This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 20, 2017: Widnoon

May 20, 2017: on this day: W.H. Auden becomes a U.S. citizen

On this day in 1946, English-born poet W.H. Auden (books by this authorbecame a U.S. citizen. Auden began writing poetry in high school, studied at Oxford, and made friends with other writers, including Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. He published Poems (1930), a collection of poetry that brought him renown as a writer.

He traveled widely during the following years, visiting Germany, Iceland, and China. He served in the Spanish Civil War, but was so disturbed by the destruction of Roman Catholic churches that he returned to England. He married Thomas Mann’s daughter, Erika, in 1935 to help her escape Nazi Germany, though the two had never met. Much of his work during this time focused on political unrest and economic issues.

The central focus of Auden’s work switched from politics to religion when he moved to the United States in 1939. It was also in the U.S. that he met his lover Chester Kallman. While their sexual relationship only lasted two years, they remained friends and occasional housemates for the rest of their lives. Auden dedicated two collections of poetry to Kallman.

Between 1940 and 1941, he shared a house in New York with other artists, including the writer Carson McCullers and the composer Benjamin Britten. He also began reading Soren Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr and his interest in Christianity deepened. He joined the Episcopal Church in 1940, returning to a religious tradition he left behind as a young boy.

He volunteered to go back to England and serve in the army when war broke out, but was told that, at 32, he was too old. He taught English at the University of Michigan, was drafted into the U.S. Army but dismissed on medical grounds, received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1942-43 but didn’t use it. He taught at Swarthmore between 1942 and 1945. He visited Germany after the war to study the effects of the Allied bombing on German morale. He returned to Manhattan, worked as a freelance writer, lectured at The New School, and taught occasionally at Bennington and Smith.

His writings on religion continued to evolve, moving from highly personal explorations of Protestantism to interest in the Roman Catholic focus on the body and ritual. He studied the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who explored religion and the significance of human suffering.

In later years, Auden lived on a farm in Austria, teaching interstitially at Oxford and writing for The New Yorker and other magazines. He died in Vienna in 1973.

He said, “It’s a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it.”