Hugh Kenner, RIP

|

Hugh Kenner, a great Canadian, a great literary critic, and a great polymath, is dead at the age of 80. This interview, in which Kenner says one smart thing after another, gives a pretty good overview of his range of interests. Aside from his classic critique of modernism The Pound Era, Kenner also did a study of the animation of Chuck Jones and was also an early computer nerd, an early internet adopter and a columnist for Byte magazine. His short book on Ulysses is an astoundingly bright and succinct piece of criticism, and is so lucidly written that I kept thinking each of Kenner's observations was something I'd thought of myself. He was also remarkably free of cant and narrow affiliations: Although he was a conservative and wrote for National Review, his hilarious review of The Poetry of Richard Milhaus Nixon is one of the greatest pieces of mock literary criticism of all time. And unlike many Joyce scholars who praise Joyce's fondness for and use of lowbrow literature while deploring the lowbrow entertainment of their own time, Kenner didn't do disdain. Here he is quoted in The New York Times' obit, talking about the rise of television culture:

"We forget that most of what people read when everybody read all the time was junk ? competent junk," he told U.S. News & World Report. "Now they get it from television. The casual entertainment people get in The evening from the box was what they used to get from the short fiction in The Saturday Evening Post. That magazine and others like it were the situation comedies and cop shows of their era. It is not a cultural loss that this particular use of literacy has been transferred from one medium to another."

In short, Hugh Kenner put Harold Bloom in the shithouse. I'm sorry to see him go.

Advertisement

NEXT: Who Needs Jury Nullification?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Can’t Hugh Kenner and Harold Bloom both have brought something to the table? Like you might learn something from Kenner about forswearing disdain in one breath and then practicing it in the next. It’s not like literary criticism is a zero-sum game, although elitist snobbery apparently is. Show a little class. Pointing out that you think Kenner’s dick is longer than Bloom’s is not only tactless, but reveals your own lack of manhood. Most people have heard of Kenner, much less Bloom. Who’s heard of Cavanaugh?

  2. I never heard of Kenner. Harold Bloom is pretty good. He’s afraid of animals, is all; but you don’t need animal literacy in literary criticism that much. You can skip any Bloom animal section if it comes up.

    Kenner is not in my large book of essays by Canadian literary critics, for what that’s worth. Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, H.A.Innis, etc.

  3. Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound” era is a work of art, a work of histroy, as well as a book of criticism. It is staggeringly brilliant and well-written.

    He was a bit of an odd bird — not a part of any critical fraternity, though many tried to claim him.

    I saw him in a panel at Stanford University about twenty years ago, and he had a profound speech impediment — he was very difficult to listen to. I remember after his 20 minute talk, a Stanford professor turned to me and asked, “Who is this ‘Ari Stawa’ Kenner keeps talking about?”

    “He was talking about Aristotle.”

  4. Yes, he learned ABOUT forswearing disdain, , he didn’t forswear disdain himself.

  5. Tim – I think you should write something about Kenner’s conservativism. I never really got it. He wasnt a Catholic like McLuhan or G.K. Chesterton. He scorned the conformity that would later be parodied as “political correctness,” but this seems insufficient. I know he was friends with Buckley, so he must be a conservative, but on the other hand I’ve read lots of his occassional essays (collected in Mazes and another book whose title I forget) and can’t remember much that I would call conservative. It is kind of a mystery. Who’s writing the bio? I posted a short tribute of my own at Aether (http://www.aether.com).

  6. Kenner also appears to rip a gaping hole in Neil Postman’s deterministic arguments regard television.

  7. Thank you, Tim. I enjoyed the interview immensely.

  8. Whoever wrote the anonymous post:

    Snobbery? Bloom is the King Lear of snobs. Have you heard him discourse on the topic of popular literature in any recent interviews? Have you heard him on the theatre when he starts saying, a la Charles Lamb, that no actor can make a play live as it does in the mind of a truly great reader (i.e., Harold Bloom)? Just because he’s become a huckster in his senescence and written some bad popularizing books like Shakespeare and the Invention of Harold Bloom (er, the Human), don’t think he’s any sort of intellectual democrat.

  9. Why would anyone want to listen to an intellectual democrat? It’s pretty obvious that all men are *not* created equal when it comes to intellect.

    Hugh Kenner championed Ezra Pound; Harold Bloom championed the High Romantic poets against the opinions Pound-Eliot school. I have to side with Bloom. Shelley’s poetry is as vital as it ever was, while Pound’s is a package of mouldy scraps and Eliot is not much better. What does anyone get from Pound’s poetry? My impression is that people still praise Pound because they admire something in his personality, rather than his actual poetry.

  10. In the summer of 1970 when I was a sophmore I knocked on the door of Kenner’s office. I was not his student, but I had a question about the two versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude. He was wonderful and we talked easily for an hour. Later I took a class with him (French Symbolism). Once he said E. A. Poe was the first to say such and such. I raised my hand: No, that was already in a letter of John Keats. Could I leave the reference in his mail box? Sure. Next class, first thing: “I stand corrected. I want to thank Mr. …”. A gentleman and a scholar. Sure he talked funny (I can do an imitation) and was hard of hearing, but so what? 15 years later I ran into him by accident. Same charming guy. R.I.P.

  11. When people comment on Pound and Shelley and the history of poetry I’d like to know what ancient and medieval European languages they can read.

  12. My impression is that people still praise Pound because they admire something in his personality, rather than his actual poetry.

    No, I have severe problems with Pound’s personality, and I adore his poetry in spite of those problems. And if you can’t get it from, say, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley or the Pisan Cantos, then you have a tin ear and should leave the academy immediately.

    I missed my chance to meet Kenner when I spent a summer in Athens, Ga. – he was travelling. It’s something I regret even more today. The Pound Era made me appreciate that it’s possible to write literary criticism that isn’t dry or parasitic, but is itself vital, illuminating and literary.

    His conservatism was, I suppose, like Pound’s before it went toxic. Le paradis n’est pas artificiel.

  13. Mr. Wolf: For what it’s worth, William F. Buckley’s Nearer, My God refers to Kenner as a Catholic. (See pages 89 and 107 of the paperback edition.)
    Sounds like a guy I would like – Catholic, conservative, but not a snob about television and pop culture. Thanks, Mr. Cavanaugh, for bringing him to my attention.

  14. Mr. Kabala – yes, an article in Slate recently mentioned that Kenner was a convert to Catholicism. His funeral was held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 28, at St. Joseph?s Catholic Church. I apologize for the error.

  15. I have to say I’ve only read Bloom while I was lucky enough to know Hugh Kenner for a good number of years.

    Hugh Kenner was the funniest man – as well as the strongest intellect – that I have ever come across. More than anything else, I’d describe as a wonderful teacher who took the time to truly understand his subject. His endless tales of meetings with Beckett, Yeats and yes, Ezra Pound were endlessly fascinating.

    But, the trouble with having an intellect the size of Hugh’s is: it can, at times, inspire jealousy, the old green monster!

    Certainly, the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society here in Ireland will not readily forget Hugh, his kindness, his wise advice, his generosity to us over the seventeen years of our existence.

    Viv Abbott

  16. I have to say I’ve only read Bloom while I was lucky enough to know Hugh Kenner for a good number of years.

    Hugh Kenner was the funniest man – as well as the strongest intellect – that I have ever come across. More than anything else, I’d describe as a wonderful teacher who took the time to truly understand his subject. His endless tales of meetings with Beckett, Yeats and yes, Ezra Pound were endlessly fascinating.

    But, the trouble with having an intellect the size of Hugh’s is: it can, at times, inspire jealousy, the old green monster!

    Certainly, the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society here in Ireland will not readily forget Hugh, his kindness, his wise advice, his generosity to us over the seventeen years of our existence.

    Viv Abbott

  17. I have to say I’ve only read Bloom while I was lucky enough to know Hugh Kenner for a good number of years.

    Hugh Kenner was the funniest man – as well as the strongest intellect – that I have ever come across. More than anything else, I’d describe as a wonderful teacher who took the time to truly understand his subject. His endless tales of meetings with Beckett, Yeats and yes, Ezra Pound were endlessly fascinating.

    But, the trouble with having an intellect the size of Hugh’s is: it can, at times, inspire jealousy, the old green monster!

    Certainly, the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society here in Ireland will not readily forget Hugh, his kindness, his wise advice, his generosity to us over the seventeen years of our existence.

    Viv Abbott

  18. I have to say I’ve only read Bloom while I was lucky enough to know Hugh Kenner for a good number of years.

    Hugh Kenner was the funniest man – as well as the strongest intellect – that I have ever come across. More than anything else, I’d describe as a wonderful teacher who took the time to truly understand his subject. His endless tales of meetings with Beckett, Yeats and yes, Ezra Pound were endlessly fascinating.

    But, the trouble with having an intellect the size of Hugh’s is: it can, at times, inspire jealousy, the old green monster!

    Certainly, the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society here in Ireland will not readily forget Hugh, his kindness, his wise advice, his generosity to us over the seventeen years of our existence.

    Viv Abbott

  19. I have to say I’ve only read Bloom while I was lucky enough to know Hugh Kenner for a good number of years.

    Hugh Kenner was the funniest man – as well as the strongest intellect – that I have ever come across. More than anything else, I’d describe as a wonderful teacher who took the time to truly understand his subject. His endless tales of meetings with Beckett, Yeats and yes, Ezra Pound were endlessly fascinating.

    But, the trouble with having an intellect the size of Hugh’s is: it can, at times, inspire jealousy, the old green monster!

    Certainly, the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society here in Ireland will not readily forget Hugh, his kindness, his wise advice, his generosity to us over the seventeen years of our existence.

    Viv Abbott

  20. I have to say I’ve only read Bloom while I was lucky enough to know Hugh Kenner for a good number of years.

    Hugh Kenner was the funniest man – as well as the strongest intellect – that I have ever come across. More than anything else, I’d describe as a wonderful teacher who took the time to truly understand his subject. His endless tales of meetings with Beckett, Yeats and yes, Ezra Pound were endlessly fascinating.

    But, the trouble with having an intellect the size of Hugh’s is: it can, at times, inspire jealousy, the old green monster!

    Certainly, the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society here in Ireland will not readily forget Hugh, his kindness, his wise advice, his generosity to us over the seventeen years of our existence.

    Viv Abbott

  21. check out the kenner website…memorial service in april

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.