Hugh Kenner, RIP


William F. Buckley Jr.

His sense of his own standing was probably resented by some of his colleagues. Envy is easy to do, but it wasn’t easy to dispute his claims to pre-eminence. When talking about himself — until recent years, always with lit cigarette in hand — he was a singular phenomenon. There was the disordered crown of bushy hair stretching from ear to ear atop a 6-foot-4 frame. Most noticeable was the odd accent. He spoke as though to a computer wired to learn the range of phonemes in the language. To communicate these exactly, the speaker was pronouncing his words with exaggerated clarity. The reason for this oddity was that as a very young child, the son of a schoolmaster in Canada, he was abandoned medically as deaf. His hearing, however, returned, though never wholly. The years of muteness required him to learn to speak afresh, causing that odd exactitude of enunciation. The words came with an astonishing lucidity. He wrote as he spoke, his command of language mesmerizing and awesome. He did not question his powers, or belittle his accomplishments. He managed a look of childlike innocence whenever the subject of his attainments was tangentially raised, much as a prince would react to mention of his bloodline. Anyone questioning it was thought of by everyone, himself included, as simply uninformed.

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Not everyone (myself included) has the background to evaluate his scholarship, or even, in the densest of his work, to comprehend it fully, let alone revel in it. His knowledge in his own field was comprehensive, and his use of it, fluent, commanding, and enterprising. We dined once in Switzerland with Charlie Chaplin, and went on to a nightclub. Chaplin was spotted at the door, and the musicians swung immediately into “Terry’s Theme” from Limelight. Chaplin acknowledged the greeting by doing a gig from vaudeville. He turned his back to the assembly and squatted down so that all the viewers could see was his black homburg over the black overcoat. His head swaying to the beat of the music, he is examining the window of the art shop, and now he spots the painting of the naked lady. His interest springs to life and with deft use of a hidden cane, he appears to elongate to 8 feet tall, the better to appease his appetite. The band played on as Chaplin sat down at the bar and lectured to Hugh Kenner about comedy. But the next day, pleading preoccupations, he denied Kenner’s petition to spend time with him at his home in Corsier to elaborate on the subject; Hugh completed his book (The Stoic Comedians) without the benefit of more time with the master.

The range of his interests was extensive. Before deciding finally to get his doctorate in English (at Yale) he considered mathematics as an alternative discipline. It was he who introduced me to computers. My own interest was all but exclusively in the use of the computer as a word processor. But imposing on his familiarity with the general discipline and preying on his exposure to sailing, I took to him some years ago a problem. For the purpose of celestial navigation, I wanted to be able to take a star sight, or a planet sight, without knowing what the object was when I shot it and then, knowing the time of the observation, to identify the star and establish the exact position of my boat. Such a program would prove very useful for the sailor. Suddenly, at sea, you spot a little, nubile spark overhead. But perhaps clouds are moving in. Or perhaps there is overcast, and the star peeps out at you only for an instant or two. You grab your sextant and shoot it; then you go below. There you struggle, not knowing which was the star that bared itself to you. You fuss with the Star Finder, you diddle with the HO 249 tables, play out your assumed position. And after ten minutes of work, maybe fifteen, you say, Er, that ecdysiast star must have been Achenar. Maybe it was — but then maybe it wasn’t.

“What did you ask Professor Kenner to do, and by the way, why him?” the editor of Yachting asked me.

“To answer the second question first,” I replied, “I tapped him because he is a personal friend and was willing to take the 200 hours it required to dope out and write the program. I needed someone who is a whiz with computers; but I also wanted a sworn enemy of clumsy instructional prose. As a supremely gifted writer, Hugh Kenner would devise instructions for WhatStar (catch . . . already . . . the simple beauty of the program’s name?) that anyone could read and understand.” So to speak.

I concluded the piece for Yachting by asking myself with grand condescension a loaded question, and then giving my own confident answer to it: “I am told by the blase community that the sextant is going out of fashion, that what with Loran in so many parts of the world, and GPS only a season or two away, the sextant is anachronized.” My comment: “Yawp. And cigarette lighters will anachronize the match . . . So, when you next use your sextant, avoid such pains in star identification as are associated with it which are avoidable. And think lovingly of Hugh Kenner when you use WhatStar.” Twenty years after Hugh Kenner devised WhatStar, the Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation to its students.

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