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In Memoriam: Hugh Kenner

Hugh Kenner (1923-2003)

As Reviewed By: James Rother

Just barely octogenarian (but grown wispy), Hugh Kenner, like the Romantic correspondent breeze he so adamantly eschewed in the prolonged swath through modernist studies he cut like a mighty wind, slipped away a year ago this past month, a legend diminished but certainly not obscured by the marginalizations heaped upon him in recent years. The zenith of his real fame was reached a while back-1951-1972, to be exact; oddly enough, during a time when gospel tunes warbled by New Critics (a group to which Kenner most decidedly did not belong) soared on the country-and-eastern charts, and when pretty much every other kind of criticism had to fight for exposure on “indie” labels. It was then that the Canon was being cleared of any leftist fodder thought to be clogging its magazine, and the dogma riding most high among the cognoscenti was that a critical work lacking the imprint of a major university press could be nothing but persiflage and rubbish. But most important of all, it was a period when T. S. Eliot, his minions, and their ways ruled the Anglo-American literary roost as absolutely as the Sultan of what was then Greater Bengal ruled what appears on maps today as the nation of Pakistan.

[private]Somewhat less reviewer frenzy attended the years following the publication of Kenner’s monumental The Pound Era (1971) and his subsequent translation from the University of California at Santa Barbara (where he’d spent more than twenty years) to Johns Hopkins, and later still to the University of Georgia, from which he would watch the next twenty-eight pass by with greater effort but less recompense in all respects but salary. But in 1950, things were looking decidedly up rather than down. His first place of employment, Santa Barbara College (a normal school built in the middle of the Goleta slough), had been absorbed into an expanding University of California system, and the classics master’s son from Waterloo, Ontario was beginning a promising academic career, the administrative part of which he would over the years glumly endure with a grimace and the undergraduate courses he was assigned with a pasted-on smile. When asked in 1972 how it felt to depart from UCSB after so many semesters under the bridge, Kenner, without even a pause to consider, responded: “Like checking out of a motel.” Which hardly came as a surprise to Kenner’s close acquaintances, who knew he was never one to gather moss when rolling toward where the action presented an opportunity to be seized. Only trouble was, the Humanities game had changed significantly by the early ‘70s and the “action” entailed playing by very different rules than the first two phases of his career had prepared him for.

They came near to neatly bisecting his tenure at UCSB, those two earlier phases, and may be stipulated as having spanned the two periods, 1950-1961 and 1962-1971. Thus, the drama of Kenner’s career as a major critic did not lack, as with the Scott Fitzgerald model, a second act, but a third. His second was more than just creditable, it managed to negotiate the credibility gap created by his reputation as a right-wing disciple of Ezra Pound, and land him securely among such hors-de-texte free-lancers as W. H. Gass and Guy Davenport. This, despite an alarming turn for the worse taken by his health-never that rock-solid to begin with-in the late ‘60s. Years of chain-smoking, coupled with a lengthy bout of Hepatitis-B (originally mis-diagnosed as stomach cancer) in 1967, had left him weakened and wheezing as a borderline emphysematic. As a UCSB doctoral candidate under his supervision, I had occasion to watch him waning in energy as his pallor waxed, to view him going about the business of being Kenner with slower and less gangly momentum, yet still in that inimitable manner of his which made the Delphic oracle and the Mad Hatter conjunct in a holograph of Ed Wynn able to punch-card more literary (and extra-literary) facts than a roomful of Babbages could sort in a twelve-month. Mirabile dictu, the mid-to late-‘60s proved the apogee of Kenner’s fame to a generation that knew The Poetry of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Dublin’s Joyce and The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, if at all, by repute damascened with rumor, only. Its bookworms had not read these books, nor were likely to. Hence their frame of Kennerian reference took off from such fresh triumphs wafting out of Goleta as Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study(1961), which, unlike The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot out two years earlier and shoehorned into the world by the obscurest of publishers, McDowell, Oblensky, was brought out under the trendy logo of Evergreen Books, a subsidiary of Barney Rossett’s Grove Press. After that, there appeared, within a space of seven years, two books (graced with drawings by the redoubtable Guy Davenport), The Stoic Comedians (1963) and The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968), to be followed, three years later, by The Pound Era, which had required a decade or more of exhausting legwork, mostly in Europe.

A followup exceeding either of these stages of Kenner’s career would have been difficult to imagine. Indeed, the third and final phase of it began scattering unpleasantnesses of one sort or another in Kenner’s path almost as soon as he arrived at Johns Hopkins in 1972. Graduate students, no longer fearful of or docile in a Kenner seminar on Pound’s Cantos, rebuffed his usual evasions concerning anti-Semitism in the works of Pound and Eliot. Theory specialists with heavy European accents suddenly were dominating the academic scene and making off with the best students, just as in Germany, a hundred-and-fifty years earlier, Hegel had lifted them from a sputtering Schopenhauer. And then of course, there was the dust-up over the new “authoritative” edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, not to slight the increased tension at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere as pressure built mightily to have him endorse politically correct causes and fall in with close-order drills demanded by the feminist movement, with its Lacanian intra-cranial excavations and veronicas executed on the great Foucaultian bull of Power/Knowledge. All of these and more made teaching as he had known it in California back during the ‘50s and ‘60s nigh unto impossible. In response, Kenner threw himself into efforts that, with the exception of the two introductions to R. Buckminster Fuller and his “geodesic math,” were mostly repetitious. More on Beckett (a Reader’s Guide); more on Dublin’s chief ventriloquist (Joyce’s Voices, Ulysses); a book about modern Eng. Lit. (A Sinking Island); yet another hymn to Irish Lit. ( this time giving Yeats his due-A Colder Eye); a collection of essays on Higher American Crankiness (A Homemade World, reminding all and sundry he had not forgotten such prized amis de guerre as W. C. Williams and the Black Mountain Boys); a succinct recursus to the world of The Counterfeiters (The Mechanic Muse); and two more volumes of essays on subjects non-literary, like computers (Mazes), and literary-as-usual (Historical Fictions); and finally, in 1998, a travel book documenting a return to sites in France and Italy which had given The Pound Era its extraordinary aura of magic re-authorized and capped Kenner’s lengthy apotheosis of Pound as the last protagonist of the tragedy of Europe (The Elsewhere Community). A lot, but a lot too little, when memory serves to render such lots a disservice by comparison and contrast with a past not a little but, by any stretch of the imagination, a lot indeed.

Beyond the tendrils of legend, what survives this tumult of wordspinning on a grand scale? Well, for one thing, a gift for launching la phrase jusque (if hardly le mot juste) on a speedway of caroming metaphors, each narrowly missing a collision with the others which would have bumped it onto the sidelines of the refutable. No one could lay his hand on the impalpable and leave it shimmering in its impalpability more divertingly than Hugh Kenner. Here he is, extending the invisibility of creator to creation in an attempt to nail down J. Alfred Prufrock’s consubstantiality with the Void:

J. Alfred Prufrock is a name plus a Voice. He isn’t a “character” cut out of the rest of the universe and equipped with a history and a little necessary context, like the speaker of a Browning monologue. We have no information about him whatever, even his age is ambiguous (the poet once referred casually to Prufrock in a lecture as a young man). Nor is he an Everyman, surrounded by poetic effects: the range of “treatment” is excessive. Everyman’s mind doesn’t teem with allusions to Hesiod, Hamlet, Lazarus, Falstaff, entomology, eschatology, John the Baptist, mermaids. What “Prufrock” is, is the name of a possible zone of consciousness where the materials can maintain a vague contiguity, no more than that; certainly not a person. You are not, in allowing their intermodulations to echo in your mind, deepening your apprehension of an imagined character, such as Hamlet, or discerning his boundaries; Prufrock is strangely boundless; one doesn’t affirm at a given point with certainty, “Here is where his knowledge would have stopped,” or “These are subtleties to which he would not have aspired.” Like the thing you look at when you turn your eyes from this page, he is the center of a field of consciousness, rather yours than his: a focussing of the reader’s attention, in a world made up not of cows and stones but literary “effects” and memories prompted by words.

This is not a style a gifted undergraduate could knowledgeably parse into traditionally sanctioned grammatical units, let alone try to emulate through parody. For all its self-regarding brilliance, a style like this already exists on the far side of self-parody, where scare quotes congregate around différances (“character,” “treatment,” “Prufrock,” “effects”) too “trace”-ridden to do more than agitate the au délà. The purpose of such writing is neither to delight nor to inform; it is to dangle a metaphoric cobra before the mongoose of assumed experience so that, thus beguiled, a real snake will seem to have been swallowed whole. The come-on used is on its face hard to resist. Who would quarrel with such an authoritative marshalling of facts? It is only after one almost forcibly induces a return to readerly terra firma that one sees that what has just done cartwheels past one’s critical censors is no more than a brace of suppositions that is at best wholly subjective and at worst a blatant resort to smoke and mirrors. So artfully adduced are Kenner’s suppositions regarding Eliotic tactics that they not only sneak past one’s best conceived objections, they come near to wholly obliterating any opposing notion of what “Prufrock” is really about or what might have transpired in Eliot’s intentional consciousness during the slew of drafts this famous work took its shape from. It was a preference for routines such as this that saddled Kenner with the reputation for being glib, for shooting from the hip, even when that hip was not entirely his own (before taking the job in Santa Barbara he had planned to produce in collaboration with his friend and colleague from the University of Toronto, H. Marshall McLuhan, a study of Eliot’s works of which much had already been blocked out-by McLuhan), and for raising whole Weltänschaüungen on a foundation supplied by a few factitious notions.

But this weights the argument far too heavily in favor of Kenner’s detractors’ predisposition to view him as an unconscionably parochial, reactionary, and not too convincingly closeted bigot betraying many of the prejudices his stable of heroic moderns (excepting, of course, Joyce and Beckett) were tainted with. There is much in the early and middle Kenner that inspires awe and even amazement at how seamlessly verbal instrument melds with suggestive insight and coordinating principle. Approve its idee fixe or not, as you wish; but it is impossible to not marvel at the synthesizing imagination knitting the world of data and other simulacra let loose in England during Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility (this Second Fall having substituted for the Mercator projections of hell geometrized by poets like John Donne a blitz of retorts and calipers, eventually culminating in the Romantic worship of fact which gave us Babbage’s calculating machine, the Turing Machine, and the machine-able-to-observe-itself-in-the-act-of-being-a-machine) with our own modern shambles prefigured in the “Oxen of the Sun” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses. The Counterfeiters documents all of these events and pseudo-events in a style that is both admirably attuned to its subject and inspiringly addictive in its implication mongering amid ostensible dead ends. Here, though any attempt to a give a sense of the whole with only a brief quotation is hazardous, is the concluding paragraph-a “circus animals’ desertion” at which Kenner is particularly adept-of that amazing book:

Empiricism is a game. Its central rule forbids you to understand what you are talking about. The application of this rule, when we remember that we are playing a game, yields satire. Satire’s particulars fade, its structure stays and from within the structure a ghostly person grimaces, to catch sight of whom, as to see Alan Turing on his bicycle or Jonathan Swift manipulating his language fields, is to command the vision which makes the whole intelligible. Bits of apparent insanity can keep us oriented: a man faking soup labels [Andy Warhol], a man writing a play about doing nothing [Samuel Beckett], a poet writing an incompetent poet’s poem [Alexander Pope], a man forcing grammar and syntax to simulate, as clockwork simulated the movements of [Vaucanson's] duck, a few words exchanged in a New Jersey bar. These things, once done, seem to have unaccountably “happened” (who would take trouble over them?), for Art to pretend to withdraw the conceiving person, while reconstituting spontaneities so that they look like “behavior.” If you are wise you are not deceived. Assaying for traces of the controlling person whatever offers itself to you as experience, you seek equilibrium in a universe constituted wholly of things synthesized out of facts: magazine articles, non-fictional fictions, doctoral theses, judicial testimony; published nonbooks and reported nonevents; retouched photographs, dubbed recordings, actors, talking dolls; the Ulysses of Joyce and the Cantos of Pound; Beats (pop Franciscans), psychedelics (pop mysticism); Disneyland, the Labyrinths of Borges; interviews, autobiographies, newspapers, surveys; Gulliver’s Travels, core curricula; Piltdown Man and the Noble Savage; those eminent writers of fiction Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin; those prolific disseminators of artifacts the Campbell’s Soup Company and Pablo Picasso; flight simulators, dioramas; and books such as the one you have just finished reading.

Only Hugh Kenner could have written this, but then only Hugh Kenner would have either wanted to or felt the need to do so-just as he and only he could have concluded a book as plenary and as genially shot through with gems as The Pound Era with the following encomium on its namesake in his final drift toward deliquescence:

His mind on Carpaccio, on cats and stones, on butterflies (“gasping,” “milkweed the sustenance”), on the conversation frequent visitors brought, on faces present and gone, on his own past, shrunken; slight, no more weight than he had had half-grown, long ago, in Wyncote [Pennsylvania], he shouldered the weariness of 85 years, his resource memory within memory within memory. At Wyncote, last, a summer night in 1958, St. Elizabeths freshly behind him, in bed in his old house for the last time (and aged 72), he had somehow wakened-always a brief sleeper, genius enjoys long days-and tiptoed downstairs in his pajamas, out into the dark street, and down to the Presbyterian Church, to sit on the steps looking over the moonlit lawns of great estates; sitting where a boy had sat 60 years before, his eye on trees before dawn, his mind on the poet’s destiny, which should be that of dreaming old men’s silences; the old man’s memory now in turn accessible to the still older man in Venice, to be guessed at but never experienced by any comer. “Shall two know the same in their knowing?” Thought is a labyrinth.

With all due respect, thought, for anyone who knows truly what it is to think, is not a labyrinth, though involuntary memory, as Proust (positively not one of Kenner’s modernist icons) has shown us, can be. But the labyrinth is crucial to The Pound Era‘s ground-plan, so who would deny it or its author a free turn on the roundabout? Kenner, like Jean-Paul Sartre (whom he resembled in no other way) could get almost everything wrong and still leave his readers expecting, even hoping (more perhaps for their sake than for his) that he would eventually get things right. Well, rightward he did indeed propel most things in his career, and not always justly or without inexcusable bias. He was a Canadian never really at home in the United States; a naturalized American never really comfortable with manners and evasions free of European tint; a lover of Disneyland and Chuck Jones; a defender of the pantheon of great Anglo-American modernists-Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Beckett, and W. C. Williams; a tinkerer-within cerebral space only-with technology, the atavisms of concept, the alembications of order, wherever they crossed over into territory under jurisdiction of the arts. Or rather, and more accurately, like his friend and illustrator Guy Davenport, he refused to accept any hard and fast boundaries between art and technology, realizing, as his one-time colleague McLuhan famously did, that art is merely the contrail left by converging technologies-or is it the other way around? Who can tell? Life, even a critic’s life, is a labyrinth.

Requiescat in pace, Maestro. Like few in your guild, you’ve earned your rest, including that which you’ve so ably made history.

A Passing Note

As a graduate student and then as a doctoral candidate under his supervision, my personal acquaintance with Hugh Kenner was of seven years’ duration (1965-72). I approached him with the idea of continuing research I’d begun at McGill University in Montreal on the poetry of Wallace Stevens in a Masters thesis I’d written there. It was a quasi-structuralist analysis, taking up some 232 manuscript pages, of two poems by Stevens I thought interestingly conjoined: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” When writing it, I knew nothing of the structuralist and later poststructuralist notions that would later rock American academe to its foundationalisms, but had somehow eked out my own garage version of a poetics that was in the process of moving on from Lévi-Strauss’s and Jakobson’s probings of Baudelaire’s “Les Chats” to Barthes’s massive excavating of Balzac’s novella Sarasine. Kenner read my thesis, muttered something about “multiplication tables” under his breath, and announced that I would “write a different book.” That project turned out to be the wedging of Wallace Stevens into his pantheon of modernists, and since his own investigations of the Stevens phenomenon had gone nowhere, he needed a promising ephebe to see it through to completion with fresh eyes on the prize.

Those eyes unfortunately saw through to the hopelessness and quintessential wrongness of the Kenner venue by which Stevens would be wedged into the Pound-Joyce-Eliot-Beckett galère. Somehow-I guess because it had previously shown promise in the cases of Eliot and Joyce-the hypothesis that Stevens was some weird kind of Nonsense poet had gotten lodged in his mind. The idea (with specific application to Eliot) had originally found favor with the English critic Elizabeth Sewell, whose book The Field of Nonsense had impressed Kenner enough for him to include a portion of it in his own Twentieth-Century Views anthology of essays on Eliot in 1962. Well, to make a long story short, the fact that Stevens had written poems like The Comedian as the Letter C” and “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” was more than enough to send Kenner on the wild goose chase that would cost me several years of wasted labor and land me in a professional cul-de-sac from which I did not fully extricate myself for several decades. I had tried-in a gingerly way, to be sure-to persuade him that this idea of his would go nowhere, but the more I found to object to in its very premisses, the more he felt the need to insist I press ahead along the lines-the very dotty lines-he had laid out.

As the months passed, I realized that Kenner had kept himself splendidly ignorant of the most basic facts about Stevens’s life and works. I remember him being amazed to discover, for example, that Stevens had never been to Europe, the only American modernist of note not to have traveled there. Slowly, some the denigrating comments some of his UCSB colleagues had made about him began to take on substance. One had remarked on Kenner’s gift for converting a small but elemental misunderstanding into a Weltänschaüung, while another had quipped that Kenner was the only critic he’d ever heard of who’d written more than he’d read. Well, eventually I finished the dissertation, which was titled “‘With Strange Relation’: Strategies of Nonsense in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens,” and moved on. A few chapters found their way into various academic journals, and I never again took up my independent re-invention of the wheel first turned in The Raw and the Cooked. Kenner, I always thought, considered the failure to properly land Stevens in the modernist boat mine rather than his. Except for a brief valedictory essay on Stevens that appeared in A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, he never touched on that poet again. The essay pilfered one or two notions I had spun out of my own desperation at not being able to do more with the cockamamie notion of Stevens as Nonsense poet than he had, but mostly it hauled out of mothballs the three or four used cars he had sprung on me in the fall of 1966 when, after scoring highly in his seminar, “The Flaubertian Tradition,” he had agreed to chair my dissertation committee.

Kenner failed to see coming the supplantation of the Pound era by the Bloom-inspired Stevens era because, unlike such critics as Roy Harvey Pearce-who were, by the way, far less gifted than he-Kenner had never read Emerson, never bothered with any 19th Century American author beyond perhaps Poe and Whitman, and believed none of them to have much lasting importance. But then, in my hearing I recall all of Restoration drama being dismissed as “an academic conspiracy,” all writing with a leftist slant termed “the agitprop of unpropertied agitators,” and any unfavorable slant on Pound “libels too stupid to be slanderous.” Whatever. The man, despite all, was by any standard an exceptionally talented writer and, like his mentor and idol, Ezra Pound, and Pound’s idol, Bertrans de Born before him, a splendid “stirrer up of strife.” Cliché though it might be, we shall not see his like again anytime soon, come any weather. I wouldn’t not have known him for any price save one: the chance to have cleared the whirlpools of Poseidon so as to reach post-Derridean Ithaca on my own, without let or hindrance of any agency but watery tumult and alluring isles. That didn’t happen, and so I remain stuck with the gratitude that came with my price not having been met.

However, that’s my problem, not Hugh Kenner’s. The gratitude of an entire culture rests on rather different balance beams than that, as it should. On such occasions as the one marked here, all gratitudes converge and become as one. So, set down this; set down this: To have given an entire generation a fresh way to read the classics of modernism is success enough for any manjack of misprision, however superb or conceited, and among pliers of that crafty art, The Pound Era‘s author was a oner of the most special kind. Thus, I can only repeat, but with the urgency of forty years ago: READ HIM.[/private]

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- who has written 19 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.

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