Criticism According to Kenner

Originally published in the Sewanee Review 99 (Winter 1991): 148-54. © 1991. All rights reserved.

Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975). Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. xvi + 230 pages. $12.95 pb; A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (1983). Johns Hopkins, 1989. xiv + 300 pages. $12.95 pb; A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers (1987). Johns Hopkins, 1989. 290 pages. $12.95 pb; Mazes: Essays. North Point, 1989. x + 320 pages. $22.95.

To turn inside out the first sentence of his first book, written when he was twenty-four: as a critic Hugh Kenner is great not so much because he is right as great because of his published achievement. Now sixty-eight, Kenner has averaged a book every other year since Paradox in Chesterton (1947). He has published volumes on geodesic math and Buckminster Fuller, and edited anthologies of the short story and seventeenth-century poetry; but he earned his reputation as a major critic by writing on modernism. To hear him tell it, his career really began in 1949 when the award of the Bollingen prize for poetry to Ezra Pound kicked up (in Kenner’s phrase) a dismal fuss. Infuriated by the attacks on Pound in “pulpit after pulpit,” Kenner volunteered his services to the defense. “I resolved,” he says, “that if no one else would make the case for Ezra Pound the poet, then I would. Having no reputation whatever, I had nothing to lose.” And everything (he might have added) to gain. For in the years since The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951) Kenner has established himself as one the leading exponents of modernist writers with books on Wyndham Lewis (1954), Joyce (a revision of his Yale dissertation, 1956), Eliot (1959, revised 1969), and Beckett (1965). These efforts culminated in 1971 with the publication of The Pound Era, one of the enduring achievements of twentieth-century criticism in English.

Today Kenner is perhaps the best single guide to modernist innovations in literature, all the more important for setting them apart from the well-rehearsed eulogies of the survey course. Kenner restores the gaping shock of the new. In discussing a familiar poem by William Carlos Williams, he invites us to imagine it merely as something said: “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens.” “Try it over in any voice you like,” Kenner notes: “it is impossible.” And he goes on: “Not only is what the sentence says banal, if you heard someone say it you’d wince. But hammered on the typewriter into a thing made, and this without displacing a single word except typographically, the sixteen words exist in a different zone altogether, a zone remote from the world of sayers and sayings.”

It might be asked whether this commentary also exists in the zone of saying, but its virtue lies not in replacing the poem with a conceptually equivalent statement but in provoking a fresh look at the poem. Not many critics now writing can accomplish even this much. “Who, for instance,” Kenner quotes Eliot as saying, “has a first-hand opinion of Shakespeare?” What Kenner seeks in his criticism is to give us a firsthand experience of texts that were at one time so unsettling they could not be experienced otherwise, but have since retreated into classroom obscurity. By and large he succeeds.

Moreover Kenner is one of those rare critics with something like a public following. Mazes, his most recent book, offers up a mixed grill of essays originally published in such periodicals as Art & Antiques (for which he has written some forty columns), Discover, Life, Architectural Digest, Sunday newspaper magazine supplements, Harper’s, and film and music quarterlies. The book appropriately opens with the transcript of a talk broadcast by National Public Radio in which Kenner tries his best to give a sense of how original and farfetched it was for Einstein to propose the conception of the dilation of time. In a headnote Kenner says he wished only “to make one of [Einstein's] ideas intelligible.” But he does more than that: he makes it new. And he does so winningly. It’s clear why Kenner is a favorite with some editors and readers: he writes with none of the unhurried vagueness and glib incomprehensibility of many English professors. His published work has a real audience, as indicated by a leading university press’s recent reprinting of A Homemade World, A Colder Eye, and A Sinking Island.

Yet the question confronting anyone who ponders the critical achievement of Hugh Kenner is this. Why, despite a striking turnout of books and a reputation for importance, is he not a more conspicuously influential critic? Perhaps the answer is that there is nothing in Kenner comparable to Harold Bloom’s theory of the strong writer against whom later writers must struggle, or Stanley Fish’s notion of interpretive communities; no methodological advice tantamount to Fredric Jameson’s “Always historicize,” or E. D. Hirsch’s warning that any such “battle cry” is not in itself “either a program or a theory.” Even Kenner’s Three Provinces of International Modernism is less a plea to reshuffle the academic study of literature, which in most places is still conceived within national boundaries, than a system for disposing material in three companion volumes. Hugh Kenner is sometimes associated with a fondness for historical coincidence (Lawrence Lipking calls it the first rule of Kenner’s criticism, saying it implies a theory of history), but Kenner himself describes it as “an economy that unclutters mental life.” What he means by this phrase is pretty much what Cicero would have: coincidence is a fitting arrangement, a device for reducing a clutter of thoughts to publishable order.

The real difficulty is not in judging whether Kenner has been right, but in knowing what he claims to be right about. Although always entertaining, Kenner can go on for pages without coming to a quotable point. Partly this habit can be explained by the character of his chosen subject. Other than by some “trodden detour” that leads away from it, modernist writing often seems “undiscussable,” he said in an early book, because it does not appear to be about anything except for itself—except, that is, for the character of modernist writing. The critic’s dilemma is to find a plausible means for discussing it. On the whole Kenner’s criticism might be characterized roughly as a multivolume trying-out of different ways to produce an approach to modernist writing. The propositional content of his criticism—what it says—is less significant than the gadget he has engineered, on this or that occasion, for saying something. For Kenner the first problem of criticism is how to construct a discussion of something that baffles the impulse to discuss it.

Except as a model for imitation, then, Kenner is unlikely to exert much of an influence on other critics with the same problem. (Vide my opening sentence.) Because this account may not come up to the expectations of those readers who want to know, at this moment of doubt over criticism’s future, whether a critic of Kenner’s importance contributes to the general breakdown or shows a way out, I will add that I believe that a powerful and coherent specification of the critical activity can be extracted from Kenner's recent work. Whether it is a heartening display I will leave to others to say.

Consider Kenner’s attitude toward the reshaping of literary study in recent years. Take the brawl over the canon, for instance. Kenner has written no full-length essay to test or commit himself to ideas, but in a headnote to “The Making of the Modernist Canon,” reprinted in Mazes, he writes: “Though ‘canon formation’ has lately come to be viewed as a sinister conspiracy, it happens in all kinds of ways.” The view Kenner expresses is not nearly as noncommital as it may at first appear: it introduces a calming qualification. Still it isn’t likely to goad many brawlers into reflection. And his more forceful points are cagey and unemphatic, folded away in essays on other subjects—as when, musing upon the Dead Sea Scrolls, he wonders what our culture values highly enough to stash in a cave. Although canons are formed in all kinds of ways, Kenner also believes that, once formed, they must be preserved as a heritage. “When an inability to stay interested in Sappho lasted longer than the parchment she was copied on,” he says, “the poems of Sappho were lost.” Subtly implied is his conviction that the prime duty of critics is to sustain interest in those poets whose work must not be lost. But such a credo is widely sneered at these days; it consigns critics, say detractors, to a basically curatorial function; and subtlety may be insufficient to persuade anyone that criticism is precisely curatorial, a matter of taking care with poems.

Nearly forty years ago Kenner was more explicit and persuasive:

To study Poetry requires an unusually tenacious mind, fortified by a wide acquaintance with poems. It is doubtful whether very many people should be encouraged to undertake such a study. But the proposition that, whatever his notions about Poetry, there are certain poems every civilized American should be familiar with, seems not to be commonly advanced. It is tenable that a curriculum should consist of these plus certain other poems which buttress them.His more recent statements afford no reason for thinking Kenner would repudiate the earlier. And perhaps his reason for not reasserting this view is that forty years ago he had already said everything he had to say on the question. But the fact remains that in the last few months, when the negative proposition was being very commonly advanced—namely that there are no poems every civilized American should be familiar with—Kenner kept his own counsel.

What are we to make of this? My guess is that it indicates nothing personally about Kenner, neither a mellowing with age nor unease at the likelihood of being dismissed as a reactionary, but instead that the subtlety and indirectness, the reluctance to add to the commotion, is Kenner’s way of denying two other commonly advanced propositions about the teaching of literature: Northrop Frye’s asseveration that the true object of literary study is literary criticism, and Gerald Graff’s supposition that the best way to learn the criticism of literature is to study the critical debates.

In A Colder Eye, discussing Yeats’s standoffishness from polemics, Kenner notes two aspects of wrangling in print that often go unobserved: it leads one to write pretty much what one has written before, with at best a little rearrangement of the topics; and such writing usually fails to provide even the most basic information. The contrary stance implies one of the chief ends of criticism according to Kenner. For him the best criticism provides its readers with essential information, and Kenner means something quite specific by this. In general his criticism is delightfully informative, as in the case of The Mechanic Muse (1987). Kenner adores facts. “Fact (from the Latin factum, ‘done’) once meant something like feat,” he says; “the detective who wants the facts is asking what people did.” But Kenner means that to carry out its proper work criticism must supply new data, depart from the expected terms of discussion, shake readers out of the lethargy of received opinion. The opposite of information on this showing, what Kenner calls noninformation, is degeneration. The critic who would resist the natural tendency of literary texts to fall into obscurity, to be forgotten, must therefore provide the kind of information which dispells the impression that a text is already depressingly familiar.

This approach may well entail “old-fashioned source-hunting scholarship,” Kenner says, “the very kind of thing the New Criticism had made disreputable for a generation.” In one essay in Mazes he accepts the journalistic cliché that compares the Library of America favorably with the Editions de la Pleaide, and then he endeavors to say exactly what makes the French books so good. Together with the high quality of the paper and binding and their manageable size, the volumes are supplied with historical and biographical introductions that give you “everything you’d want for serious reading.” By contrast the Library of America omits introductions, on the argument that they date. “It’s unclear, though,” Kenner remarks, “what need date about the introductions we get in the Pleiade [editions], a compact arraying of facts about when the [texts] got written and what they drew on.”

Kenner remains in many ways a philologist with a nostalgia for the golden age of philology rather than a critic. The richness of language, he says, “was the nineteenth century’s great discovery, and inventorying those riches was the obsession of the century’s most active minds.” He names W. W. Skeat (1835–1912), professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge; Sir James Murray (1837–1915), editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; and F. J. Furnivall (1825–1910), founder of the Early English Text Society. This is not everyone's roster of the nineteenth century’s most active minds. Kenner himself inventories some of the riches of language in one of his best essays, “Irish Words” (a chapter in A Colder Eye).

Hugh Kenner performs the other duties of a philologist as well. For example he is implicitly concerned with the traditional crux whether an author can achieve greatness by writing in a minor genre. Declaring rhyme to be a minor genre, Kenner decides that no great twentieth-century writer (with the exception of Yeats) wrote in rhyme. A rhymester like Roy Campbell is a “pretender to twentieth-century status.” Finally Kenner shares the philological intention of compiling a list of the classic authors. His roll of modern classics includes: in America, Pound, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway (but not Sherwood Anderson), Faulkner, Stevens (with reservations), Williams, Marianne Moore, the Objectivists (George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky), Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley; in Ireland, Joyce (naturally), Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Sean O'Casey, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, and Brian O'Nolan (Flann O'Brien); in England, Conrad, Ford, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, three critics (Richards, Empson, and Leavis), Auden, Evelyn Waugh, not Dylan Thomas (who now “reads like self-popularization”), Philip Larkin (though it dismays him to say it), and his two principal candidates for new enshrinement—Charles Tomlinson and Basil Bunting.

Unlike Northrop Frye, Kenner does not seek to transform or elevate literary criticism into a science. For him it is not a systematic knowledge but only an activity—the sorting out and keeping up of significant bodies of work by means of placing them in a context of informative discussion. Thus the object of study (on Kenner’s showing) is literature, not criticism. But for another reason as well the findings of criticism cannot be systematized. No matter how exhaustively a critic systematizes his deductions in advance, the problem of devising a verbal system—a text to array the deductions—is one that confronts the critic each time he sets out to write. In this respect the sole finality in criticism is the achieved text. Since it must be written out in sentences, criticism must hang together grammatically, Kenner might say, not logically—“the way a map hangs together geometrically, not geographically.”

For Kenner, then, criticism is a kind of writing. Of course it is anything but this for most critics now working, which may explain why much criticism at present is badly written. Second-rate critics solve the problem of writing by adopting some currently dominant view, thus contributing to its dominance. Such criticism never rises above a minimum standard of intelligibility, for although propositions can be extracted from it easily enough, they are difficult to make sense of, because their place in the system is rarely clear. The opposite is true of Kenner. It is difficult to reduce his criticism to a table of deductions, but not difficult to understand him. He is more attentive to the problem of writing, to choosing words and getting sentences to hang together, than to the question whether (on some currently dominant view) he is correct. (Not that his criticism is wrong-headed, invalid, or untrue.) He quotes Louis Zukofsky (one of his touchstones): “The mind is attracted to the veracity of the particular craft.” It is the working, the devising and the stitching together, that gives writing of any kind its particular truth. And this has been the standard by which for more than forty years Hugh Kenner has written criticism. It is enough to observe that, more often than not, he has come up to his own demanding standard.