Hugh Kenner

Groundbreaking literary critic

Thursday 27 November 2003 01:00

William Hugh Kenner, writer and critic: born Peterborough, Ontario 7 January 1923; Instructor, Santa Barbara College (later the University of California Santa Barbara) 1950-73; Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities, Johns Hopkins University 1973-91; Franklin and Callaway Professor of English, University of Georgia 1991-99; married 1947 Mary Waite (died 1964; two sons, three daughters), 1965 Mary Anne Bittner (one son, one daughter); died Athens, Georgia 24 November 2003.

Hugh Kenner was an important critic whose groundbreaking studies of Ezra Pound's work and influence had a profound effect on the 20th-century understanding of literary modernism.

His 25 books and many essays demonstrated an engaging combination of clarity, erudition and enthusiasm and, in his most notable study, The Pound Era (1971), he showed that he was ready to experiment with form in his critical work as the modernist writers he most admired had done in their poetry and fiction. Like those writers, his concerns were not confined to literature but extended into many areas of contemporary culture, and he was never afraid of controversy.

William Hugh Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario in 1923. His father, Henry Rowe Hocking, was the principal instructor of Latin and Greek and the baseball coach at Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational Institute (now School) and his mother, Mary, was a Classics teacher. Kenner went to the Peterborough Institute and then on to the University of Toronto.

His most influential tutor was Marshall McLuhan, later to become a 1960s guru of media theory, but at that time a follower of the English literary critic F.R. Leavis and of American New Criticism. Kenner responded positively to McLuhan's emphases on close attention to the literary text and rigorous judgement, and gained his bachelor's degree in 1945 and his master's in 1946, winning a Gold Medal in English; encouraged by McLuhan, he went on to study for a PhD. His first book, Paradox in Chesterton, came out in 1948.

In 1948, Kenner and McLuhan visited Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, DC, where Pound was detained after being diagnosed as mentally ill following his arrest for treason because of the wartime radio broadcasts he had made in Italy. Pound struck Kenner as "the most active mind I have ever experienced" and the meeting sharpened his interest in Pound's work. In six weeks from July to August 1949, on a trestle table under pines overlooking a lake in Ontario, he took time off from his holiday and from his formal PhD studies to write The Poetry of Ezra Pound.

The book, published in 1951, marked a turning-point in Pound's fortunes and Kenner's own; Pound's reputation, long overshadowed by that of T.S. Eliot, had been deeply soiled by his pro-Fascist and anti-Semitic views; because of this, there had been much controversy over the award of the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1949 to Pound's Pisan Cantos. Kenner's book aimed to direct attention to Pound's poetry, "to help as many people as possible to read Pound for themselves" and to invent ways of discussing his work - as Kenner later observed, "Nobody in 1949 knew how to talk about Pound's poetry."

The Poetry of Ezra Pound won the Porter Prize and established Kenner as a pioneering and deeply perceptive critic; although, as Kenner himself acknowledged in 1985, later scholarship, including his own, superseded his early book in many respects, it remains a lively, learned and wide-ranging introduction to Pound's poetry.

After gaining his PhD, Kenner obtained a post as an Instructor at Santa Barbara College (later the University of California at Santa Barbara) and taught there until 1973. During his years at Santa Barbara, he produced many books, including Wyndham Lewis (1954), Dublin's Joyce (1958) and his compelling study of T.S. Eliot, The Invisible Poet (1960). But his culminating work was The Pound Era. As its title suggests, this book sought to identify Pound as the commanding presence in literary modernism, influencing Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams and the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.

Kenner located Pound's importance in the way that he had broken free of 19th-century linear concepts of time and developed poetic techniques that brought out the vivid existence of words and images from the past in the present: according to Kenner, for example, Chinese ideograms were, for Pound, "neither archaic nor modern. Like cave paintings they exist now, with the strange extra-temporal persistence of objects in space." The Pound Era was remarkable not only for the range and depth of its explorations, but also for the unusual way in which it was organised. Like Pound's poetry, it accumulated "luminous details" and departed from strict chronology to complement its argument that modernism was characterised by a different experience of time.

In 1973, Kenner left Santa Barbara for Johns Hopkins University, where he became Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities in 1975. In 1991, he moved to the University of Georgia and taught there until his retirement in 1999. His later books continued to explore modernism and its aftermath, for example in A Colder Eye: the modern Irish writers (1983) and A Sinking Island: the modern English writers (1988); he also commented more widely on current cultural issues, but, perhaps taking his cue from his old mentor Marshall McLuhan, he refused simply to deplore contemporary media.

In The Elsewhere Community (1998), he observed that the Internet, while it could not replace the direct presence of a teacher, "offers something one-on-one presence does not: access to any mentor who has a computer, anywhere in the world. Media always offers gains, though offset by losses." Kenner remained actively engaged with the modern world until his death at the age of 80, after suffering from heart problems. He will be remembered as an admirably astute and energetic critic whose work, at its best, conveys the excitement of modernist writing and shares Pound's desire to "make it new" by bringing the vital elements of literature and culture, from whatever era, vividly to bear on the present.

Nicolas Tredell

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