Editor’s Note: This obituary originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of National Review.
He died late on November 24, and I had the news of his death early the next day. Mary Anne Kenner was weeping as she spoke, and I wasn’t able to hear everything she told me, though I learned that his daughter Lisa, my goddaughter, had been with them, and that father, mother, and daughter had attended Mass the day before.
I called my friend Christopher Lehmann-Haupt on the New York Times, but got only his answering service. But he returned my call some time after noon, and called again a few moments later to say that the “desk” at the Times demanded an obituary by 6 p.m. Could he prepare an obit on Hugh Kenner in three hours? Impossible! Happily, Lehmann-Haupt had himself reviewed the most famous of the 25 books that Kenner wrote, and was well informed on the enormous impact The Pound Era had and continues to have on the literary community. It conferred on Kenner a near-undisputed eminence. The deadline was met, and the next day’s paper carried the headline right across the page: “Hugh Kenner, Commentator on Literary Modernism, Pound and Joyce, Is Dead at 80.” On Saturday, the Times carried a candidly appreciative essay by Benjamin Ivry. The headline here was, “A Critic Whose Scholarship / Gleamed With His Writing.” The lead sentence: “Hugh Kenner, who died at 80 at his home in Athens, Ga., this week, was among the finest writers of critical prose in America. He was one of the few commentators whose books and articles cause delight and stand as literary achievements in their own right, including ‘Gnomon: Essays in Contemporary Literature’ (1958); ‘Dublin’s Joyce’ (1955); ‘The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett’ (1964); ‘The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy’ (1968), the latter two illustrated by the writer and artist Guy Davenport; ‘The Pound Era’ (1971).”
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We were very good friends and, for many years, very close friends (I served as best man at his wedding in 1965 to Mary Anne Bittner, a year after the death of his first wife, Mary Josephine Waite). We had met in the late Fifties by chance — we both had books scheduled for publication by the same publishing firm, McDowell Obolensky. A friendship ripened. He and Mary Jo visited with me in Connecticut, I with them in Santa Barbara; later with him and Mary Anne in Baltimore, still later in Athens. We sailed a half-dozen times on my boat, and when it ran fatally onto the rocks during a hurricane, his grief moved him to an uncharacteristic mode. His threnody spoke of a boat that had “done much for her friends, in the summers before her side was stove in. She had taken them all around the Sound and along the New England coast, and even to Bermuda (thrice), and shown them Wood’s Hole, and the Great Fish that eats taffrail logs, and the Kraken, and the strange men of Onset with their long faces, and perfect Edgartown; and lapped them at night gently to rest; and given them the wind and sun and made for them a place of adventure and refreshment and peace; and taught them this, that beyond illusion it is possible to be for hours and days on end perfectly and inexpressibly happy.”
Happiness of any kind was sharply interrupted soon after the boat’s end when Mary Jo, the mother of five children, contracted cancer, dying in a few months. Hugh recovered with the help of Mary Anne, with whom he would have two more children. He industriously pursued his academic career at the University of California at Santa Barbara, then at Johns Hopkins, and finally at the University of Georgia. “How come you agreed to move to Athens?” I asked him. We spoke to each other with great candor. He answered, in the clinical mode in which he often spoke, that the University of Georgia was seeking academic eminence. “If they want to do that in the field of chemistry or engineering they have to invest 25 million dollars in a new lab. If they want it in the humanities, they can just hire me.”
He was happy in Athens, where, he told me, he taught the most talented students he had ever encountered, as also the dumbest. And he was busy worldwide. “It seems that we shall be making our first visit to Spain early in June. They are having a Pound Conference in Barcelona. It fits nicely just before the Joyce Conference in Monaco, which we were scheduled to attend anyway but must leave prematurely to be in Evanston for Lisa’s graduation June 16. Any recommendations re Barcelona?” On his 70th birthday at his home, his son Rob and I were summoned as guests to an intimate dinner, marred only by his resolution to quit tobacco.