by ALEX CARNEVALE
What the American male really wants is two things: he wants to be blown by a stranger while reading a newspaper, he wants to be fucked by his buddy when he's drunk. Everything else is society.
Wystan Hugh Auden arrived in New York City in January of 1939. His friends in New York shared the attitude of his friends in England: they were as unhappy to see him arrive as the English were to see him leave. "Just a note to ask you not to bring Auden and Isherwood to see me," wrote Louise Bogan to Edmund Wilson. "I can't say I want to spend an evening being examined by two visiting Englishmen as a queer specimen."
Impressions of Auden and his friends Christopher Isherwood did not noticeably improve by the spring. "He's pretty eccentric and does strange things like picking his nose and eating what he finds," observed Paul Bowles.
Auden was unsurprised at the vastness of American wealth. That he was used to. It was this country's waste that deeply bothered and disturbed him. "The great vice of Americans is not materialism," he wrote, "but a lack of respect for matter."
In between trying to get New York's monied elite to give him and Isherwood money of their own volition, Auden reviewed only the books he liked. (He had no stomach for rendering negative notices.) Despite his relative poverty - he and Isherwood shared a shabby Yorkville apartment - he prioritized taking Benzedrine in the mornings and Seconal at night. The upper intiated his writing for the day, and the downer allowed him to sleep after all that had happened.
When he finally quit amphetamines twenty years later, his social charm - what was left of it - disappeared as well.
At the beginning of April, Auden met Chester Kallman at a poetry reading he was giving in Brooklyn. A few weeks later he wrote his brother John
Just a line to tell you that it's really happened at last after all these years. Mr Right has come into my life. He is a Roumanian-Latvian-American Jew called Chester Kallman, eighteen, extremely intelligent and I think, about to become a good poet. His father who knows all and approves is a communist dentist who would be rich if he didn't have to pay two sets of alimony. This time, my dear, I really believe it's marriage.
After the two had sex for the first time, Auden gifted his new partner a volume of William Blake.
Auden's focus on Kallman arose out of his own loneliness in his new country. The next year he would be able to summarize his plight better: "The person you really need will arrive at the proper moment to save you."
The couple was temporarily separated while Auden taught for a short time at St. Mark's School in Massachusetts. He disliked the buttoned-up place as soon as he arrived, finding the faculty and administration closed-minded and anti-Semitic. When he returned to Kallman, the two planned a bus trip to New Orleans. The entire way down Chester attempted to seduce every hot young thing he came across. Auden called it their honeymoon.
The book he came back to again and again during this time was Pascal's Pensées.
The pair moved on. About 130 miles north of Albuquerque, Taos represented the home of D.H. Lawrence's widow Frieda. They did not care for these new surroundings either, with Auden quipping that "it's curious how beautiful scenery tends to attract the second rate." The diverse community of writers in the area only emphasized how much it would never be as engaging as New York.
Auden refused to shower during this period: he would only bathe himself in a proper bathtub. (As Stravinsky would put it, "He is the dirtiest man I have ever liked.") They were driven out of New Mexico, to the Grand Canyon. Auden concluded he could only stay for a moment or forever. With the kind of bizarre sincerity he became known for, he wrote that "the Boulder Dam gives one hope for the human race."
God returned to Auden's life around the time that Hitler entered it. In response, he began reading Kierkegard almost exclusively. Publicly he remained quiet about the war, admitted later that "All that could be said, had been said. There was no point in my saying it again, a little more hysterically." He registered for the draft, applied for U.S. citizenship and moved to Brooklyn.
Chester Kallman could always bring out Wystan's jealous side. It was not a great look for the older man. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two became a sticking point; Kallman wanted to fuck and be fucked as intensely as possible, and Auden could not begin to service his needs. "I don't think," Auden once said, "Browning was very good in bed."
It was equally destructive that Kallman seemed to delight in the jealousy his behavior inspired. This drove them apart for a time. Whenever Kallman quoted Hart Crane, Auden reacted like he had been slapped in the face. Auden took a teaching position at a small college in Michigan and then in Ann Arbor.
After a miserable time at the puritanical Swarthmore, Auden returned briefly to Europe for the first time in six years in spring of 1945. Upon setting foot on English soil, he said, "My dear, I'm the first major poet to fly the Atlantic." He visited Italy and Germany, finding them both inadequate in different ways. He now felt the only place he could learn to improve as an artist was New York City.
He returned there later that year, moving into a studio apartment in Greenwich Village. This constituted his first time ever living alone, and there was never a moment when the place was anything but an absolute mess. There he composed his new book.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Jack Reacher.
"It Comes And Goes" - Dido (mp3)
"The Day Before The Day" - Dido (mp3)