Hugh Kenner Hits a Home Run

Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.

Kenner is the great explicator of literary Modernism and one of Ezra Pound’s, James Joyce’s, and Samuel Beckett’s most important commentators. John Jeremiah Sullivan told readers to read Kenner’s The Pound Era. Michael Silverblatt said he “had the best ear that I’ve ever encountered for poetry, prose, and nuances, for hidden tickles inside a sentence…”

When Kenner asks why Stevens’s poems aren’t populated by people, he answers thus:

One might sketch notes toward an answer by observing how few people, how little speech, the products of the American imagination have typically contained. People in a very large country, nomadic people, people who spend much time operating machinery (“lending it to no one,” wrote Faulkner…”), people whose communication is shared work, not shared speech, in fact so self-conscious about their speech they needed persuading (by Mencken, in the 1920’s) that they had a spoken idiom; people inheriting the possibility that one might spend six months in one’s cabin without sighting anyone fit to be spoken to; people who find nothing strange in the life style of Thoreau, who throve on the self-containment that drove Robinson Crusoe nearly mad; people whose sages almost within living memory shuttled from lecture platform to lecture platform, and who spend more of their lives listening to schoolteachers than any other people in the world, and who are addressed all their lives as audiences by the politician, the columnist, the barber; people who did not grow up anywhere near the neighbors they have at present, and approach them (when necessary, about a dog or a lawnmower) with embarrassed colloquial ceremony: such people find it easier on the whole to shape their emotions to the abstract or the inanimate. The legend of American violence means that trespassers on the psychic Lebensraum* are most effectively addressed as settlers once addressed as Indians, with a projectile. The legend of the inarticulate American hero—Nick Adams or Li’l Abner—means that the precedents for addressing someone are scanty…Pin down an American and he utters a quotation, said Ezra Pound after living for some time abroad; and the characters of that master of the urban colloquial, Scott Fitzgerald, make even their small talk out of quotations from magazines: just such magazines as printed Fitzgerald’s stories… speech for the writer is fieldwork, something external…Communication is a “subject,” formally studied; universities have Departments of Communication Skills. In no other country would it have been plausible for the telephone to be invented, which allows one to enter another’s house without the ceremonies of entrance or introduction, and moreover without actually going there… (84-85)

* space required for life, growth, or activity

There isn’t much to add to this. It’s melodically presented, learned, entertaining,  and uncomfortably correct. Maybe more so now. The book contains close readings of the two poets mentioned, Marianne Moore, Hemingway, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald–including an excellent parsing of The Great Gatsby.

As many critics continue to play paddy-cake with texts, Kenner alights from a different promontory and, not surprisingly, ends up in a different stratosphere. Like William H. Gass, like Guy Davenport, he was not an academic commentator (though all three worked there), but a poet-philologist of the people. The Pound Era contains more nuggets including:

As finches on three isolated islands will slowly change until we have three species of finches, so Latin south of the Alps becomes “Italian,” south of the Pyrenees “Spanish.” (367)

Good news: Dalkey Archive is reissuing his book Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature.

Bonus: Kenner on Buckley’s show:

8 thoughts on “Hugh Kenner Hits a Home Run

  1. I studied Pound and Joyce with kenner in 1973-74 at Hopkins, at about the time this interview took place. His criticism is brilliant. I’ll never forget his take on Arnaut and the troubadours or his description of the American “Vortex” of Moore, Williams, Pound, Stevens. Or his comment that somehow H. James was still around when they were starting. Of course, he wrote for the National Review, so it’s not surprising that Buckley interviewed him. People thought of him as a conservative, although I never quite understood what that could mean for him. He was very kind to me and I was straight hippy at the time.

  2. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for posting this, although I don’t quite get all the negativity. Lots of folk still read Kenner, including myself. Dalkey’s already reprinted three of his books. And five minutes with Google turns up more discussion about the book and the man than Perloff and the Kirkus. A Google Scholar search, for instance, returns 223 results. That’s three times as much as “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” returns (71), to put it in some perspective. Aren’t you in danger of playing paddy-cake yourself here? :)

    I didn’t know about the Buckley video. Wild—thanks for that!


    • Hey Adam,

      Most of those results are just amazon, abe books, etc. selling the book. I just wanted to remind people he is still pertinent.



      • No, they aren’t. Google Scholar, Greg. Here are the first two pages:

        [CITATION] A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers
        H Kenner – 1974 –
        … A homemade world: The American modernist writers. Post a Comment. CONTRIBUTORS: Author:
        Kenner, Hugh. PUBLISHER: Knopf; [distributed by Random House (New York). SERIES TITLE:
        YEAR: 1974. PUB TYPE: Book (ISBN 0394491025 ). VOLUME/EDITION: 1st edition. …
        Cited by 202 Related articles All 6 versions Cite
        [BOOK] Joyce’s voices
        H Kenner – 1979 –
        … Page 7. Hugh Kenner Joyce’s Voices University of California Press Berkeley • Los Angeles •
        London Page 8. … Prefatory A correspondent from Missouri enquired: “In your book, A Homemade
        World, on page 155, you write, ‘Joyce began Ulysses in naturalism and ended it in parody …
        Cited by 136 Related articles All 5 versions Cite
        [CITATION] A Homemade World. New York: Alfred A
        H Kenner – 1975 – Knopf
        Cited by 3 Related articles Cite
        Deconstructing the deconstructers
        JH Miller – Diacritics, 1975 – JSTOR
        … For Hugh Kenner in A Homemade World [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975], Williams is
        primarily a poet of brief lyric poems, poems in which “meaning” is minimal and structure everything:
        “a poem as a structure of little blocks,” as Wal- lace Stevens paraphrased this theory. …
        Cited by 58 Related articles Cite
        [CITATION] From” Classroom Accuracies.”
        H Kenner – A Homemade World
        Cited by 2 Related articles Cite
        Pound/Stevens: whose era?
        M Perloff – New Literary History, 1982 – JSTOR
        … When we are sure of that, we pay attention to the way in which he says it, not often before.”25
        Hugh Kenner, who cites this passage in his chapter on Stevens and Williams in A Homemade
        World, comments laconically: “This is one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in …
        Cited by 37 Related articles All 2 versions Cite
        [CITATION] Something to Say
        H Kenner – A Homemade World: American Modernist Writers. New …, 1975
        Cited by 2 Related articles Cite
        [PDF] from
        The Nonhomemade World: European and American Modernism
        M Bradbury – American Quarterly, 1987 – JSTOR
        Hugh Kenner performs an elegant act of metaphorical magic by yoking violently … ‘Hugh Kenner,
        A Homemade World The American Modernist Writers (New York, 1975), xii, xviii. …
        Cited by 5 Related articles All 2 versions Cite
        The Politics of Modernist Form
        M DeKoven – New Literary History, 1992 – JSTOR
        … In fact, in his Introduction to that important, influential work on American modernism, A Homemade
        World, Hugh Kenner aligns the Wright Brothers and their “Dedalian deed on the North Carolina
        shore” with Joyce and his invocation to the “Old Father, Old Ar- tificer,” locating …
        Cited by 17 Related articles Cite
        [CITATION] Transatlantic modernism
        M Klepper, JC Schöpp – 2001 – C. Winter
        Cited by 4 Related articles All 2 versions Cite

        [CITATION] Approaches to the Artist as a Young Language Teacher
        H Kenner – Viva Vivas, 1976
        Cited by 1 Related articles Cite
        Some American Poets: A Personal Record
        C Tomlinson – Contemporary Literature, 1977 – JSTOR
        … I read this to Hugh Kenner twenty years ago, and recently (in A Homemade World,
        1975) he has quoted and applied it very justly to the development in modern
        American poetry effected by Marianne Moore. I am certain that …
        Cited by 4 Related articles Cite
        Williams’s Liberating Need
        A Dunn – Journal of modern literature, 1989 – JSTOR
        … Press, 1961), p. 339. 2 Pearce, p. 339. 3 Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The
        American Modernist Writers. (William Morrow, 1975), p. 60. More recent readings
        of the poem tend to follow the same pattern. See, for instance …
        Cited by 4 Related articles All 2 versions Cite
        Reading Modernism, After Hugh Kenner (1923-2003): Hugh Kenner And The Invention of Modernism
        M Perloff – Modernism/modernity, 2005 –
        … [Access article in PDF] Reading Modernism, After Hugh Kenner (1923–2003). Hugh Kenner
        and the Invention of Modernism. Marjorie Perloff. “Art,” quips Hugh Kenner in A Homemade
        World (1975) “lifts the saying out of the zone of things said” (HW, 60). …
        Cited by 1 Related articles All 2 versions Cite
        [HTML] from
        [HTML] Spoken Art: Amy Lowell’s Dramatic Poetry and Early Twentieth-Century Expressive Culture
        S Knewitz – Current Objectives of Postgraduate American …, 2012 –
        … Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era (1971) and A Homemade World (1975), for instance, two major
        works of modernist criticism, are interspersed with snide, even hostile remarks about Lowell,
        which ultimately leave the impression that Kenner perceived her as a threatening …
        Cited by 3 Related articles All 6 versions Cite
        [CITATION] The idea and the thing in modernist American poetry
        C Giorcelli – 2001 – Ila-Palma
        Cited by 2 Related articles Cite
        [CITATION] the Fate of Modernism
        G Oppen – 2007 – New York: Oxford University Press
        Cited by 2 Related articles Cite
        Kenner/Bloom: Canonmaking and the Resources of Rhetoric
        D Fite – boundary 2, 1988 – JSTOR
        … In this article I would like to examine the rhetoric of our foremost canonizers of modern and
        Romantic poetry, Hugh Kenner and Harold … What Kenner says in A Homemade World of Williams’s
        epistemology might very well apply to his: this “nai’ve realism,” through which any …
        Cited by 4 Related articles Cite
        [PDF] from
        Jerzy Kosinski’s Relationship to Language
        B Ozieblo – Atlantis, 1984 – JSTOR
        … His own words can best summarize his ideas on this subject: 1 Hugh Kenner, A Homemade
        World, The American Modernist Writers, Marion Boyars, Lon- don 1977, p. xvii. 2 Tony
        Tanner, City of Words, Harper and Row, New York 1971, p. 18. …
        Cited by 2 Related articles All 4 versions Cite
        Samizdat Odyssey: Ulysses above the 42 “’1 Parallel
        T Conley – The Canadian Modernists Meet, 2005 –
        Samizdat Odyssey: Ulysses above the 42 “’1 Parallel TIM CONLEY I When We Look at the trinity
        of books on modernism that the late Hugh Kenner wrote after The Pound Era (namely, A
        Homemade World [1975], A Colder Eye [1983], and A Sinking Island [1988]) we note how …
        Cited by 1 Related articles All 2 versions Cite

      • … and even a regular Google search turns up more than just links to booksellers. In under five minutes, I found a dozen sites discussing him and the book. Sure, one has to wade through the bookselling crap, but blame Google for that (they return the promoted commercial results first).

        My point is, plenty of people are reading Kenner’s work, and engaging with it. If you like the guy’s work, why not engage with those people yourself, rather than complaining that no one remembers or reads him? I don’t see what such griping accomplishes, honestly.

        FWIW, Kenner and Davenport were major influences on my first novel, Giant Slugs. I devoured their work after college. Had I been blogging then, I probably would have yammered on about them nonstop. I did review Davenport’s Death of Picasso for RCF, and would link to it here, if Dalkey would only let me.


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