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Hugh Kenner, 80; Scholar of Modernist Prose and Poetry

November 26, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Hugh Kenner, the quintessential expert on 20th century English-language literature who was equally at ease excoriating encyclopedias or explaining how Ezra Pound and James Joyce founded modernist prose and poetry, has died. He was 80.

Kenner, who most recently taught at the University of Georgia, died Monday at his home in Athens, Ga. A longtime chain-smoker, he underwent surgery in 1992 for an abdominal aortic aneurysm and in recent years had suffered from heart problems.

He was a prodigious author, essayist, critic and broadcaster for half a century, writing more than two dozen books, contributing to 200 more and penning some 1,000 articles. A recent bibliography of his writings totaled 414 pages.

Best-known is his 1971 book "The Pound Era," which most consider his masterwork, now in its seventh printing by the University of California Press. A scholarly 561 pages written in Kenner's clear, direct, often witty prose, the book makes the case that Pound, aided by Joyce and T.S. Eliot and shaped by international developments surrounding World War I, forged the modernist literary movement.

A review for the Nation magazine hailed the book as "clearly the capstone of [Kenner's] illustrious career ... a work of art."

Other books that stand out are his 1956 "Dublin's Joyce" and the 1978 "Joyce's Voices." His 1980 "Ulysses," making Joyce's complexly worded novel understandable, remains available in mainstream bookstores.

Kenner, as critic, could also humorously -- and accurately -- twit the latest Encyclopaedia Britannica, as readers are reminded by his 1989 book of collected essays, "Mazes," for misidentifying author Jules Verne in Latin words that translated to "yellow-headed titmouse."

The intellectual yet delightfully readable Kenner was unusual among modern scholars for coupling his prodigious research and reading with personal talks with the modern authors whose work he analyzed.

Richard Eder, in an oft-quoted 1988 Los Angeles Times review of Kenner's book "A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers," explained: "Kenner doesn't write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a partygoer 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, eats some, and begins a one-to-one discussion. You could not say whether his talking or his listening is done with greater intensity."

That sit-right-down approach was suggested to Kenner by Pound himself.

Born to a high school principal father and a classics teacher mother in Peterborough, Canada, William Hugh Kenner read voraciously as a teenager and took five years of Latin, five years of French and four years of German -- greatly expanding his capacity to study literature and later endearing him to Pound.

Ironically, Kenner, who remained a Canadian citizen, would make his career in the U.S., largely because Canadian education favored classic literature as well as languages, while America was open to modernist writers.

Despite severe hearing impairment caused by influenza when he was 6, Kenner excelled in English studies at the University of Toronto, earning bachelor's and master's degrees, and coming under the influence of an instructor named Marshall McLuhan.

A key founder of modern communication theory, McLuhan persuaded the newly graduated Kenner to drive him to Washington, D.C., to visit Pound. The poet had all but destroyed his American reputation by broadcasting pro-Fascist radio commentaries during World War II, and was arrested for treason at war's end. Pound avoided trial by being declared mentally unfit and spent 14 years in a mental institution.

"My subsequent career stems from those two hours," Kenner wrote in his 2000 book, "The Elsewhere Community," of that initial visit June 4, 1948, with Pound in the mental facility.

Pound became a mentor, and Kenner, who had never read Pound's poetry, decided to do his doctoral thesis at Yale on the subject. In 1951, Kenner turned the thesis into his book "The Poetry of Ezra Pound," which earned the Porter Prize and a teaching job at what is now UC Santa Barbara. He remained there until praise for "The Pound Era" led to a post at Johns Hopkins University in 1973.

It was Pound who taught Kenner, according to "The Elsewhere Community," that literary modernism meant "simple words placed in natural order."

Pound also bluntly told him, "You have an obligation to visit the great men of our time," and handed him a list of names and addresses. Kenner duly traveled the world to befriend the modernist writers he would evaluate -- Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, Marianne Moore and others -- noting their methods of defining new literary standards.

Among other Kenner books were his first, "Paradox in Chesterton," published in England in 1947 with an introduction by McLuhan, and "Wyndham Lewis," "The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot," "Samuel Beckett," a biography of Buckminster Fuller called "Bucky," "Geodesic Math and How to Use It," "A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers" and "A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers."

After teaching 23 years at Santa Barbara and 17 at Johns Hopkins, Kenner moved to the University of Georgia in 1990 and taught until his retirement in 1999.

He was married to librarian Mary Josephine Waite from 1947 until her death in 1964, and they had five children. In 1965, with his friend William F. Buckley Jr. as best man, he married nursing instructor Mary Anne Bittner, with whom he had two more children.

Kenner is survived by his second wife; his seven children, Catherine, Julia, Margaret, John, Michael, Robert and Elizabeth; and 12 grandchildren.

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