Hugh Kenner, considered America’s foremost commentator on literary modernism, was unlike any other literary critic before or since. His scholarship ranged from Ezra Pound to geodisic math to animator Chuck Jones, and he personally knew the modernists about whom he wrote. Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder once wrote: “Kenner doesn’t write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest’s dinner, eats some and begins a one-to-one discussion.”
Kenner’s archive resides at the Ransom Center. Cultural Compass spoke with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about Kenner’s legacy, approach, correspondence with modernist writers, and their friendship.
The Ransom Center doesn’t usually collect critics’ archives. Why was it important for you to acquire Kenner’s papers?
Hugh Kenner was clearly an exception for us. He was one of the most important critics of the most important literary movement of the last century: modernism. His stature as a critic, his influence on literary criticism generally, and his close study of such modernist writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett make his archive a tremendous resource for scholars and students.
The archive holds all of the letters that Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Guy Davenport—one after another of major critics and writers—wrote to Kenner. These letters are extremely valuable and revealing. To have figures of their stature writing to a literary critic was rare.
Kenner’s archive offers an opportunity for graduate students, young scholars, and anyone else for that matter, to study the working life of a major literary critic. Kenner brought life not only to these modernist writers but also to the period itself.
As a modernist scholar, how has Kenner influenced you?
The most obvious influence on me is his work on Joyce. The early work he did in Dublin’s Joyce perfected a kind of critical dialog with the author. Certainly he influenced me in the attention he gave to the text. It was more than simply the explication of the text, more than simply close reading. Kenner went beyond that. He brought these writers to a kind of living presence. It’s a very rare critic who can do that.
I was intrigued by Kenner’s writing style. It was arcane yet simple, direct, and humorous. He used words that were outside the usual vocabulary of literary critics. His mind was so fertile. He could talk about the newspaper in the same way he could talk about Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.
What distinguished Kenner’s approach?
He had a mathematical mind, and he could follow things in physics and calculus that most people wouldn’t understand. Science and mechanics, bodies of knowledge that were outside the usual literary focus, blended into his sense of understanding of the world. For example, he’d say: Dublin is on this latitude, and on that day there was a full moon. And of course with Joyce, it always worked.
He was an enormously learned man, but he wasn’t pedantic. He had a lively and engaging style. It wasn’t deadly, as the style was of many of the critics of that period. He’d come at things at an angle so different that the angle itself was worth noting. He was just so startling. You never knew what he was going to come up with.
What was your relationship with Kenner?
We were friends. We both taught at the Institute of Modern Letters, which was an eight-week program in the summer. I edited the James Joyce Quarterly, and he helped me on that. We had a very good relationship. We’d meet at these various conferences and do gigs together, as they say. So I knew him well.
He used to come have dinner with our family when our kids were very little. They’d imitate him and say with an odd voice: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” They just loved him. He told them a story about Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky,” he said, “would tell you that nature would give this tree life and light. Then if you put it in the fireplace, this tree would give that light that it took from nature back to you.” Kids can understand that. He was always interesting.
What are some highlights of Kenner’s papers?
The letters between Kenner, Eliot, and Pound are of great value. They reveal the questions that Kenner would ask Eliot, for example. You see his mind as he grapples with, as he says, “Tom’s work.” To watch his mind work and to watch his engagement with these great modernists is a tremendous opportunity for students and scholars to see what great literary criticism was like in those days.
He really got to know these writers. Kenner once said to me that when he was a graduate student a professor had told him: “If you want to be a student of modernism, you should go and meet the great modernists and talk with them.” He visited Beckett a lot, he visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, and he knew Eliot and discussed his work with him. With Kenner, you always realized that these writers were human beings first.
What is Kenner’s legacy to literary criticism?
It isn’t that he made a great discovery of this or that. It’s that he was able to see these modernist tropes clearly. He was the great elucidator, the one who really understood the writers and brought their works out. He understood the way in which modernists trapped by the century’s culture and age worked their way out of it. Whether it be Virginia Woolf or Joyce, Kenner understood what their dispositions were toward the culture, their reactions to the culture, and how their work was so important to them.
He had a great understanding of and sympathy for Eliot. He understood Eliot’s attempts to remove the personal from the work of art. That’s why Kenner titled his book about Eliot The Invisible Poet.
His work on Pound was seminal. Probably no one wrote better about Pound than Kenner. His book The Pound Era is really the history of modernism and what modernism was.
There’s no Kenner school. He always went out on his own, explored things on his own. He was unique, and he remains unique. There’s no one quite like him. I think that is part of his charm and his great contribution to our culture.