TORONTO — Hugh Kenner, who died last week at age 80, began his career as a great literary critic in a characteristically eccentric way, by reading a book smuggled in by a priest and visiting a genius locked away in a madhouse. To understand why the book and the genius changed Kenner’s life we have to return to Kenner’s formative years, in the provincial backwater that was Canada in the 1940s.
From a young age, Hugh Kenner was equally interested in the arts and the sciences. As an undergraduate entering the University of Toronto in 1941 Kenner had to decide whether he wanted to major in mathematics and physics or literary studies. Literature won out over science but Kenner would remain blissfully free of the sniffy disdain for technology that so many cultured people confuse with humanism.
Canada was an inhospitable place for a budding scholar of modernism: the University of Toronto curriculum stopped dead-cold at 1850. More contemporary books were not only disdained, they were often forbidden by the government. At Canada’s skittish border, novels by Balzac, Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were kept out of a country that feared anything foreign and new. One modern masterpiece Kenner did have access to was Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, tolerated because it was deemed incomprehensible.
Excited by Wake, Kenner discovered that Joyce’s Ulysses, otherwise verboten in Canada, could be found in the restricted access section of the University of Toronto library. However, in order to take a look at the illicit text, Kenner needed to secure two letters of reference: one from a religious authority and one from a medical doctor. Kenner knew a priest who could vouch for his morals, but, unfortunately, was not able to find an M.D. who could attest to the fact that reading Joyce would not be corrupting. Ultimately, Kenner had a family friend, a Jesuit priest, smuggle into Canada a copy of the greatest novel of the twentieth century.
Compared to the traditional literature, pre-1850 vintage, Joyce seemed wild and chaotic. A friend of the young Kenner argued that he shouldn’t expect to find coherence in modern culture, that you can only “just let it hit you.” This despairing notion haunted Kenner, raising what he called “the generic twentieth-century problem, discontinuity.” As Kenner notes in his book Bucky, reading Joyce and the other modernists forced him to wonder whether we “still have lines of communication open with Jefferson, Socrates, Christ? Or have we spot-welded about ourselves a world we can’t think about? Must you just let it hit you?”
Kenner was never willing to write off contemporary culture as beyond understanding and he soon found a mentor who shared his hope in finding an underlying order beneath the surface chaos of modern life and literature. Marshall McLuhan, later famous as a gnomic media guru, was then a young English professor interested in the parallels between literature and mass culture.
Sharing a fascination with technology and modern culture, McLuhan and Kenner became fast friends. In the warmth of their initial enthusiasm, they had planned to co-write several books, including studies of T.S. Eliot and the cartoonist Al Capp. (Kenner would write the Eliot book alone and the Capp project never came off, although Kenner eventually wrote a book on animation director Chuck Jones.)
Both Kenner and McLuhan felt that the great modernists should not be seen as representing a permanent break from the past. Rather, writers like Joyce and Eliot helped us re-connect with tradition, but re-energizing the stories found in Homer and Shakespeare for our times.
More than intellectual interests drew Kenner and McLuhan together. Both men were born Protestants but found religious solace in Catholicism. McLuhan converted in 1937 and Kenner would do the same in 1964 (although he had clearly been within the ambit of Catholicism for many years prior). As Catholics enthusiastic about modernist culture and even some forms of lowbrow popular entertainment, Kenner and McLuhan cut against the grain of their adopted faith.
After all, Roman Catholicism at that time still lived under the shadow of Pius IX’s 1864 “Syllabus of Errors,” which condemned the idea that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself … with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” Kenner would lament the fact that “middlebrow Catholic intellectuals” of the early twentieth century “found a facile role in condemning modernity en bloc.…Alienation from the whole century could be made to seem a Catholic English layman’s moral duty.” In their own work, Kenner and McLuhan heralded a newer and more confident Catholic mood of Vatican II, where the church sought to reconcile itself with modernity.
In June 1948, Kenner and McLuhan made a fateful trip to visit Ezra Pound, then incarcerated as a mental patient St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. After his wartime support for Mussolini and alleged descent into madness, Pound’s personal and literary reputation was at a low. Yet Kenner found in Pound’s company a sane genius. “Enthralled by the master, I resolved that if no one else would make the case for Ezra Pound as a poet, then I would,” Kenner once recalled.
With McLuhan as an intellectual ally and Pound as a poet needing a champion, the trajectory of Kenner’s career was set. Kenner would always remain a loyal Poundian: Kenner’s book The Pound Era (1971) is by far the best tribute that poet has received and a classic in twentieth century literary criticism. By contrast, Kenner’s friendship with McLuhan would fray. Because Kenner was always a much more facile and readable writer than McLuhan, his early essays and books got a great deal of attention. Quite unfairly, McLuhan accused Kenner of stealing his ideas.
The reality was that McLuhan was at his best as an oral thinker, rather like Socrates, who developed his sharpest thoughts in conversation with bright students. Yet when McLuhan tried to transcribe his thoughts, the results were usually a mess, half-developed notions splattered all over the page. McLuhan needed Kenner to complete his thoughts and give them form. Plato had performed a similar function for Socrates.
Unlike McLuhan, Kenner was a phrasemaker: his best expository prose hummed and sparkled with wit. It’s hard to quote a small passage from Kenner to give a feel for his work, since his greatest effects were in meaty paragraphs. But consider this tribute Kenner wrote to the literary tradition of the “stoic comedian”:
Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett are their own greatest inventions, and the books they contrived, or had their contrivances contrive, record a century of intellectual history with intricate and moving fidelity: suffering our partner the machine to mechanize all that the hand can do yet remaining obstinately, gaily, living; courting a dead end but discovering how not to die.
Here, compactly, is the essential Kenner theme: that modernists incorporated the mechanical forces of contemporary life precisely to keep the humanist heritage alive.
Kenner’s genius was always in doing the unexpected: showing that Pound’s poetry illustrated the principles of fractal math, arguing that Alexander Pope anticipated the techniques of Pop Art, demonstrating that Bugs Bunny cartoons gained their speed and energy from tight-fisted economic policies at the Warner Brothers Studio.
All of these are unlikely connections, yet Kenner made them real and convincing. He never simply accepted the world as it appeared, but always looked for deeper patterns that demonstrated coherence and order. Perhaps Kenner’s Catholic faith gave him confidence to carry out his inquiries, sure in the ultimate goodness of creation. Yet even if those of us who don’t share his faith can still cherish the beautiful patterns he uncovered.