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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:

2 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.

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