Renowned literary critic Hugh Kenner, often regarded
as the pre-eminent commentator on the works of James Joyce
and Ezra Pound, died of a heart attack on Nov. 24 at his
home in Athens, Ga. He was 80.
The author and professor was widely viewed as
America's foremost authority on literary modernism. Kenner
taught from 1973 to 1990 at Johns Hopkins, where he was the
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities.
Kenner's career spanned 50 years, during which he
authored 25 books, contributed to at least 200 others and
produced nearly 1,000 articles and other publications.
Somewhat of a chameleon in terms of his interests —
he wrote about everything from geodesic domes to the
animated cartoons of Chuck Jones — he is perhaps best
known for his books Dublin's Joyce (1955) The
Pound Era (1971) and Joyce's Voices (1978), all
of which are now considered classics of criticism.
To many, Kenner defined the field of modernism and
fixed the modern canon for the 20th century. He often wrote
about subjects before they entered the mainstream, and some
contend that it was Kenner who brought a new and important
level of sophistication to the understanding of such
artists as Pound and Samuel Beckett.
Peers, colleagues and former students described
Kenner's gifts of analysis as immense and his reservoir of
Sharon Cameron, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of
English at Johns Hopkins and a friend of Kenner's, said
that he had a keen intellect that could dance around more
than just works of literature.
"He had at his fingertips the most interesting
collection of facts. If you asked him when the razor blade
was invented, he could tell you without blinking an eye,"
Cameron recently told The Baltimore Sun.
Cameron and others said Kenner had a unique,
entertaining personality that would often leave you
"When he was chair of the English Department, he
dispensed with academic pretensions with wit," she said.
"He could be inexplicably funny. He once introduced a
speaker by cutting to these basics: '... was born. He grew
up. He will now give a paper.' "
Eric Sundquist, acting dean of humanities at UCLA, who
took several classes with Kenner during his days as a JHU
graduate student, said that his former professor, in
addition to being one of the most incomparable critics of
his generation, was also a unique and gifted teacher.
"One thing I found remarkable was his extraordinary,
encyclopedic knowledge. He could quote from memory large
passages of seemingly all the major modern literary works,"
Sundquist said. "He could be in class discussing Beckett at
one moment and then suddenly quote 20 to 30 lines from
Paradise Lost, sheerly from memory."
Kenner was born in 1923 in Peterborough, Ontario, to
Mary Kenner and Henry Rowe Hocking Kenner, who was a school
principal and instructor of Greek and Latin. He studied
under Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, where
he received both his bachelor's and master's degrees. He
then attended Yale University, where his doctoral
dissertation, "The Poetry of Ezra Pound," received the
Porter Prize in 1950.
His first faculty appointment was at Santa Barbara
College, which later became the University of California at
Santa Barbara. He taught there for 13 years before coming
in 1973 to Johns Hopkins, from which he retired in 1990.
Ronald Paulson, the William D. and Robin Mayer
Professor in the Krieger School of Arts
and Sciences, who
was chair of the English
Department when Kenner was hired,
said that Johns Hopkins was fortunate to secure an
individual at the very peak of his career.
Paulson said that during the time Kenner penned most
of his major work, his chief rival in the world of literary
criticism was Richard Ellman. Comparing the two, Paulson
said that Ellman was more a biographer, whereas Kenner was
a "genuine critic."
"He made the works of Joyce, Eliot and many others
critically exciting," Paulson said. "He was somewhat of a
maverick who had a voice all his own. Kenner was trained as
a new critic, and as such made his books fairly personal.
He was a beautiful writer."
From 1990 until 1999, Kenner taught at the University
of Georgia. He received honorary doctorates from the
University of Chicago and Trent University and two
Guggenheim fellowships and was a fellow of the Royal
Society of Literature.
In addition to his writing, Kenner, who had a hearing
impairment throughout most of his life, was an avid
photographer and somewhat of a tinkerer. He once built for
himself a computer using parts from a Heath-Zenith kit, and
then wrote its user's guide.
During his life, Kenner befriended many of the major
figures of literary modernism, including Samuel Beckett,
William F. Buckley, T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. Other
major figures about whom Kenner wrote extensively were
Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford
Madox Ford, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and
William Butler Yeats.
When he was at Johns Hopkins, Kenner penned such noted
works as A Homemade World: The American Modernist
Writers (1975), A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish
Writers (1983) and A Sinking Island: The Modern
English Writers (1988).
He also wrote on mathematics, science, technology and
the visual arts. Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster
Fuller (1973) is a nonacademic introduction to Fuller's
theories of cosmic order and its physical properties. His
critical works on popular culture and film include the
biography Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings and
articles on silent-film star Buster Keaton.
Paulson said that Kenner's contribution to literature
is immeasurable and that it's a testament to his talent
that he was so influential and authoritative, yet still
accessible. The critic Richard Eder once wrote in The
Los Angeles Times that "Kenner doesn't write about
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 and begins a one-to-one
Kenner is survived by his wife, the former Mary Anne
Bittner, whom he married in 1965; five children from his
first marriage; and two children from his second marriage.
His first wife, Mary Josephine Waite Kenner, whom he
married in 1947, died in 1964.