Hugh's world view: Literary critic Kenner saw a lifelong partnership between humanities and science
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 December 2003)

He arrived in Toronto in the early 1940s, a quiet boy from the small city of Peterborough, Ont., hardly an obvious candidate for academic stardom. A childhood disease had severely limited Hugh Kenner's hearing, and his unclear speech suggested the accent of a country no one else had visited. But for a college freshman, he was peculiarly learned. The son of two classics teachers, he knew Latin and Greek. Moreover, he had become a serious reader after his impairment made conversation frustrating. He already knew much of the literature that most people first encounter in college. He was ready for the University of Toronto, and it was ready for him. In fact, it had a special gift waiting for him.

By the time he died last week, at the age of 80, Kenner had spent decades on a unique perch in the aviary of literary criticism. He was one of the most eminent Canadians in world literature, though he worked nearly all his life in the United States, as a professor at Santa Barbara, then Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, then the University of Georgia. He remained a Canadian citizen, partly because he felt comfortable as an alien, like the writers he discussed with witty understanding: Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.

He was never for a moment ordinary. His 606-page masterwork, The Pound Era (1971), brings together an unclassifiable collection of theories, anecdotes, gossip and intellectual history, all of it adding up to an argument that the mad, vicious, brilliant Pound was more responsible than anyone else for breaking 20th-century literature out of the prison of Victorian sensibility. To many readers, The Pound Era at first seemed eccentric, but it has gone into seven printings and become everybody's favourite among Kenner's two dozen or so books.

On Pound's advice, Kenner sought acquaintance with writers he admired, which led to some of the experiences he described in his 1997 Massey Lectures, published as The Elsewhere Community. He thought Beckett "the sweetest man I've ever known" and tried to learn from his prose that "elegance comes less from ornament than from sparseness." There was something in Kenner of the perpetual fan. When he visited Eliot in the 1950s he acquired the name of his tailor and went off to have a suit made for himself in Albemarle Street. The tailor, speaking only as a tailor, said Eliot had good taste and added the best one-sentence appraisal of him that Kenner ever heard: "Never ... ever ... quite ... in excess."

In 1994, aged 71, Kenner astonished even his long-time admirers by writing Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, a shrewdly imaginative book about the Warner Bros. cartoon director who gave the world Wile E. Coyote. That kind of interest owed something to the gift that Toronto had for him in the 1940s: his association with Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan often gets identified as Kenner's mentor, which doesn't quite tell the story. In 1947 McLuhan wrote the introduction to the 24-year-old Kenner's first book, about G.K. Chesterton. He encouraged Kenner to do a PhD at Yale, and when the dissertation appeared in 1951 as The Poetry of Ezra Pound, it was dedicated to McLuhan. They spoke of writing books together, but a coolness developed. McLuhan, always concerned about possessing his ideas, began thinking Kenner was using as his own certain insights they had discussed. Philip Marchand's biography of McLuhan quotes his resentful remark: "I have fed Kenner too much off my plate."

Two years ago, looking back, Kenner told an interviewer: "I had the advantage of being exposed to Marshall when he was at his most creative, and then of getting to the far end of the continent shortly afterward, when he couldn't get me on the phone all the time. He could be awfully controlling." Eventually "it was a good thing to get clear of him." They were moving toward sharply different styles of work: Kenner's books are thorough and considered, McLuhan's scattered and unfocused.

Kenner's talent for mathematics (which he once considered as a career) saved him from the pathetic fear of technology that paralyzes many literary people. Uniquely, he was comfortable with engineering. In 1973 he wrote a wonderful book about the inventor of geodesic domes, Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller; three years later, moving farther into Fuller's world, he wrote Geodesic Math and How to Use It. (Kenner, never lacking chutzpah, claimed he understood the subject better than Fuller.)

In the early 1980s, when other literary people were hoping computers would go away or at least be operated only by secretaries, Kenner argued that they would be as significant as the invention of the alphabet or the development of movable type. He loved studying the way humans select and organize data, and he welcomed the computer as a terrific new tool. He became the first major literary figure to embrace digital technology. He built a computer, and in 1984 Aperture Press published one of his more surprising books, the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide. He contributed a regular column to Byte magazine and wrote a program that randomly scrambled literary texts. It arranged the words in two of Pound's lines in 12 different ways, producing a delightful surrealist poem that appeared in the Partisan Review.

These affections looked both alien and outlandish to Kenner's colleagues in literary studies, but he refused to accept the existence of a natural antipathy between engineering and the humanities. In one excellent little book, The Mechanic Muse, he wrote a detailed, affectionate essay about the now-vanished linotype machine, which made modern literary culture and journalism possible. He followed carefully the influence of mechanical inventions on literature, not only in obvious cases (Hemingway's prose reflecting the invention of the typewriter) but also Eliot's position as "chief poet of the alarm clock," the writer who depicted the world of work and commuting regulated by the clock.

Kenner was a worldly philosopher. In his view, science and literature, far from being antagonists, moved side by side into the future as partners, each interpreting or enhancing the other, each taking its place as part of modernity. Their relationship, and their place in our lives, illustrated a central message of Kenner's work: Do not send to ask what Joyce and Beckett are writing about; they are writing about you.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page