Auden and the Work of The Age of Anxiety

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Book Chapter

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Auden at Work


The great danger for the young American writer is impatience. A wise uncle would advise him thus: "Publish nothing before you are thirty but study, absorb, experiment. Take at least three years over every book. Be very careful about your health and lead a life as regular a a commuter's."
-W. H. Auden, Introduction (1946) to Henry James
The American Scene

W. H. Auden began work on The Age of Anxiety in July 1944. He completed the long poem in February 1947, the month of his fortieth birthday, and saw it published in the United States later that year, on July 11, 1947. The Age of Anxiety met with mixed reviews in the US and worse in England, where it was published the next year. Yet the poem achieved a remarkable cultural salience: it earned Auden the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948, and inspired Leonard Bernstein's second symphony (1949) and a new ballet by Jerome Robbins (1950). More, a multitude of commentators from within and beyond the literary world adopted the poem's title to describe the atmosphere of the late 1940s. Among them, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed at the opening of his bestselling book, The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949), that "Western man in the middle of the twentieth century is tense, uncertain, adrift. We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety."


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