five pieces for the Criterion alone in autumn and winter 1932).’ ‘Even at this embryonic stage of his career,’ Sutherland continues, ‘he provoked intense envy and malice in fellow writers to whom his own feelings were entirely benign.’ The sense that Sutherland is being a bit too collusive with Spender’s calculated innocence is inescapable at moments like this: are any intensely ambitious young writer’s feelings about his or her peers entirely benign? Spender played his part in keeping the balloon in the air. In 1936 his first wedding provided an occasion to stage his persona as man of letters about town: ‘During the reception a courier arrived with a set of proofs which the groom absented himself for a few minutes to correct for immediate return.’
‘Meanwhile, Europe was moving inexorably towards cataclysm,’ as Sutherland puts it in an uncharacteristically clunky narrative transition. The outbreak of the Second World War coincided with the end of Spender’s twenties: during the previous decade, his enthusiasms and the world’s fate had seemed to move to the same rhythm in a way that would never be quite sustained thereafter. Opening his account of the next decade, Sutherland hits the authentic Spenderian note: ‘Most importantly for Stephen Spender, the 1940s were the end of the 1930s.’ He had a rather anti-climactic war, serving in the Fire Service in North London until 1944 when he was recruited to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office (which had the great advantage that he could once again ‘lunch in town’). Like many of those who were at the time called, not always flatteringly, ‘intellectuals’, Spender had an undentable assurance about presenting his own current preoccupation as the inevitable next step in world history. In 1951 he held forth in his habitually large and confident terms (in a passage not quoted by Sutherland) on the theme of ‘the English intellectuals and the world of today’: ‘What has happened is that the 1940s were an almost total failure,’ the years from 1938 to 1950 were ‘simply a gap in my development’, and so on.
Perhaps inevitably, the second half of this biography becomes a bit of a travelogue as Spender flies hither and yon as a British Council lecturer and general cultural envoy. He obviously enjoyed being made much of and he liked a good junket. A trip to Japan with Angus Wilson was particularly rewarding. At one striptease club, as Wilson recorded, ‘when word went round that we were Spender and Wilson – every single person in the place asked for our autograph’ (including some who wanted them written on paper, presumably). Mainly, Spender went to America where from 1947 onwards he held a series of visiting appointments at a wide range of universities and colleges, not always of the very first rank. He was completely frank about the chief incentive: ‘America means money.’ But it also meant more time to himself to write than he had when at home, and it was on these trips that he formed some close friendships with men much younger than himself, which he clearly needed. Spender liked America and America liked him. In 1965 he was made poetry consultant at the Library of Congress (a kind of annual poet laureate), the only foreign citizen to have held the post.
Ironically, this honour came when he was publishing hardly any new poetry. In 1971 he finally brought out a new volume, his first for 22 years: many of the periodicals ignored it. (Sutherland cites a somewhat severe review in the TLS, still in those days anonymous, as being by Anthony Thwaite; interestingly, this is one of the very few items whose authorship is not identified in the recently compiled online index of TLS contributors, presumably because its author did not give permission.) The truth, though a painful one for Spender, was that once the 1930s were over he cut a larger figure as an ‘ambassador for literature in general’ than as a practising poet. Between a brief spell at Unesco in the mid-1940s and helping to found Index on Censorship in the 1970s, Spender lent his increasingly prestigious name to various cultural good causes. He also spent five years as a professor in the English department at University College London, where the young Sutherland was briefly his colleague. This episode is fondly described in terms that may be a little more redolent of Lucky Jim than the deeply metropolitan Spender would have cared to acknowledge. Or that the commissars of the contemporary assessment culture would wish to condone: paperwork was, shall we say, not his forte, but he did what mattered well enough. More teaching in America followed, more honours (the Queen’s Medal for Poetry in 1971, a knighthood in 1983), and more autobiographical books, including his Journals and a revised and reordered version of his Collected Poems 1928-85.He died in 1995, aged 86.
So much is known about Spender not just because he told us so much but also because he knew everyone who was anyone, and many people recorded their impressions of him. Indeed, I can’t help thinking that after any meeting among the interwar literati there must always have been a bit of a stampede as everyone rushed home to describe the occasion for posterity. Following one such meeting Virginia Woolf duly noted her impression of the tall young man: ‘A loose-jointed mind, misty, clouded, suffusive.’ This doesn’t seem too wide of the mark, especially if one thinks that a certain loose-jointedness may be a merit in a poet’s mind. Auden called him ‘a parody Parsifal’, and Louis MacNeice drily spoke of his ‘redeeming the world by introspection’. In almost all these accounts, his good looks feature prominently (‘the Rupert Brooke of the Depression’), as do his celebrated innocence and others’ doubts about its authenticity. Reviewing World within World, Cyril Connolly discerned a distinction between Spender I (‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot’) and Spender II (‘shrewd, ambitious, aggressive and ruthless’). Several observers played with some variation on Spender as one of Dostoevsky’s Holy Fools, but he certainly wasn’t foolishly holy or wholly foolish. As Sutherland emphasises, he did a great deal of service for good causes and was kind to many individuals, though even in this favourable portrait an unpushy egotism comes through, a blithe assumption of entitlement. He was possessed of a curious capacity to be at once unthinking and bien-pensant – but perhaps that’s not really so unusual. We are not here told who coined the wonderful nickname ‘Stainless Splendour’, but evidently one of the endearing things about Spender was that he could turn such wit on himself, as when, in his address at Connolly’s memorial, he imagined his late friend introducing him: ‘And now, Bishop Spender will say a few words.’
Sutherland’s biography is very good at conveying Spender’s own sense of himself, but a more analytical register would be needed to attempt to explain, in terms other than those of simple envy and malice, the hostility he frequently provoked. The convenience for Spender himself of his fabled ‘innocence’ was obviously in play in some cases, and a certain class condescension that he could give off may have helped provoke some of the reactions to him. For example, responding to Hugh David’s unauthorised 1992 biography, which criticised him for being, among other things, a snob, Spender wrote: ‘The (so-called) biography is amazingly spiteful and vicious, and vulgar, written in the tone of voice of a skivvy . . . there really is an underclass of people who envy and hate us all.’ Sometimes it may have been the taken-for-grantedness of some of his grander connections, something that comes out here in passing details, such as the time Spender and his son drove up to Edinburgh, ‘staying overnight with the Devonshires at Chatsworth’, or the period in 1968 when he was in Paris to write a book on the students’ revolt: ‘And every evening, after spending the day with the young rebels, Spender would return to the apartment of his friends the Rothschilds, whose guest he was.’ When Spender was offered a knighthood in 1983 by a right-wing government still puffed up by its success in the Falklands, he hesitated, but again Sutherland’s chosen voice makes it hard to know whether it is he or Spender who appears to be endorsing the reason given for finally accepting: ‘It was a club his friends thought he ought to belong to – as they (Isaiah, Stuart, "K” [Kenneth Clark], Noel, Freddy) did.’
Part of the difficulty of saying anything even halfway critical of Spender is similar to the difficulty of raising even the mildest reservations about the genre of contemporary literary biography: one risks being cast as some latter-day Leavisite puritan, sourly begrudging worldly success in the first case and offended by unstrenuous readerly pleasures in the second. But there surely can be something troubling about this genre’s apparent imperative that the reader not be reminded of the patchiness and unreliability of much of the evidence that underwrites the smooth narrative flow, especially in a case like this where the subject himself has already rewritten many of the sources. That is why the difficulty of establishing whose voice we are hearing in some passages is important. More detailed references would certainly help, but Sutherland was presumably constrained by the prejudice against this that is so widespread among trade publishers, though it is hard to see why they think having endnotes that would enable any quotation or piece of information to be tracked to its source will deter the ‘general reader’.
Spender’s sexuality can, it is assumed, be guaranteed to interest ‘scholarly’ as well as ‘general’ readers, plus those who swing both ways. Sutherland’s no-nonsense briskness is salutary here, though again there is occasionally an unsettling sense that more probing questions are not being asked. Spender’s sexual life in his early twenties was relatively straightforward: he had Auden and Isherwood to keep him up to the mark, and there were the last moments of Weimar freedom to be enjoyed in Germany. As Isherwood pithily put it: ‘Berlin meant boys.’ In a much later interview, Spender could recall the time with a serene condescension that bordered on self-parody: ‘Sex with the working class of course had political connotations. It was a way in which people with left-wing sympathies could feel they were really getting in contact with the working class.’ Sutherland immediately adds: ‘The conjunction is immortalised in the first line of one of Stephen’s 1931 poems, "Oh young men, Oh young comrades".’ When one turns to the poem itself, however, it doesn’t seem obvious that it’s about working-class young men. The comrades in question are urged not ‘to stay in those houses/your fathers built’ but to get out more: ‘It is too late to stay in great houses where the ghosts are prisoned/– those ladies like flies perfect in amber/those financiers like fossils of bones in coal.’ As in a lot of the early poems, there is a strong vitalist strain that celebrates release, togetherness, bodies and sunshine, but it’s not clear that this added up to much of a political programme, even of the ‘bugger a boy for Socialism’ variety.
Perhaps Sutherland is to be congratulated on bucking the fashionable trend by not telling us anything much about Spender’s sex life after his marriage to Natasha in 1941, from which date, we are left to assume, his sexual tastes were heterosexual and monogamous, notwithstanding a few crushes, doubtless platonic, on young men whom he met on his frequent solitary travels. This is a bit disappointing, really, since one might have assumed that this biography was going to confirm Spender as someone who had managed, in a grown-up and relatively open way, to combine a happy marriage with a good deal of self-expression outside it.
One episode in the last fifty years of Spender’s life (years which are otherwise despatched rather more briskly than his childhood and youth) is given such disproportionately detailed treatment in this biography that one senses a stronger than usual urge to set the record straight. It centres on the much debated question of whether Spender can really have been, as he always claimed, unaware that Encounter was indirectly funded by the CIA and by British intelligence. Spender had become co-editor of the magazine in 1953; despite constant rumours that the foundations which subsidised it, largely via the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), were actually front organisations for American and British intelligence agencies as part of the ‘cultural war’ against Communism, he remained in post until 1967 when the cover was finally and comprehensively blown, at which point he, eventually, resigned. This is an episode on which a good deal of new information has become generally available in recent years. Frank Kermode, who was in effect Spender’s locum for the last two years (during which Spender was mostly away in the United States), gave a characteristically rueful account of their shared deception in his memoir, Not Entitled, in 1996. Since then, Frances Stonor Saunders has published her controversial study, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999), based on extensive research in official and unofficial archives on both sides of the Atlantic, while the role of MI6 has been touched on in Stephen Dorril’s MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations (2000).
Sutherland cites these sources while also drawing on other correspondence and reminiscences to tell the story more from Spender’s own point of view. Estimations of Spender’s conduct in this affair will, it is a pretty safe bet, continue to differ, and there may, anyway, be further revelations still to come (Melvin Lasky, Spender’s American co-editor, who did know about the source of the funds, died in May of this year without having given his version of events). But, in the light of this biography, it may be worth standing back and asking what really is at issue in this matter.
Interviewed by Stonor Saunders shortly before his death, Spender offered a comparison (not quoted by Sutherland) that may, or may not, have been more revealing than he intended. He acknowledged that people had been telling him about the alleged CIA funding for years: ‘But it was as with the people who come and tell you that your wife is unfaithful to you. Then you ask her yourself, and if she denies it, you are satisfied with it.’ Well, maybe, but what is actually taking place at such a moment? There may, after all, be various explanations as to why the husband is ‘satisfied’ with his wife’s denial. Perhaps it is because he takes the very fact of that denial as a reassurance about her overriding commitment to their marriage whatever the facts of infidelity may be. Or he may be so in love with his wife that he simply can’t see the evidence clearly, or so appalled at the possibility that he is wilfully blind, and so on. But if Spender’s proposed parallel applies in any of these ways, it suggests a remarkably deep commitment to the magazine, a strikingly strong desire that their joint life should continue uninterrupted. And perhaps it suggests that we are not talking about ‘knowing’ or ‘not knowing’ the facts in any straightforward cognitive sense.
After all, with Encounter, the rumours of adultery began almost before the marriage, and they then increased throughout the next 14 years. Spender had already lent his name to the anti-Soviet cause in the previous few years, for example by contributing to the 1950 volume The God that Failed, a series of personal testaments by writers who had once been drawn to Communism. It is now clear that American and British intelligence agencies were involved in the conception of this project, but characteristically Spender, as Sutherland records, ‘was unaware of the political machinations behind the book’. This was to be the pattern. In 1951-52 (in an episode not discussed by Sutherland) Spender was closely involved in manoeuvres within the British branch of the CCF to oust Michael Goodwin, the editor of Twentieth Century, a periodical that had already been covertly subsidised by the Americans to provide an alternative platform in Britain to the ‘pro-Soviet’ New Statesman. Stonor Saunders, whose book tells the story of CCF funding in detail, concludes of this episode: ‘For somebody who was consistently characterised as a watery, silly soul, Spender displayed a gritty determination to get what he wanted out of this situation.’
Eventually, the CCF managed to set up a new journal to serve its purposes, and Spender and Irving Kristol became Encounter’s founding co-editors. ‘From first to last,’ Sutherland writes, ‘Spender knew nothing of the CCF’s covert political connections with the CIA.’ Quite what ‘knew’ means is certainly one question here; quite when ‘last’ was may be another. Within a few months of its launch, Spender was complaining to Michael Josselson, the CCF link man who was also a CIA agent, about the ‘political’ half of the paper. ‘It is very generally thought here that I am in some way obliged to publish certain tendentious material.’ (As Sutherland reveals, politically sensitive articles were always cleared with Josselson: ‘He was, on the whole, light-handed. But the touch was always there.’) Spender said that from the start he was viewed as ‘an American stooge’ by his British friends, which was ‘naturally very painful to me’. But this cannot have been wholly a surprise to him. Stonor Saunders quotes a letter he wrote to Josselson when T.S. Eliot, scarcely a left-wing firebrand, declined to contribute to the new magazine since it was so ‘obviously published under American auspices’: ‘The point is that Eliot here states the kind of reputation we have to try and live down of being a magazine disguising American propaganda under a veneer of British culture.’ This does sound just a little like saying: ‘I must henceforth behave in a way that will give people no grounds for saying my wife is having an affair.’
Spender’s salary was in effect paid by the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, laundered through the British branch of the CCF. According to Stonor Saunders, Monty Woodhouse, the British intelligence official in charge of the project, assumed Spender knew that. Spender didn’t. But things looked increasingly suspicious to others. Sutherland recounts how, at a party in 1961, ‘Stephen had become so infuriated’ by William Empson’s ‘aspersions against Encounter’s American backers that he threw a glass of wine at him’ (Empson cheerfully remarked that another drink stain on his clothes would hardly show). Was this uncharacteristic violence the expression of anxiety: was she having an affair after all?
In the eyes of American liberal intellectuals such as Robert Silvers, Encounter had ‘one obvious defect. It was inherently uncritical of the American situation.’ For the most part, it dealt gently, if at all, with topics such as race and Vietnam. When in 1963 Conor Cruise O’Brien published the first of his allegations that the journal had been ‘consistently designed to support the policy of the United States government’, subsequent versions of which were eventually to help precipitate the denouement, he did not have access to any secret information but based his argument largely on the magazine’s contents. When, also in 1963, Spender raised the possibility of leaving his editorial position to take up a teaching post in the States, the ‘CCF management’ showed just how keen they were to keep his name on the masthead. As Sutherland records, a ‘charm offensive was launched. The Spenders were made much of, in Geneva and Paris. They were "suddenly” invited, in early July, to join Junkie Fleischmann on his yacht.’ (Julius Fleischmann was the multimillionaire head of the Farfield Foundation, one of the conduits for money to Encounter.) Sutherland gives no source for ‘suddenly’, so we don’t know who, if anyone, thought this largesse suspicious. The Spenders accepted the invitation.
After all, it could be said that Spender still had no firm evidence incompatible with the official line that funding came from various American charitable foundations, channelled through the CCF, and that a certain tenderness for the US as the ‘leader of the free world’ was not discreditable in itself. But rumours spread that the link was more direct than this. As another American liberal, Jason Epstein, later recalled (he is quoted by Stonor Saunders): ‘By the middle of the 1960s anybody who didn’t know it was a fool. Everybody knew.’ Of course, that’s easy to say once the adultery has been admitted. However, in this case Epstein did say it at the time, directly to Spender: ‘Stephen, I think this whole outfit is being run by the Central Intelligence Agency, and you haven’t been told, and you should find out right now what’s going on.’ Spender duly enquired of the relevant official and was given the usual categorical assurances that there was nothing in the rumour. He believed no adultery had taken place; it was all the work of malicious tongues. Spender was lied to, all along the line (as was Kermode when he became involved from 1965). And he believed it all along the line.
Some of the continuing fascination of this story may be evident even from this brief and necessarily highly selective summary. It is, for example, striking that the success of the magazine as a general cultural periodical mattered so much to the CIA. They clearly believed that it did help to win the ‘war of minds’. And it is striking, too, how crucial to this success they thought it was to have Spender on the masthead: Sutherland’s characterisation of him, in another context, as ‘England’s best-known, and most highly regarded, man of letters in America’ may come into play here. But equally, there is the question of why continuing as editor mattered so much to Spender, especially given that it provoked this constant stream of critical gossip. He, too, set a high value on having a successful ‘journal of ideas’. He also enjoyed the patronage it gave him and, not to be discounted, he needed the money. He was, after all, otherwise a freelance, and struggled to finance an expensive way of life, with children in private schools, much travel and socialising, and an extravagant car. But other kinds of insecurity may have been in play as well. Encounter, Spender liked to say, was the only steady job of any kind he had ever been offered in Britain. As his widow recalls, he was drawn to the US partly because there ‘he was appreciated, not subjected to incessant Leavisite sniping and denigration.’ A lot was at stake, and the evidence was not, until the end, ever conclusive. And perhaps some of that political innocence that so infuriated the less sympathetic Spender-watchers in the 1930s never left him. The deceived husband, it has become almost a cliché to say, wants both to know and not to know.
In any event, whatever one’s analysis of the whole tangled business, Sutherland’s exposition of its final act is masterly and absorbing. In places, a certain lingering uncertainty about who is speaking remains, but this account must now be required reading even for those who think they already know a good deal about the episode. And Sutherland’s conclusion may stand both as the epitaph Spender would have wished for himself and as an emblem of the biographer’s loyalty to his subject: Spender, he judges, was ‘honourable to the end’.
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