Hugh Kenner has died at 80. I’m not fond of literary criticism in general, but he was a master of the art, and his book The Pound Era should be read by anyone interested in American modernism. The NY Times obituary is too short, but has this nice sentence: “He wrote commandingly on everything from Irish poetry to geodesic math and Li’l Abner’s pappy (Lucifer Ornamental Yokum), to the Heath/Zenith Z-100 computer (one of which he built for himself and then wrote the user’s guide) and the animated cartoons of Chuck Jones.” (Thanks to Eric for the link.) I’m sure there will be much longer appreciations in the days to come, and I look forward to reading them; meanwhile, here‘s a very good interview (with Harvey Blume):
HB: I also want to allude to your enthusiasm for the Internet.
HK: It begins again with not being afraid of technology. I got a computer way back; I built a Heathkit. I played with it and learned more and more things I could do. And then it what it got to making connections over telephone wires, that was very interesting also. And it made for communication around my impaired hearing.
HB: Say a little more about that, please.
HK: I lost most of my hearing at the age of five. Hearing aids couldn’t do anything for me until I was in my forties. Hearing aid doctors didn’t even understand deafness, they thought it was inattention. So I just became accustomed to a world in which I got on by understanding what people were probably saying. It’s amazing how far that would take you. The nice thing about the Internet was that I didn’t have to hear anything. I’m hearing you quite well on the telephone. We have a telephone with an amplifier. I’m hearing you fine. We have a good deal of technological help around me. I also have a wonderfully understanding wife, who knows when I’m not hearing.
HB: How did you come by the column you wrote for Byte Magazine, which in the 1980s, was the basic computer magazine? What was a literary critic doing in a magazine for engineers and hackers?
HK: They just asked me to do it, and I had a good time doing it. I would get a few books in the mail; they would sort of trickle in during the month, and then I would decide what to write the column about. I’m sorry Byte faded. What happened at the end is that they couldn’t seem to survive on anything but endless reviews of new products, which is just like an expanded manufacturer’s catalog. At that point, they told me they didn’t need any more of my reviews.
There’s also a fascinating interpretation of Waiting for Godot as a realistic portrayal of life in the French Resistance.
Another of Kenner’s groundbreaking books was Dublin’s Joyce, and I can’t resist pointing out that the Columbia University Press web page misspells Ulysses not once but twice in two sentences:
One of the most important books ever written on Uylsses, Dublin’s Joyce established Hugh Kenner as a significant modernist critic. This pathbreaking analysis presents Uylsses as a “bit of anti-matter that Joyce sent out to eat the world.”
Insert grumpy rant about the decline of proofreading here.
Update. I just (February 2009) had to update the CUP link because they’ve redone their website… and they still have the misspellings!