December 2, 2003
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 hadnt 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 cliché. Though deeply
conservative, he relished the new. He wrote colloquially, but he savored
complexity and didnt offer intellectual shortcuts.
Kenner the critic took no
interest in the critics 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 machines
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
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 mans 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
Joyces 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 Canadas 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 McLuhans elusive aperçus
into a few crisp sentences. Coming from Hugh, they sounded like common
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 couldnt
see. His contemporaries couldnt 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
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.