THE COMIC CRITIC
December 2, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     One of the most rewarding things about my work is 
that it has brought me into contact with many truly 
original minds, even a few men of genius. One of these 
was the great critic Hugh Kenner, who died last week at 
80.

     I hadn't seen Hugh in years. I used to visit him 
often when he lived in Baltimore and taught at Johns 
Hopkins; but after his retirement he and his beloved Mary 
Ann, their children grown, moved to Athens, Georgia, and 
I never managed to get down that way. It was my loss.

     Hugh Kenner was best known for his work on modernist 
writers like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, 
which culminated in his 1971 classic THE POUND ERA. He 
wrote with rare felicity and playful wit, but nobody 
would call him easy reading: he avoided the critical 
bombast, trade jargon, and grand pronouncements that 
usually give the reader the sense of being in familiar 
territory. He was incapable of writing a cliche. Though 
deeply conservative, he relished the new. He wrote 
colloquially, but he savored complexity and didn't offer 
intellectual shortcuts.

     Kenner the critic took no interest in the critic's 
game of rating writers. As a rule he neither praised nor 
denigrated them. If he thought they deserved his 
attention, he honored them with a fresh curiosity about 
how their writing worked, and with a sense of fun -- like 
a boy assembling a crystal radio.

     In fact, he assembled his own personal computer many 
years ago, seeing this new machine's possibilities long 
before most people did. He was as fascinated by science, 
math, and technology as by literature; he also wrote 
books on Buckminster Fuller, geodesic math, and fractal 
geometry. He used to say that his real specialty was not 
"Eng. Lit.," but the life of the mind in the twentieth 
century.

     He combined his wide-ranging interests to achieve 
startling insights into literature. He saw the book as a 
kind of machine, and he loved machines: one of his books 
is titled THE MECHANIC MUSE. This view bred his 
delightful little studies THE COUNTERFEITERS and THE 
STOIC COMEDIANS, in which he found analogies between 
Jonathan Swift, Joyce, Buster Keaton, and early 
computers.

     As this eclectic grouping suggests, Hugh refused to 
treat literature as a closed system. He viewed it as part 
of the pageant of modernity, of man's endless 
inventiveness. He had no use for snobbish literati. He 
loved movies, especially comedy. Among those he treasured 
were STAR WARS and BLOOD SIMPLE. He never forgot that art 
may begin as fun, and he always approached it in that 
spirit. For him Joyce's ULYSSES was more than just a 
great book; it was a feast of laughter.

     In person he was distinguished by his height, unruly 
hair, thick glasses, and hearing aid. His partial 
deafness caused him to slur his speech; when he was a 
small child in Canada, his parents had feared he was 
mentally retarded. This proved spectacularly incorrect. 
By his early thirties, he was the acknowledged authority 
on Pound.

     His youthful friends included two other men destined 
to make their marks among Canada's leading men of the 
mind, Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan. When McLuhan 
became an intellectual fad in the Sixties, noted for his 
baffling utterances, Kenner, characteristically, 
extricated his genuine perceptions from the quackery, and 
distilled McLuhan's elusive apercus into a few crisp 
sentences. Coming from Hugh, they sounded like common 
sense.

     Hugh liked to tell the story of a statue that had 
been exposed as a forgery. In the nineteenth century, it 
had been passed off as an ancient Etruscan sculpture; but 
in the twentieth century a sharp critic had detected its 
recent origin. How? The forger had endowed it with the 
ancient Etruscan mannerisms he could see; but also, 
unconsciously, with the nineteenth-century mannerisms he 
couldn't see. His contemporaries couldn't see them 
either, so for a while the counterfeit succeeded. But as 
fashions changed, those nineteenth-century mannerisms 
"rose to visibility."

     As Kenner put it, "The style of your own time is 
always invisible." This was a favorite moral of his. You 
have to be alert for the unconscious assumptions you 
share with your own era. Conservatives and radicals, 
thinking themselves opposites, may actually share the 
same prejudices without being aware of them.

     Serious and hilarious, Hugh Kenner the critic 
changed the way I see the world. Hugh Kenner the friend 
leaves me, with many others, in grief.

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