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 The Comic Critic 

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 hadn’t 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 didn’t offer intellectual shortcuts.

Kenner the critic took no interest in the critic’s 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 machine’s 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 twentieth century.

[Breaker quote: Hugh Kenner, RIP]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 man’s 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 Joyce’s 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 Canada’s 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 McLuhan’s elusive aperçus into a few crisp sentences. Coming from Hugh, they sounded like common sense.

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 couldn’t see. His contemporaries couldn’t 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 them.

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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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