Edward Mendelson was an aspiring undergraduate poet when he first met W. H. Auden. A teacher told him that Auden held an office hour of sorts every afternoon and advised him to look the poet up. Sure enough, there was Auden in the phone book, at an address on Saint Mark's Place in New York City. "I called up and invited myself over," Mendelson said. The poet spoke kindly to him, he recalled, but for his part he was "too shy to say anything."
Several years later, Mendelson met the poet again. He was by now a young English professor at Yale and an Auden expert in the making, thanks in part to a photocopying fund at his graduate department at Johns Hopkins. "I'd Xeroxed all of Auden's prose," he said. "I just had it around." He was assigned to be Auden's chaperone on a visit the poet made to Yale. When word got out that Auden was looking to assemble a collection of his essays but couldn't remember everything he'd written, Mendelson—no longer so shy—piped up. "I said, 'Well, I have it all in my apartment.' And I left him there for a few hours. He was obviously deeply pleased to be taken seriously."
Eventually, Auden asked Mendelson to take his place as the editor of the collection and sealed the deal with a $150 check for photocopying expenses. Mendelson was so happy that, as he tells it, he jumped up and down. As their collaboration progressed, the poet was also pleased. According to Mendelson, who took the liberty of vetoing an essay that he thought wasn't very good, Auden was grateful for the critical judgment—plus, "he was delighted to have somebody actually pay attention to proofreading." When the project neared conclusion, Auden asked Mendelson in the postscript to one of his letters to be his literary executor. Mendelson agreed. In the end, the photocopying only cost $110, so he sent the poet $40 back.
February 21 marks the centenary of Auden's birth. Mendelson, an energetic man of sixty who speaks with the assured rhythm and syntax of someone accustomed to the lecture hall, protested with a smile that "Auden's admirers are not very good at organizing things, because we all tend to prefer to sit home alone and read and think quietly." But there are plenty of festivities and publications in store: events at the British Library and the 92nd Street Y, among other places, and three new Auden editions, including the first hardback Collected Poems in the US, to be published by the Modern Library. Preparing these editions and teaching in the English department at Columbia University, where Mendelson is Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities (and—full disclosure—where he advised my master's thesis on Arnold Bennett), keeps him well occupied. His office in the Morningside Heights apartment he shares with his wife and fifteen-year-old son boasts a wall of Audenalia: the poet's complete works in multiple editions, books to which Auden contributed, books in which he figures (a biography of Stravinsky, for example—Auden cowrote the libretto to the composer's Rake's Progress), his correspodence, and biographies and critical studies, including Mendelson's own Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999). File cabinets house originals of the poet's letters to Mendelson and photocopies of other significant documents. Credit for the collection goes to Mendelson; credit for the hardware goes to the Columbia contractor who put the shelves in and assured the professor that they would hold.
One might expect, given this area of expertise, that Mendelson would be presenting the tenets of modernism to his students via PowerPoint. But on the contrary, he said, "it frees me from any temptation to be high-tech and up-to-date in the classroom, where I'm completely free to be as humane and psychological as possible. I absolutely forbid computers in the classroom." The two worlds have occasionally collided, though—as when the W. H. Auden Society website, which Mendelson maintains, was temporarily blocked from Google's database. "It used too much complicated programming switching from one page to another, and it turned out I had inadvertently used techniques that were used by people who set up fraudulent websites." An influential colleague at PC Magazine helped sort things out with Google, and the site is back on record.
Mendelson trolls eBay once a week to see if any Audenalia surfaces, which he says happens fairly often, and this light sleuthing satisfies his collecting bug for the present. But he has made other acquisitions over the years that lend his shelves distinction. There are first editions of all of Thomas Pynchon's novels (one of Mendelson's first scholarly publications was an essay on The Crying of Lot 49); eight bound volumes of T. S. Eliot's journal, The Criterion, a gift from a friend; and a charming set of Virginia Woolf's works, published by Hogarth just before she went out of copyright, and apparently not to be had for cheap. "I had to eat spaghetti for a while," Mendelson recalled fondly of the period marking that purchase. Woolf remains a major figure in his intellectual life; three of the novels he examines in his 2006 book The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life are hers. Stacked at the top of the shelves around the living room are dozens of small books with distinctive red bindings familiar to anyone who has read A Room with a View. "I collected Baedeker guidebooks for years," Mendelson said, "until I managed to cure myself by writing an essay about Baedeker guidebooks. That stopped the collecting impulse. I'd taken them over by writing about them."
The Mendelsons' books are grouped by subject—history, music, religion, and so on—and the fiction is further divided by country, then by century, then alphabetized by author. At least, that's the idea. About eight years ago, Mendelson and his wife, Cheryl, a novelist and the author of the definitive housekeeping reference Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House (she also holds a law degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy), hired a semiemployed opera singer to dust their multitude of books, and the reshelving took a toll on the system. "We realized after a while that having taken the books off left to right, he'd put them back right to left," Mendelson said. "So the alphabetical order breaks down on every single shelf. On one shelf you might go from A to C, and then the next shelf goes F to D. Occasionally, I get inspired to go and put things back, but you learn to live with it."
It can be challenging for anyone in the business of literature to distinguish such a thing as reading for pleasure, but for Mendelson, nonrequired reading is actually a prerequisite for sleep. On his bedside table was an appealing assortment: tales by Melville (he'd read "Billy Budd" but never "Benito Cereno"), Passing by Nella Larsen (recommended by a student), and Plutarch ("I have no reason to read Plutarch," Mendelson explained, "and it turned out to be marvelous"). His wife and son have been reading Patrick O'Brian, for whom the family has high praise. But what ever happened to Mendelson the aspiring poet? "I gave it up right away," he said, "as soon as I read Auden."
Radhika Jones is managing editor of the Paris Review.