Politics & Policy

Hugh Kenner, RIP

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).”

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

He wrote often, always by e-mail when that became possible, and always brightly. He was generous to friends with whom I involved him, while never compromising the remove he felt as a teacher with definitive things to say. There was sometimes a trace of impatience when he suspected sluggishness at the other end. He once addressed me so abruptly — I had not carried out a particular instruction, and so confused Antares with Saturn — that I felt the need to rebuke him. I did this by failing to acknowledge two or three of his missives; all of that was quickly repaired.

His dismissive skills were not retired. I introduced him to a regular correspondent, an elderly man who managed to feign an office job while spending his entire time reading books and writing letters. Charles Wallen had remarked, reprovingly, my use of a word he thought arcane. I defended the word and forwarded his complaint to Kenner, our mutual friend. Kenner wrote him,

Dear Charles:

Bill’s point is precisely that there is no substitute for “solipsism.” If what pains you about it is simply the fact that you seldom hear it, then the fault is not in the man who grinds it against your ears, but in the millions of part-time and largely inadvertent solipsists who are so convinced the universe emanates from them that they feel no need of a word to designate such a condition. Fish, on the same principle, know nothing of water and for aqueous terminology you should not apply to a fish.If on the other hand your ears are assaulted by its impacted sibilants (as the ears of Tennyson were aggrieved by the word “scissors”) then I can only fetch you the cold comfort that for a graceless condition the wisdom inherent in the language has afforded us a graceless word. And if, finally, your grievance is that Bill uses it too often, then I can only tax you with inconsistency, since you report that after one to two years of not hearing it from his lips you were wounded anew by a single occurrence — perhaps, I will grant, on the principle of a man who has been sensitized to penicillin. Such a man’s comfort should be that others need the remedy that inflames him, and that principle I commend to you.

Hugh Kenner

Some years ago I felt a lessening in his concerns for me and for my world, his interventions in it having reduced sharply. Our exchanges dwindled, and there came a total end to his long, disquisitional letters about this and that. I felt the possibility of Alzheimer’s lurking in that special mind. But he never forgot to remind me of the anniversary of his wedding, in which I had served as best man. And he nursed something of a fixation on National Review Online’s posting of the word-of-the-day. If that day’s word was missing, he would complain to me. The letter might be only a sentence long. Always he closed his letters, as he had done for forty years, “Ever affectionately.” I would always reply in equivalent language, while knowing that this remarkable intellect, and friend, was slipping away, as he did on my 78th birthday, in the arms of his beloved wife.


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