When I read about the two-city symposium on Marshall McLuhan, co-chaired by Detroit and Windsor over the next few weeks, I thought back to the time when just about everybody seemed to be organizing a McLuhan symposium. And three seconds later I found myself thinking about Hugh Kenner, who was McLuhan's student and one of the world's best critics of modernist literature. Having read several of his books with great admiration and profit, I resent the fact that he's all but forgotten today.
As a writer on writing, Kenner (1923-2003) was invariably precise in his analogies ("Jane Austen worked with eggshell caution.") He inherited from McLuhan the habit of dashing into history and coming back with an insight: the Enlightenment, for instance, "hardly knew that it was happening."
Born in Peterborough, Ont., he was the child of two schoolteachers -- his father taught classics, his mother French and German. His feelings about literature were also inspired by reading the literary pieces often written by the editor of the local daily paper, Robertson Davies.
He went to the University of Toronto, where he studied with McLuhan. At the age of 24 he wrote his first book, on the British author G.K. Chesterton -- Paradox in Chesterton (1947), for which McLuhan wrote the introduction. They had become friends and McLuhan introduced him to Ezra Pound when they visited Pound in the Washington mental hospital where he was kept by the authorities as a result of his fascist wartime opinions. Kenner wrote The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951), a study that raised Pound's status in American letters. After years of research, he produced his masterpiece, The Pound Era (1971), which placed its subject at the centre of global culture.
Kenner went on to Yale and wrote a PhD thesis about James Joyce that won him a Yale prize and emerged later as a book, Dublin's Joyce (1956). His books usually focused on a single subject, but he had three for Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (1964). He sorted them into their separate talents -- Gustave Flaubert the "Comedian of the Enlightenment," James Joyce the listmaker as the "Comedian of the Inventory," and Samuel Beckett as the "Comedian of the Impasse," the poet of frustration.
No one could accuse Kenner of being narrowly literary. A technophile, he wrote one of the first user's manuals for personal computing. He produced a study of the architect Buckminster Fuller. He wrote a much-noted book on cartoon animation: Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings (1994), focused on the creator of Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, etc.
Kenner was a man of parts and the parts were always coherent, the result of an enviable combination of intelligence and passion. He deserves a larger place in cultural history than he's usually given.