Interview: Edward Mendelson, literary executor and WH Auden fan

NEW York, May 1966, 77 St Marks Place. Edward Mendelson can still remember some of it. He can remember the ashtray piled high, the expensive Tannenberg turntable, the table with its cracked glass cover and the crumbs in the crack. The clutter.

And being a 20-year-old student absolutely tongue-tied, and for a whole hour too, in front of Wystan Hugh Auden.

It didn’t matter. Auden had grown used to young would-be poets and American students struck dumb in front of him. And he was a kind man, so he made a martini for his guest and talked – about what, Mendelson cannot remember. Now that he is the world’s foremost Auden scholar and the great poet’s literary executor, he catches echoes of that one-sided conversation in the occasional Auden essay, though there is never anything that he can single out. He blames the martini.

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Mendelson is in Scotland this month as the guest of Alexander McCall Smith. The two became friends when Mendelson wrote an appreciative letter when, having read all of McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, he had started on his Isabel Dalhousie ones. “I wish Precious Ramotswe and Auden could have met,” he wrote. “It would have been awkward at first because of the vast cultural differences between them. But they would have discovered they agree on everything.”

Few letters could have pleased McCall Smith more: an ardent Audenite, he is even planning to write a book about the poet. Before long, McCall Smith was writing Mendelson into his Isabel Dalhousie series. Mendelson was, he reasoned, precisely the kind of scholar whose lectures his fictional Merchiston moral philosopher would make a point of attending. In the third book in the series, The Right Attitude to Rain, she did just that – and two years later, in 2008, McCall Smith brought Mendelson to Edinburgh to give the very lecture at the Playfair Library that Dalhousie had heard in the novel.

Mendelson, a highly respected professor of English at New York’s Columbia University, is back in Scotland this month as the first Isabel Dalhousie Fellow at Edinburgh University’s Institute for Advanced Studies at the Humanities. His inaugural lecture last week for the post – which has been funded by McCall Smith – was preceded by a specially commissioned bagpipe tune. “When I get back to New York, I’m going to insist on that for all my lectures,” he joked when we met the following day.

Auden never recalled that first meeting with Mendelson, but the second encounter between the old, homosexual, English poet and the young, heterosexual, New York academic was altogether more important. By then Mendelson was teaching at Yale, having written a dissertation on Auden for his PhD. The poet was visiting to give a reading and talk and Mendelson was assigned to show him round.

By that stage, Auden was thinking about putting together a book of his essays but he admitted to Mendelson that he had forgotten much of what he had written. The young American had, however, already collaborated on a bibliography of the poet’s work, for which he had assiduously photocopied everything he could find. “I told him it was all in my flat, and I left him there. He was delighted to find someone who had taken him seriously. A lot of people who admire great poets don’t seem to have read them very much,” he says.

Auden decided that Mendelson, and not he, should select the essays, and they arranged to meet in New York. When they did, Auden went through the list, taking some essays out and adding others. “Why didn’t you include my essay on Romeo and Juliet?” he asked. “I’m 26 and I’m with this man I admire intellectually as a giant, and I didn’t know how to answer. Because it wasn’t his best work. So I simply shook my head, embarrassed. And he beamed. Because he knew someone was using his judgment, that I wasn’t just some kind of intellectual groupie.”

So impressed was Auden by Mendelson’s dedication – he told his long-term partner Chester Kallman “I’ve just met a young man who knows more about me than I do” – that he asked him to become his literary executor. He died two years later, in 1973, aged 66.

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Death has not, however, diminished Auden’s cultural importance. His critical reputation is, if anything, higher than ever, and his work has spread further into popular culture through the popularity of poems such as “Funeral Blues” (“Stop all the clocks”) and, after 9/11, “September 1, 1939”, and plays such as Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art or the current Broadway musical, February House.

Deliberately, Mendelson has not seen either of the last two productions. “I deeply admire Alan Bennett’s work, but I try to stay away from fictional representations of Auden. It’s the same with anyone I know or any historical character or writer I like – Virginia Woolf, for example – and with books I love: I’m sure the BBC Middlemarch was well done, but I already have a vivid mental image of what Dorothea Brooke looks like, so why should I look at someone else’s idea of it?”

Did he feel the need to defend Auden from The Habit of Art’s portrayal of him as a sad, lecherous slob? “Not at all. I feel that if you feel the need to defend something like that you have already lost. Inevitably, the playwright or novelist imposes his or her own vision of the world on the writer, and most fictional representations of writers I don’t have any connection with always seem to be so simplified and one-dimensional.”

“Seeing a film about Auden would be like watching a film about my wife or my son. It seems to me that only a heartless narcissist – or a politician, perhaps – could take pleasure in that. Because in those circumstances, you know more, you know what the person is, you have that special connection.”

But from the start, Mendelson’s special connection with Auden was studiously based on the work, and what it revealed of Auden’s world view, his ideas on poetry, art, religion and morality. To hear Mendelson expound on Auden is to hear a man who, over four decades of scholarship, has caught the cast of another’s mind perfectly, deeply, and eloquently. Even though he never knew it then, in that 20-year-old dumbstruck student, WH Auden had found a clearer afterlife than the rest of us will ever manage to find.