Jon Elek, Hugh Kenner - Obituary, in The Guardian (28 Nov. 2003)

[ Details: Jon Elek, ‘Hugh Kenner: Literary critic with a passion for Ezra Pound’ [obituary] in Guardian, (Friday, 28 Nov. 2003).Guardian - online - accessed 13.09.2008 ]

The north American critic Hugh Kenner, who has died aged 80 following heart problems, produced some of the most perceptive accounts of literary modernism. Much of his knowledge was gained at first hand, by following Ezra Pound’s injunction “to visit the great men of your time”. Pound provided the letters of introduction, and his pupil embarked with unrelenting zest on his grand tour, later described in The Elsewhere Community (1998), which also contains Pound’s definition of modernism as “simple words placed in natural order”.

Thus Kenner befriended the titans of the movement: T. S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Basil Bunting and Louis Zukofsky. The only one he could not get to was Ernest Hemingway, because it would have meant a separate trip to Cuba.

Despite his wanderings, Kenner retained an unswerving fidelity to Pound, whom he promoted as the central presence in modernist writing. At a time when Eliot was enthroned as the monarch of contemporary letters, Kenner argued that the era had, in fact, belonged to Pound.

Though he made his case effectively, it was inevitably regarded as unconventional and tendentious, since the dedicatee of Eliot’s The Waste Land was being held as a prisoner in St Elizabeth’s hospital for the criminally insane, just outside Washington, DC. He was detained there, from 1946 to 1958, on a treason charge, for making radio broadcasts in support of Mussolini from wartime Italy.

In 1948, Kenner, who had been born in Peterborough, Ontario, visited Pound in St Elizabeth’s with another Catholic Canadian, Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan, later best known as a communications scholar, had mentored the precocious undergraduate to a bachelor’s degree (1945) and a master’s (1946) at the University of Toronto, and had written the introduction to his first book, Paradox In Chesterton (1947) [recte 1948]

At McLuhan’s prompting, Kenner left Toronto for Yale, where he took a doctorate in 1950 under the supervision of Cleanth Brooks, the leading light of American new criticism, with its emphasis on text rather than biographical and historical background.

At a time when what Kenner called “thickets of misunderstanding” kept Pound at a distance from most critics and professors of poetry, he took it upon himself to brush them aside. During one summer holiday, he returned to Ontario and spent six hours a day for six weeks writing The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951).

His labour of love was published by New Directions Press, a small firm founded by Pound’s old pupil and friend, James Laughlin. It established Kenner’s reputation as a major scholar, and did much to rehabilitate Pound’s literary reputation. As Laughlin put it, Kenner got Pound “listed on the academic stock exchange”.

A job at Santa Barbara College (now the University of California, Santa Barbara) followed, as did another couple of dozen books - on Joyce, Eliot, Lewis, Beckett and others, many of them still the strongest in their fields. Dublin’s Joyce (1956) and Joyce’s Voices (1978) were succeeded by Ulysses (1980), still in print and seeking to make Joyce’s complex masterpiece understandable.

Kenner adapted his critical style to suit the particular author under scrutiny, following Dr Johnson’s observation that literary criticism must be regarded as part of literature or be abandoned altogether. His work avoids academic jargon, and draws on a massive range of influences, seeing connections and parallels in unlikely places.

In a Los Angeles Times review, Richard Eder said of Kenner’s proactive approach that “he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes [literature], like a partygoer... You could not say whether his talking or listening is done with greater intensity.”

Kenner’s magnum opus is unquestionably The Pound Era (1971), the result of two decades of research. This encyclopaedic critical biography explicated the notoriously difficult poetry of Pound and his contemporaries with lively authority.

It begins, for instance, with an evocative account of a 1914 encounter between Pound and Henry James in London: “Toward the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring forth into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoat of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his Boston niece to the tone of things.” Kenner’s book dealt with Pound’s literary genius knowledgeably and carefully, and sympathetically revealed how such a mind could be duped by the vile ideology of fascism. Kenner himself deplored such politics.

In 1973, he left California for Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, where he remained until 1990. A post at the University of Georgia brought him once again to a more temperate climate, and he remained there until his retirement in 1999. He did not receive US citizenship, and found it amusing to be a perennial “resident alien”.

As a student, Kenner had been faced with a choice between writing and mathematics; his grandfather was a skilled mathematician, and his parents were classics teachers - the local school in Peterborough is named after his father. A childhood illness had left him partially deaf, and he took to reading copiously, reckoning to have covered most of the University of Toronto syllabus by the time he matriculated.

However, science and technology remained important, and he wrote A Guided Tour Of Buckminster Fuller (1973), an engaging account of the American techno-transcendentalist thinker; Geodesic Math And How To Use It (1976), on the theory behind Fuller’s celebrated dome structures; and Chuck Jones: A Flurry Of Drawings (1994), on the creator of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, arguing that Jones had invented an art that was as precise and technical as any other. In 1984, he even wrote a user’s guide to the Heath computer, one of which he built himself.

When I met Hugh Kenner last summer, he was dressed in a stripey, light-blue suit, with a bow tie and glasses slightly askew. Even then though, the quickness and sensitivity of his mind were evident. He recited long passages from memory, and told anecdotes of Tom, Sam and Ezra. When I mentioned that I had come from London, his face registered the vivid recollection of a gone world.

The Pound Era had been dedicated to the memory of his first wife, Mary Josephine Waite, with whom he had three daughters and two sons. A year after her death in 1964, he married Mary Anne Bittner, with whom he had a son and daughter; she and the seven children survive him.

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