Sir Frank Kermode: Academic and pre-eminent literary critic who reached out to a non-specialist audience

Paul Levy
Saturday 21 August 2010 00:00 BST

Sir Frank Kermode was probably the most widely known academic critic and university teacher of English literature since FR Leavis.

He occupied a most unusual position in English letters that has few rivals today (save perhaps John Bayley), as his name and views were familiar to an extensive non-specialist reading audience. Though he was not a telly don making regular media appearances, he was involved in some public controversies and accepted several public appointments. In the 1960s he gave evidence that Last Exit to Brooklyn was not obscene; and in the '70s he was a judge for the first Booker prize, was on the Arts Council, edited the celebrated Masters of Modern Thought series, and ran a trendy Arts Lab on the South Bank.

As we learned from his wryly funny, slightly melancholic 1996 memoir, Not Entitled, despite having achieved every high post and honour available to one in his field, Kermode felt himself to be an eternal outsider – rather enjoying what he called a "permanent condition of mild alienation". This owed much to his background. He was born in 1919 and brought up on Douglas on the Isle of Man, where his father worked as a warehouseman for the ferry company and his mother was a former waitress who had been abandoned as an infant by her own parents, as they were emigrating to America. He attended Douglas High School, but was hindered by undiagnosed myopia, and the expectation of his parents that he would go away to university but return to the island and have a career as a schoolteacher, which led to a breakdown.

He took his BA from Liverpool in 1940, where he had felt himself to be not academically first-rate (though he seems to have written a book when aged only 20, a study of theatre manager Aaron Hill, the initial librettist for Handel's Rinaldo and the first impresario to bring castrato singers to England; Kermode does not list this in his Who's Who entry). That year he joined the Royal Navy, in which he remained until 1946, though a good deal of his work consisted of increasingly frustrated attempts to lay anti-warship and anti-submarine booms off the Iceland coast. He also was secretary to a succession of what he called "mad captains".

On being demobbed Kermode returned to Liverpool, hoping for a career as a writer, and took his MA the following year. He once said that he then applied for a post at Leeds, but lost out to rivals called Kettle and Fisch. He got a job lecturing at the intellectually exciting King's College, Newcastle, then part of the University of Durham, and then, in 1949 at Reading, which he said was the happiest part of his life. From 1958-65 he was at Manchester as John Edward Taylor Professor of English. In these years he was first known as a Shakespeare scholar, having produced the still-used Arden edition of The Tempest (1954), and following it with Romantic Image (1957), the book reconciling Romanticism and Modernism, which made his academic reputation.

Works on John Donne (1957) and Milton (1960) followed, along with a volume on Wallace Stevens (1960), which can fairly be said to have introduced many British readers to the great American poet's "lucid, inescapable rhythms", and a collection of pieces, Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962). As with Continuities (1968), many of these first appeared in the political weeklies, the New Statesman and Spectator – for though current readers might be surprised, these papers used to carry heavyweight, serious, though non-specialist criticism in their back pages.

Kermode occupied the Winterstoke chair of English at Bristol from 1965-67 and then took up the Lord Northcliffe Professorship at University College London until 1974, during which time he published half a dozen books, including (with John Hollander) the Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973). He then went, not altogether happily, to Cambridge, as the King Edward VII Professor, until 1982, and was a Fellow of King's until 1987. He held several appointments in America, chief of which were Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry (1977-78) and his later association with Columbia in New York. Part of the result of his becoming so well- known in America was a clutch of honorary degrees from the University of Chicago, Yale, Columbia and Harvard, to add to his British, Dutch and French honours; he was knighted for services to literature in 1991.

It was during these middle years that he made his big public splash as editor of the Fontana Masterguides and the Modern Masters series, with their eye-catching paperback covers and titles on Wittgenstein, Chomsky, Marcuse and Lévi-Strauss that showed how plugged-in the series editor was to the currents of American and European intellectual life. At UCL he gave a popular seminar on the new, mostly French, Structuralist linguistic and literary theorising. But it was also when Kermode showed that he was less than astute politically. He had written for Encounter magazine for years, and in 1965 allowed himself to be persuaded to take over its editorship from Stephen Spender. In the course of the next two years it became clear that the organisation that funded the magazine was a CIA-front, at a time when the CIA was widely regarded as being sinister. Kermode was naturally reluctant to believe this, as he had been assured by Encounter's publisher, Melvin Lasky, that the magazine was independent of the sides in the Cold War, and neutral. When the truth could no longer be denied, he resigned.

Cambridge was another snake-pit. After he left, he said that the English faculty was "exceptionally hostile to any kind of thought at all" and that there he'd spent "eight years, all of which I somewhat regret". Part of the problem was that the faculty was at war, with pitched battles between the traditionalists, who favoured the close-reading-of-the-text approach of Kernode's predecessors Leavis, IA Richards, William Empson and LC Knights, and the radical young dons who were fervent believers in "theory" and interdisciplinary studies, wanting to connect up everything from cultural anthroplogy to cinema.

War broke out over the faculty board's decision to defer the promotion of one of the Young Theory Turks, Colin McCabe, who was himself campaigning for changes to the curriculum. Kermode was sympathetic to the younger dons and understood their arguments, but he also knew exactly what it was that frightened their elders. His unsuccessful attempts to mediate caused him to feel bitter. He was succeeded at Cambridge by a famous "close-reader", Christopher Ricks.

In 1979, when the London Review of Books was first published in emulation of its New York namesake, Kermode was a founder, along with its original editor Karl Miller, who had edited many of Kermode's previous journalism. Their ambition was to publish pieces whose value would outlive the occasion for their appearance, and Kermode continued to write for the LRB almost until his death. Kermode published his Harvard lectures, also in 1979, as The Genesis of Secrecy. He was now interesting himself in the close reading of religious as well as poetic texts, with his account of mankind's "brooding on apocalypse", and with Robert Alter he edited The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987). He admitted that he had a "faint absenteeist affection" for the Church of England.

While he defended the time he had spent on "theory", the dozen or so books he published between then and his last work, Concerning EM Forster (2009, published on his 90th birthday) continued to focus on the classics of English literature – though he allowed that plenty of these had been written in the 20th century – and explored the idea of a canon of particularly valuable works of the literary imagination.

Kermode had two long marriages. The first to Maureen Eccles in 1947 was dissolved in 1970; in 1978 he married the American academic Anita Van Vactor. That marriage also ended in divorce. Kermode was a genial, humorous, pipe-smoking, man, whose distressing mishap in 1996 was compounded by his affability.

Awaiting the removal men, he answered the door to two burly fellows, and even helped them to shift the 50 boxes that contained his precious 2,500-volume library, including several rare books. The men, however, were refuse collectors, and the entire collection went into the maw of the municipal dustcart.

Sir John Frank Kermode, critic and academic: born Douglas, Isle of Man 29 November 1919; Lecturer, King's College, Newcastle 1947–49; Lecturer, Reading University 1949–58; John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature, Manchester University 1958–65; Winterstoke Professor of English, Bristol University 1965–67; Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature, UCL 1967–74, Honorary Fellow 1996; King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, Cambridge University 1974–82; Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1974–87, Honorary Fellow 1988. Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard 1977–78; Kt 1991; married 1947 Maureen Eccles (divorced 1970, died 2004; two sons, one daughter), 1978 Anita Van Vactor (marriage dissolved); died Cambridge 17 August 2010.

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