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Auden’s ‘Willing Helper’

In response to:

'A Hat off a Yacht...' from the May 27, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

I write to correct a pervasive misunderstanding about the early life of the poet James Schuyler, which Dan Chiasson accidentally repeats in his admirable review of Schuyler’s Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems [NYR, May 27].

James Schuyler was not W.H. Auden’s “secretary” in the late 1940s. This is a misnomer. Schuyler and Auden were good friends from about 1944 to the early 1950s. It is certainly true that Schuyler did some typing for Auden while staying with him at his house on Ischia in the summer of 1949, as he did also a year earlier, when Auden and Chester Kallman stayed with Schuyler and Bill Aalto in their apartment in Florence for three weeks. In later interviews, Schuyler often referred to this, saying, for example, that he typed most of the poems in Nones and also Auden’s translation of Jean Cocteau’s play, Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde.

It is also true that in the summer of 1949 Schuyler was under something of an obligation to Auden, who had generously given him money for an operation the previous winter, and in whose house he was then living. Auden was a very kind man, and no doubt on one level, Schuyler felt that typing his poems was the least he could do in return. But it was not a job, and he was never considered by Auden or himself to be Auden’s secretary, which would imply a much more formal, and salaried, arrangement, with more diverse duties. Auden, who was not a fluent typist, asked many friends over the years (including Jane Bowles, Rhoda Jaffee, Alan Ansen, and others) to type things for him. To call Schuyler, alone of these willing helpers, Auden’s “secretary” distorts the real friendship that existed between them.

Nathan Kernan
New York City

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