Hugh Kenner: 1923-2003

J. Perl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It's more than thirty years since the first words ("Go to hell") were exchanged between us. The Pound Era had just appeared. I read it and despaired of a future in Kenner's racket. A friend, Rudy Ising, likewise read it and despaired. Our joint letter to Hugh Kenner commenced "Go to hell" and reviled him for depriving Ph.D. students of thesis topics—and thus careers—in modernist literary studies. His magnum opus we called "obnoxiously superb and comprehensive." And then, signing off, we returned to being sophomores (we were sophomores), anticipating (and desiring) no reply. A reply came, just the same, in my Stanford mailbox. Dated "24 May 1972," the letter, typed impeccably by the author, read: Messieurs: Hugh Kenner Where he found the time to write letters—letters to pranksters, letters to save thirty years—is an ignorant question. On my desk is the hardbound Hugh Kenner: a 414-page bibliography (plus index), it lists about thirty books and some thousand essays on mathematics, engineering, computer science, art history, archaeology, lexicography, silent film, and animation, plus subjects in his "field" (Western literature, all genres, Homer to Plath; though the Kenner Canon—Yeats, Pound, Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, W. C. Williams, Beckett, five of whom befriended him—is naturally emphasized). Under "infinitives in Beowulf," I find no entries. Hugh played nothing safe and paid such price as the academy could extract from a talent so incontestable. The Andrew Mellon Professorship at Johns Hopkins, the Phi Beta Kappa award for best book, two Guggenheims, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Hugh declined—they'd withdrawn a medal authorized for Pound) do not signify excommunication. But every step that could be taken was taken to render his accomplishment passé or marginal. "Antiquarian" ("the antiquarian Hugh Kenner") was the sobriquet applied as reprimand by Harold Bloom. But the last laugh is Hugh's. Because the first was also his, and all the laughs in between: he was a Cavalier in a time of Roundheads. He believed that passé meant "pending Restoration, a genteel exile." Coups, however gory and adventurous—he thought—end in boredom: "Wait it out, you'll see" was typical Hugh advice. Meanwhile he fenced and hunted along the tense frontier. Reading him in context is a guilty pleasure. The Counterfeiters—with its run-circles-round-'em aphorisms ("Empiricism is a game. Its central rule forbids you to understand what you are talking about.") and its twenty-one-line final sentence (ending "and books such as the one you have just finished reading")—goes down like champagne (drunk from a glass shoe) at a symposium of nutritionists drinking ice water. "An Historical Comedy" is The Counterfeiters' subtitle, and all its jokes have bite—there are several about Dublin dogs (as subjects of scientific experiment) "when Swift was an undergraduate": ...bloated by water, killed by brandy, challenged by swallowed dice: we can easily devise a mechanism which water will slow, and brandy halt, and through which dice will pass at the cost of half their volume; and if these are the necessary and sufficient specifications for a dog, we who [End Page 372] have abandoned faith in a hovering caninitas must agree that the machine will be a dog. Let no one object that they are outrageous specifications: experiment has shown that common dogs meet them, so they must be met. True, although necessary they are not sufficient. Experience calls also for a bark: well, we can add one; and for a wagging tail: nothing simpler. It is easy to think of more and more criteria, but not to think of any the mechanician could not simulate; and by 1738 Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) had exhibited in Paris a mechanical duck which could waddle and splash, beat the air with detailed feathered wings, wag its head, quack, pick up grain, ingest this with swallowing movements, and eventually excrete the residue: for the production of which latter "it was necessary in a little space to construct a chemical laboratory...
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)371-376
JournalCommon Knowledge
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2004


Dive into the research topics of 'Hugh Kenner: 1923-2003'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this