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!


  1. At least they spelled it the same way each time.

  2. Except that the second time they also forgot to italicize it, which makes it look like Joyce was sending somebody named Uylsses out to eat the world. (Not that I’d put it past him, mind.)

  3. Kenner’s Pound book made me wish I liked Pound more. I’ll probably get the Joyce book, since I like Joyce. The idea of Kenner as a pioneer geek is fun.

  4. oh yeah, there’s a part in Finnegan’s Wake which refers to Ulysses as Uylsses, twice.
    So you see, it depends who you ask.
    /wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be true.

  5. Damn you!
    *starts feverishly flipping through Wake*

  6. Sadly, no.
    My FW serendipity story is that after my brother & I had while very young invented the Cat Planet and its capitol of Loka and much mythology, coming across “To them in Ysat Loka. Hearing. The urb it orbs.” & finding the words “Ysat Loka” glossed as ‘the city’ or somesuch in the blue book.

  7. Waiting for Godot as a realistic portrayal of life in the French Resistance.”
    Oh yes. Reading Mercier and Camier (highly recommended) makes this all the more evident.

  8. My FW serendipity story is from 1978: I and a friend were puzzling over the line about (from memory) “swiney tod you daimon barbar” — the overall passage was obviously attacking Yeats’s metaphysics, and “pig death” was easy enough, but there seemed to be some other influence on the phrase and our references were useless — when a show-tune-loving friend came into the room and told us about Stephen Sondheim’s new musical on the off-chance that its gruesomeness might appeal even to us punks.

  9. thatwhichfalls says

    bryan, shouldn’t that be “Finnegans Wake” and not “Finnegan’s Wake”?
    Flann O’Brien/Brian O’Nolan (writing as Myles na Gopaleen) used to go on about how that extra apostrophe measurably shortened the life of Joyce.

  10. Yes, it should, but it’s a very hard mistake to avoid, as that malicious bastard Joyce knew perfectly well when he decided on that added idiosyncrasy.

  11. Hat, I just happened on Flann O’Brien’s book “The Poor Mouth”, translated from the Gaelic. (O’Brien wrote mostly in English but was a native speaker of Gaelic). You should put it on your list; it’s a hilarious parody of sentimental Irish writing about peasants. The translation into Irish-dialect English seems to me (not knowing what I’m talking about) to do a good job of catching the strangeness of the original.
    It reminds me a lot of Lu Hsun’s “Story of Ah Q”, another satire that goes so far over the top that it becomes literature.

  12. Thanks — I actually read it years ago, when I happened on it in college, and it was one of the things that made me want to learn Irish (which I did, sort of, but not well enough to enable me to read a novel in the language, alas). Highly recommended to all and sundry.

  13. mulligan's aunt says

    I was a student of Hugh Kenner in the seventies. His classes were an addictive pleasure. He was able to shift attention from some micro-detail within the Cantos to its macro, real-life significance in a blink, in part because he did not lose himself in the details, or the theories, but remained in a conversational mode with all the works and authors involved (which in the case of Joyce and Pound were legion)as if it were all the same story, more or less. I think Pound taught him that, that and the need to develop conversation with the living artists of the day in order to understand the voices of the dead. Somehow these artists were able to take so damn much and make it work as narrative. Any given paragraph of Kenner’s weaves arcing tangents of insight into that narrative. I pick up any of his books and instantly hear his voice bringing together men, women, paintings and languages and ages, technologies and white chickens into a constantly creating present, a “casual demonstration of order” that only voice coheres.

  14. Yes, we, too, were devastated by the news of Hugh Kenner’s death.
    Hugh was a tremendous friend, an inspiration to the Hopkins Society running the annual International Summer School. He wore his vast learning so lightly that he was always a pleasure to be with. His remeniscences about early meetings with Beckett, with Eliot were unforgettable.
    Hugh was a giant of a teacher, a loving father and especially, a wonderful partner for Maryann. All our lives will be the poorer for his passing.
    We (the Hopkins Society) will plant a tree in memory of Hugh in The Hopkins Garden. If you are around (Monasterevin, Ireland) in July, please join us! Joining to remember a wonderful soul who has influenced us all is a worthy mission, don’t you think?
    Ar dheis De go raibh a anam! (I have to say it in Gaelic – Hugh would expect that much!)

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