Kenner, (William) Hugh 1923-2003
KENNER, (William) Hugh 1923-2003
PERSONAL: Born January 7, 1923, in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada; died November 24, 2003, in Athens, GA; son of Henry Rowe Hocking (a high school principal) and Mary Isabel (Williams) Kenner; married Mary Josephine Waite, August 30, 1947 (died, 1964); married Mary Anne Bittner, August 13, 1965; children: (first marriage) Catherine, Julia, Margaret, John, Michael; (second marriage) Robert, Elizabeth. Education: University of Toronto, B.A., 1945, M.A., 1946; Yale University, Ph.D., 1950. Religion: Roman Catholic.
CAREER: Assumption College (now University of Windsor), Windsor, Ontario, Canada, assistant professor, 1946-48; University of California, Santa Barbara, instructor, 1950-51, assistant professor, 1951-56, associate professor, 1956-58, professor of English, 1958-73, department chairman, 1956-62; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, professor of English, 1973-75, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, 1975-91, department chairman, 1980-84; University of Georgia, Athens, Franklin Professor and Callaway Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, 1991-99, professor emeritus, 1999—. Visiting professor, University of Michigan, 1956, University of Chicago, 1962, and University of Virginia, 1963. Alexander Lecturer, University of Toronto, 1973; T.S. Eliot Memorial Lecturer, University of Kent, 1975; Christian Gauss Lecturer, Princeton University, 1975; F. W. Bateson Memorial Lecturer, Oxford University, 1987. Northrop Frye Chair, University of Toronto, 1985; Ames Professor, University of Washington, 1988.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Council of Learned Societies fellow, 1949; Porter Prize, 1950; American Philosophical Society fellow, 1956; Guggenheim fellow, 1957-58, 1964; National Institute of Arts and Letters/American Academy of Arts and Letters prize, 1969; Christian Gauss Award, 1972, for The Pound Era. D.H.L. University of Chicago, 1976, Trent University, 1977, Marlboro College, 1978, and University of Windsor, 1983. LL.D., University of Notre Dame, 1984.
The Poetry of Ezra Pound, New Directions (Norfolk, CT), 1951, reprinted, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1985.
Dublin's Joyce, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1955, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1956, reprinted, Columbia University Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Gnomon: Essays in Contemporary Literature, McDowell, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1958.
The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, McDowell, Obolensky (New York, NY), 1959.
Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1962, published as The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1974, published as Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians, illustrated by Guy Davenport, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2005.
The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1968, reprinted, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1987.
The Pound Era, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1971.
A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, Farrar, Strauss (New York, NY), 1973.
Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller, Morrow (New York, NY), 1973.
A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, Knopf (New York, NY), 1975.
Geodesic Math and How to Use It, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1976.
Joyce's Voices, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1978.
Ulysses, Allen & Unwin (Boston, MA), 1980, revised edition, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1987.
A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Heath-Zenith Z-100 User's Guide, Brady Communications (Bowie, MD), 1984.
The Mechanic Muse, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1987, reprinted, Replica Books, 2001.
A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
Magic and Spells (chapbook), Bennington, 1988.
Historical Fictions: Essays, North Point Press (San Francisco, CA), 1990.
Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1994.
(With Charles O. Hartman) Sentences, Sun & Moon Press (Los Angeles, CA), 1995.
The Elsewhere Community, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Also author, with Edmund Wilson, of Axel's Castle: A Study of the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930.
The Art of Poetry, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1959.
T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1962.
Seventeenth Century Poetry: The Schools of Donne and Jonson, Holt (New York, NY), 1964.
Studies in Change: A Book of the Short Story, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1965.
(And author of introduction) The Translations of Ezra Pound, Faber (New York, NY), 1970.
(With others) A Starchamber Quiry: A James Joyce Centennial Volume, 1882-1982, Methuen (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Seamus Cooney, Bradford Morrow, and Bernard Larourcade) Blast 3, Black Sparrow Press (Santa Barbara, CA), 1985.
Desmond Egan: The Poet & His Work, Northern Lights (Orono, ME), 1990.
(And author of introduction) Desmond Egan, Selected Poems, Creighton University Press/Kavanagh Press (Omaha, NE), 1992.
Contributor to essay collections, including Essays by Divers Hands, [London], 1958, Eliot in His Time, A. Walton Litz, editor, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1973, Literary Theory and Structure: Essays Presented to William K. Wimsatt, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1973, Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1979, and The State of the Language, Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, editors, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980. Contributor of reviews and articles to journals and periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Hugh Kenner was one of the nation's leading literary critics, particularly known for his works on this century's modernist writers. As Michiko Kakutani stated in the New York Times, "Kenner has earned a well-deserved reputation as our pre-eminent expert on modernism in English." His books on Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce have been received as important contributions to modern literary criticism. Joann Gardner, in an article for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, explained that Kenner "has put his hand to most of the major modern writers, defining their positions historically and offering unique perspectives on difficult and essential works."
In analyzing the works of modernist writers, Kenner often relied on the methods proposed by the writers themselves. He took their literary criteria as the standard by which to judge their work. As Gardner noted, "Kenner invests the artist with an authority and stature often disallowed by modern criticism." This approach has been well received. Douglas Baiz maintained in the Chicago Tribune that Kenner "gives literary criticism a good name. His writing is muscular: clean, direct, free of jargon and obscurities. He wears his considerable learning lightly, even wittily . . . , and he displays an obvious sympathy for the writers he is examining. He flays no dead horses, scatters no red herrings, demolishes no straw men, and when he enters a lecture hall, he comes to praise Caesar, not to bury him."
Kenner's works on Ezra Pound in particular have been pivotal in establishing the author's reputation. A poet, critic, editor, and translator, Pound was the catalytic force behind much of modern literature. In addition to publishing books of poetry, criticism, and translation, Pound also edited the works of many other writers who later achieved prominence, such as T. S. Eliot, and worked to get the talents of promising writers appreciated by the literary community. But during the Second World War, Pound lost what respect and position he had in the literary world. Convinced that the government of Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was successfully overcoming the economic problems caused by the depression, and in the process circumventing the dire influences of bureaucracy and the banking community, Pound broadcast a series of radio messages on behalf of the Italian government during the war. At war's end, Pound was charged with treason. Found to be unfit for trial, he was hospitalized for some fourteen years in a mental asylum.
In 1951, Kenner's The Poetry of Ezra Pound was the first book published in the United States to decry Pound's political beliefs and yet argue persuasively on behalf of his literary achievement. Bonamy Dobree of the Spectator believed that in this book "Kenner has gone far to achieve what he set out to do, make the reader see Mr. Pound as a poet possibly great, and certainly important to our time." Kenner's argument for taking Pound's literary work seriously proved to be highly influential. Writing in the Saturday Review, C. David Heymann noted that since the publication of Kenner's study, "the first published in this country, . . . the traffic of detailed and far-reaching investigations of and about Pound in the way of exegetical studies and explications, theses and dissertations, memoirs and biographies, has been practically nonstop." Gardner believed that Kenner's studies of Pound and British writer Wyndham Lewis have "done much to establish these figures as central to the modern tradition."
In The Pound Era, published in 1971, Kenner examines the course of twentieth-century literary history, tracing how the modernist writers created an aesthetic divorced from the artistic values of the nineteenth century. He sees Pound as an essential part of this development. "He sets out," Gardner explained, "to discover how the twentieth century had extricated itself from the influence of fin-de-siecle literature, and he places Ezra Pound at the vortex of the cultural movement." As Heymann noted, this movement "produced the likes of Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and their contemporaries, and . . . Pound was unquestionably the central and moving force."
Although some observers questioned the centrality of Pound's influence and felt that Kenner had exaggerated his importance, The Pound Era won praise for its depiction of Pound's role in twentieth century literature. Charles Molesworth, reviewing the book for the Nation, called it "clearly the capstone of [Kenner's] illustrious career" and maintained that it "clarifies our reading of Pound and his era better than any single book of criticism. Kenner's book is, quite simply, a work of art." Writing in the New York Review of Books, Michael Wood called The Pound Era "a brilliant, fascinating, and otherwise altogether satisfactory book." The reviewer for the New Republic described Kenner himself as "our most knowing and enthusiastic Pound scholar, a true disciple who partakes of the Pound conciseness, lives the Pound vision of art and language."
Kenner's analyses of the works of James Joyce have also proven to be influential. He wrote two books about the author, Dublin's Joyce and Joyce's Voices, and a seminal study of Joyce's most famous book, Ulysses. Kenner also wrote of Joyce in several critical surveys. In all of these works, he succeeded in rendering comprehensible Joyce's often difficult prose. A.
Walton Litz claimed in the Times Literary Supplement that "for over thirty years [Kenner] has been our finest reader of Ulysses." In his study of Ulysses, also titled Ulysses, Kenner "shows the reader how to read [the novel]—and shows him how exciting the experience can be," remarked a reviewer for the South Atlantic Quarterly. Kenner also turned his critical attention to other experimental writers, like Samuel Beckett, and presented their ideas and concerns in clear, understandable prose. Gardner maintained that Kenner's "analyses of Joyce, Beckett, and others have made the literary avant-garde accessible to a generation of scholars and students."
When writing of the major authors of the twentieth century, Kenner employed a witty and accessible prose that shows a great concern for the proper use of language. Thomas R. Edwards commented on Kenner's style in the New York Times Book Review. "It's always an unexpected pleasure," he stated, "to find serious literary criticism written as if the English language still mattered, as Hugh Kenner's writing insists that it does. In book after book . . . strong and supple thought finds its proper medium in a style of uncommon wit and pungency, writing whose powers of intellectual entertainment brazenly violate the first law of academic criticism: Be Thou Dull." Kenner's work also possesses an enthusiasm that several observers appreciated for its energy and willingness to take chances. As Richard Eder wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "Kenner doesn't write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest's dinner, eats some, and begins a one-to-one discussion. You could not say whether his talking or his listening is done with greater intensity."
Following the example of Pound, Kenner often united disparate elements of information in a single work in order to show connections between events and ideas that a more conventional approach may not reveal. Speaking in particular of Kenner's method in his critical surveys of British, Irish, and American modernists, John W. Aldridge in the New York Times Book Review called it a "curious but on the whole effective amalgam of anecdotes, character portraits, textual analysis, intellectual history and what Gore Vidal likes spenetically to call 'book chat.'" Wood observed that Kenner "combs the world like a critical Sherlock Holmes, isolating details, making distinctions, collecting verbal and technological specimens." Noted Thomas Flanagan in the Washington Post Book World, "Like Pound, [Kenner] knows how to argue by juxtaposition and surprise, how to use wit as a form of logic. He knows the value of the exact image and the resonant anecdote. And like Pound, he is a skilled swordsman; reading Kenner is a lively and illuminating experience but it is best to keep one's guard up."
Kenner's collection Mazes brings together an eclectic variety of essays, reviews, and columns. In it he discusses subjects as diverse as the literary canon, dictionaries, the movie King Kong, Charlie Chaplin, Georgia O'Keefe, and Einstein's theory of time. Suggesting that Mazes is characteristic of Kenner's "playfully associative method," Publishers Weekly contributor Genevieve Stuttaford claimed that the collection is "occasionally brilliant in its . . . interconnections." Sonja Bolle stated in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that although "the essays sometimes give the impression of grand contrivance rather than thoughtful expression . . . much of the information . . . is vastly entertaining." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Lois E. Nesbitt described Kenner's style as "verbal lacework," and noted: "Mr. Kenner is fascinated by how the human mind selects and organizes data," no matter what the object of contemplation is. Such engagement makes the essays "a pleasure to read," wrote Nesbitt.
The author's diverse interests and critical abilities also emerged in Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, a profile of the Warner Brothers' master animator, creator of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. A departure from Kenner's more serious work as a literary critic, Chuck Jones is "an entertaining profile" according to John Canemaker in the New York Times Book Review. Canemaker noted that "throughout the book Mr. Kenner connects literature to the master animator," and cited Kenner's remark that "'The stuff of animation is metamorphosis, and its theoretician ought to have been Ovid.'" "A more graceful and amusing appreciation of studio animation's history, art and craft," declared Canemaker, "would be hard to find." In the National Review, Terry Teachout declared: "Dozens of books, some of them good, have been written about Chuck Jones and his contemporaries. What makes this one special is that it is the work of a first-rate critic, a man experienced in the subtle art of seeing. . . . The result is a balanced and illuminating exercise in critical appreciation which is not only the best thing ever written about Hollywood animation but one of the best things ever written about any aspect of American popular culture."
The collection of essays following Mazes, titled Historical Fictions, again demonstrates Kenner's depth and breadth of knowledge. "The man knows too much," remarked Joseph Coates in the Chicago Tribune, and Judith Shulevitz asserted in the New York Times Book Review that "his giant wings prevent him from walking." Shulevitz's claim is that Kenner's ideas simply are too large for the forms presented in these essays. In spite of this observation—and although, as Shulevitz pointed out, Kenner "blithely ignores the past two decades of critical theory (as well as much of anything having to do with minorities and women)"—Historical Fictions, was deemed a pleasurable, informative book by both critics. Its project, as articulated by Coates, is "to protect from loss or manhandling . . . 'writers—a few of them per century—who make a permanent difference.'"
The Elsewhere Community illuminates Kenner's philosophy of the Grand Tour, a once-fashionable journey of discovery undertaken by gentlemen and ladies who wished to enhance their education. In Kenner's case he describes his meetings with Pound, Eliot, Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Georgie Yeats, the widow of poet William Butler Yeats, among other writers and thinkers. The book communicates Kenner's philosophy that self-improvement can as easily be accomplished by going out into the world as it can be by mere inward examination. Library Journal correspondent T. L. Cooksey found the title a "thoughtful, witty, and charming book."
A true polymath, Kenner also wrote a book on geodesic math as well as columns for Byte and Wired, two computer magazines. Kenner was one of the first non-scientific scholars to buy, construct, and use a computer; he was versed in computer programming language, computer algorithms, and quantum mechanics. In addition, he was hearing impaired. "I lost most of my hearing at the age of five," he said in an interview for Bookwire.com. "Hearing aids couldn't do anything for me until I was in my forties. Hearing aid doctors didn't even understand deafness, they thought it was inattention. So I just became accustomed to a world in which I got on by understanding what people were probably saying. It's amazing how far that would take you."
C. K. Stead, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, concluded: "Kenner's writing has a personal voice. He has the civility to be himself—not to pretend to be nobody; or God. His criticism is demanding, yet it is also open and available, without needless and pretentious obscurity . . . spiked with small pertinent narratives and with off-beat facts. He is the most readable of living critics, the one I should least like to be without."
For more than four decades, Kenner's literary criticism has illuminated many of the major works and authors of twentieth-century literature. "He is both the scholar and the celebrant of the Modernist movement, and has written well and instructively about its masters," Flanagan observed. Jane Larkin Crain of the Saturday Review ranked Kenner "among the most distinguished of contemporary literary critics, justly celebrated for the felicity and the accessibility of his prose." Michael Rosenthal, writing in the New York Times Book Review, claimed that Kenner "bestrides modern literature if not like a colossus then at least a presence of formidable proportions." Aldridge noted that for "over 40 years, he has written authoritatively and at length about most of the major 20th-century writers . . . and has established himself as one of the most distinguished critics now at work in the field."
Kenner's papers are collected at the University of Texas—Austin in the Harry Ransom Center for Humanities Research.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 67: Modern American Critics since 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Goodwin, Will, Kenner on Joyce: A Bibliography, E. A. Kopper (Butler, PA), 1991.
Goodwin, Will, Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography, Whitston Publishing (Albany, NY), 2001.
Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), March 22, 1997, Shermakaye Bass, "UT's Ransom Center to Offer Glimpse into Kenner's Varied Life," p. C8.
Booklist, August, 1994, pp. 2012, 2032; April 15, 2000, Ray Olson, review of The Elsewhere Community, p. 1518.
Bookworld, August 4, 1968; May 28, 1989, p. 12.
Chicago Tribune, March 3, 1987; January 29, 1988; July 20, 1989, p. 3; September 30, 1990, p. 9; January 15, 1995, p. 6.
Denver Quarterly, spring, 1977.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1994, p. 926.
Library Journal, May 15, 2000, T. L. Cooksey, review of The Elsewhere Community, p. 94.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 31, 1988; June 25, 1989, p. 6; July 2, 2000, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of The Elsewhere Community, p. 1.
Nation, March 20, 1972.
National Review, October 24, 1994, Terry Teachout, review of Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, p. 68.
New Republic, March 25, 1972; November 29, 1975.
New York Review of Books, February 13, 1969; February 8, 1973; April 17, 1975; May 12, 1983.
New York Times, March 28, 1972; February 4, 1975; November 29, 1986; December 28, 1990, p. 36.
New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1972; November 25, 1973; February 9, 1975; July 31, 1983; February 21, 1988; July 9, 1989, p. 19; September 30, 1990, p. 28; October 30, 1994, John Canemaker, review of Chuck Jones, p. 38.
Publishers Weekly, February 10, 1989, p. 60; April 17, 2000, "Adventures Abroad," p. 69.
Saturday Review, May 13, 1972; April 5, 1975.
South Atlantic Quarterly, winter, 1983.
Spectator, November 16, 1951; September 9, 1978.
Times Literary Supplement, May 5, 1978; December 12, 1980; January 25, 1991, p. 7.
Tribune Books, September 30, 1990, p. 9.
Village Voice, May 24, 1983.
Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1983.
Washington Post, July 9, 1989, p. 4; October 2, 1994, p. 13.
Washington Post Book World, May 8, 1983; April 3, 1988.