One way to describe Hugh Kenner’s immense influence as a critic is to say that, to a remarkable extent, he has had to himself the delineation of literary modernism in English. Professor of English at Johns Hopkins, formerly chairman of the Department of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Kenner has written more than fifteen books since 1947, as well as dozens of articles and reviews, mainly on aspects of modernism in England, Ireland, and America. Among his gifts are the wit and ease of his style, a conspicuously old-fashioned abundance of learning, and a wealth of curiosity more admirable still. From his New Critical teachers at Yale he inherited the patience to attend infinitely to linguistic detail. Above all, he is that distinctively American desideratum, the “practical” critic. When he is not describing or elucidating works, he is describing or elucidating writers, or literary history. Indeed, he has characterized himself as the author of “x-ray portraits” of men and books, an image which resonates with practical science. An x-ray is a transparency: throughout his work, Kenner has respected the American wish that the critic and his ego remain out of sight.
Among Kenner’s works are individual studies of G.K. Chesterton, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. Gnomon (1958) was a collection of essays examining not only the literature of this century, but also the cultural circumstances that have produced and supported it. Ten years later, in The Counterfeiters, a “historical comedy,” Kenner related the self-conscious artificiality of modern culture to the philosophical assumptions of the industrial revolution. Like Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller (1973), The Counterfeiters demonstrated Kenner’s competence and lucidity outside the strictly literary arena, and gave evidence, too, of his profoundly conservative religious and social bias. His most ambitious work, however, is contained in the two volumes of criticism he has produced since 1970: The Pound Era (1971) and, most recently, A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers.1
Michael Rosenthal, in the New York Times Book Review, has justly assessed the dimensions of Kenner’s prestige: “There is no critic who has more firmly established his claim to valuable literary property than has Kenner to the first three decades of the 20th century in English. . . . Kenner bestrides modern literature if not like a colossus, then at least a presence of formidable proportions.” No one can claim as much responsibility for the formation of the standard modernist canon—not even Lionel Trilling; who in bearing his complex witness to the modern spirit in literature had in mind something international and arch-romantic, centered in the 19th century. But what does Kenner mean by modernism? There is an insistence, dispersed throughout his work, on the thoroughgoing, essential unity of the great modernists. And yet, while so confining a thing as a definition of modernism is not desirable, the assumptions that govern Kenner’s concept of the modern remain oddly dark. It takes an occasion outside routine critical practices to bring them to the surface.
“Ezra Pound, RIP” is a eulogy for the poet that was published in the National Review (November 24, 1972). Kenner’s The Pound Era, which had appeared within a year of the poet’s death, was a big book, apparently random and eclectic, here illumining an obscure corner of the Cantos, there telling and retelling anecdotes with a pleasant air of half-belief, elsewhere establishing Pound’s virtual tutorship of Yeats or Eliot. The Pound Era has no thesis except the (uncontested) centrality of Pound expressed in its title. “Ezra Pound, RIP,” on the other hand, is fewer than five hundred words. In it, Kenner recalls the poet’s heartiness at the age of eighty, when they trudged together up a steep incline near Rapallo. Then choice “moments” from the poetry are offered up—among them, this from the Pisan Cantos: “Mist covers the breast of Tellus-Helena and drifts up the Arno,” and “The reeds are heavy bent;/and the bamboos speak as if weeping.” Of these Kenner says:
Such exemptions from the time of mere events are beyond price. Men do not live in that universe of exemption, but men know what is is to be men, not brutes, not destroyers, in part because the imagination can live there. Pound was unlucky in the world of events, most of us are, though less so. It was only his miserable involvements with the events of the 1940’s that prompted the wire services to chatter so much when he died. Otherwise that event would have been worth five lines.
Consistency reigns here, whatever else one may wish to say. If the world as we know it is a world of “mere events,” then Italian Fascism is perhaps merely a misfortune; if imagination operates above time and history, in a “universe of exemption,” and instructs us from there in the human qualities, then it is fatuous to worry modern literature with the moral questions put by social and political reality. For the proper context of art, in this view, is eternity; if we are wise, the chatter of the wire services—about, say, Mussolini in Ethiopia—will not distract us.
It is not my feeling that Pound’s Fascism ought to inhibit our admiration of his poetry, but nothing is accomplished by dismissing it as accidental (“unlucky”?). Indeed, admiration for the Cantos, especially, must be formulated with one eye upon the politics. To prate of their irrelevance is surely no compliment to Pound. Actually, Kenner does not everywhere finesse the issue. In The Pound Era, he treats the subject in two ways. One is through Pound’s economic preoccupation. Major Douglas’s radical monetary reformism, thick with a Jeffersonian rhetoric of freedom, had so captured Pound’s imagination, the story goes, that he saw in Germany and Italy only the mechanics of their economic recovery, and not their imperialist obsessions. But how then was his attachment to Fascism “unlucky”? It was, rather. a “rational” consequence of Pound’s economic thinking.
Moreover, this account leaves out the question of tone, the actually stirring tone of Pound’s admiration for the man Mussolini. Here, in the second of the two ways he treats this subject, Kenner is more interesting. Pound had, in the 20’s, we learn, cast himself in
the role of Odysseus and the role, simultaneously, of amanuensis for the mind of Europe, itself Odysseus, in desperate straits (wars, inflations) seeking Ithaca, questing as men always are after lost securities that lie somewhere around the rim of a great circle.
And “Mussolini seemed to be helping to rebuild Ithaca.” This is no were saying, “Your honor, my name is Odysseus, sacker of cities.” The election of Mussolini to mythic high office, as Kenner knows, was wrong. But
human misjudgment and the closed curve of human vitality which achieved power at least over the Cantos should not in their triumph obliterate the pertinence of [Pound’s] most radical decision: to experience the poem as he wrote it, himself committed to all of which he wrote, himself Odysseus actually en route.
There it is: the “experience” of the poem itself. Before judging Pound, then, we must be apprised of what Kenner in his eulogy calls the “universe of exemption” where Pound’s imagination dwells: “around the rim of a great circle.” There Mussolini is not the real Mussolini, the Mussolini of “mere events,” but Mussolini the literary analogue, the rebuilder of “Ithaca.”
It is with such mystic gauze a. ‘this that Kenner has attempted to shroud our perception of the moral and social pertinence of modern literature. In “Ezra Pound, RIP,” Pound is paid a reverence rather frightening. He figures there as the almost literally deathless bard. But the figure of most interest in the eulogy is that cut by Kenner himself, in his contempt for the world and its history, in his election to immortality of a poet to speak for God (or from God’s vantage point). Kenner’s brand of Roman Catholicism is only indirectly at issue here. It is primarily an aesthetic, not a religious mysticism by which Kenner scants Pound’s moral confusion, a notion of art’s imaginary realm in which even a Mussolini can suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange. In similar fashion, an essay on Yeats in Gnomon warns the reader not to mistake Yeats’s life, Irish politics, or anything else for the context of his poems:
What we see in this mirror, the page, is reflected from that one, “life”; but the parallel mirrors face each other, and in an infinite series of interreflections life has been acquiring its images from the book only that the book may reflect them again.
Or, in language that will seem familiar:
It is a radical mistake to think of Yeats as a casual or fragmentary poet whose writings float on a current discoverable only in his biographabl e life. How much time does he not spend telling us that he has carefully rendered the mere events of his life irrelevant? [Emphasis added.]
Reviewing Gnomon, Steven Marcus perceived that in such places Kenner is
more like an alchemist or a mathematician than he is like a critic; in his most typical essays he tends to conjure up a totally autonomous, self-referring universe, whose terms have virtually nothing to do with experience, and which functions according to some arcane concoction of rules whose unintelligibility is the safeguard of their inconsequence.2
“Inconsequence,” I think, is a wrong emphasis. Kenner’s self-reflexive universe may not refer to the real world, but it does have consequences for it. Life, when it is caught up in its own reflection by art, and mirrored in a series of infinite regress, comes to feel that its own reality has been put in question. Under the spell of Kenner’s modernism, the security of our grasp on the empirical universe is undermined. But we should not be misled: Kenner has beliefs, ideals, values, which he would substitute for what he takes away. Despite the hocus-pocus, he is convinced of what is real and what is not.
To begin with what, as Kenner sees it, is not real. In A Homemade World there is a chapter on Hemingway which calls attention to two passages in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In the first, Robert Jordan makes love to his Spanish girlfriend, Maria. The dialogue is not brilliant: “Maria.” “Yes.” “Maria.” “Yes.” The second is Jordan recalling smells:
Which would you rather smell? Sweet grass the Indians used in their blankets? Smoked leather? The odor of the ground in the spring after rain? The smell of the sea as you walk through the gorse on a headland in Galicia? Or the wind from the land as you come in toward Cuba in the dark? That was the odor of the cactus flowers, mimosa, and the sea-grape shrubs.
Hemingway’s novel has come to seem, to many people, somewhat uneasy on its feet, but one would have thought that this particular passage was likely to survive the general wreck. As it turns out, it will only survive for those who like the way the world smells. As for Kenner, who does not, he can only see Jordan, whom he disdains to an extent that is actually comical, floundering among “mere” women, “mere” oceans, flowers, land. Hemingway’s Galicia and mimosa, along with the brute indulgences of Maria, send Kenner back to a less vulgar American, Henry James. He admits that a James character said once, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” “But James,” he goes on, “meant more by ‘Livel,’ one cannot help thinking, than the knack of so arranging one’s priorities that one would one day have a girl and the memory of smells.” Kenner writes of the horror that James would have felt at a novelist like Hemingway, “for whom thirty centuries of civilization, all the long effort since Homer and Thucydides, has [sic] for its quintessence” only such messiness as this scene in Galicia.
Kenner must own a unique edition of Homer, since most are full of soldiers who make love to women in far-off lands, as Robert Jordan is fond of doing. Not that Hemingway is Homer. But who is Henry James? Surely he is that character in Gnomon, The Pound Era, and A Homemade World who stands in those books for something called the “aristocratic tradition” in American letters. In elucidating what that is we stand to learn what Kenner calls real, since the beautiful Maria is not. And in making explicit his sense of James, we may come to terms with that adulation of patrician manners which is often mistaken, in Kenner’s writing, for conservatism.
A Homemade World is in some ways a departure for Kenner. It has been his practice to return again and again to the same writers throughout his career—with deepening knowledge and insight, when he is at all right to begin with. On only one of the nine writers treated in the new book has Kenner committed himself frequently or at any length before now. William Carlos Williams, the exception, is also one of the few non-expatriated moderns who has interested Kenner, himself a Canadian living in the United States for many years. Three virtues of the new book should at once be noted. First, after the Poundian complexity of The Pound Era, it is wonderfully lucid. Secondly, it contains moments of great incisiveness, fixed with great wit, as when he says of Marianne Moore that she has “never allowed a fear of being thought poetic to deter her from accuracy.”
Thirdly, it has, more palpably than the earlier books, a thesis: American modernism has involved a “fifty-year re-shaping of the language.” Americans have seized upon the realization, which “has been suspected in other times and places” but never before “felt in a whole people’s bones,” that “language is something arbitrary, something external both to the speakers who use it and to the phenomena they hope to denote”; consequently, that language “is less a heritage than a code, and a code, moreover, that we are free to change.” According to Kenner, the project of American writers in this century has been to exploit this freedom—freedom from history, from representational use—and to construct utterances and fictions “of the arbitrary.” Because the words of which they are comprised are cut off from the world they had formerly been supposed to represent, the poems and novels so produced are radically artificial and thinglike: thus, “homemade.”
The irony of this argument, as well as its ingenuity, consists partly in the unlikelihood of Kenner’s examples. The exploitation of a freed language he sees consummated in the poetry of Williams, who to all appearances bound his words tightly to the work of describing the world:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
Kenner’s point about this poem is the surprising one that “it is impossible to imagine an occasion for [the] sentence to be said,” unless it be “the gush of an arty female on a tour of Farmer Brown’s barnyard.”
Kenner is a clever man. In our enjoyment of his “arty female,” he has caused the wheelbarrow to vanish, and we may find we have joined him in his scorn for the possibility that anyone ever felt on his senses a bright wet barnyard after a rain. But Kenner has larger things than this to say of the “homemade world” of American literature. American poems, he says, enter
a world of things made, strange things, radial tires, lunar modules, combination locks, plastic bottles, disposable lighters, but not “aesthetic” things: not, for instance, statues. When Williams . . . called a poem a “machine made out of words,” he was setting it in the field where America’s prime energies have been expended ever since Henry Ford. The good life is no longer mocked by the “machine in the garden,” the good life is realized by means of the machine: intelligence impressed on matter. It is a sentimental playing on little pipes for the poet to pretend otherwise.
Here Kenner can be understood as intending three kinds of art. The “playing on little pipes” is the art of the naive primitivist: Gary Snyder is Kenner’s (quite good) example. Another kind, the kind he has been describing, is the art of the “homemade” artifact, which he asserts is appropriate to the American culture that produces it. But a third is the art of “aesthetic” things—for instance, “statues.” Enter here Henry James, the James of Pound’s imagination, one of “the old men with beautiful manners” who “will not come again.”
“Who is left now who knew Henry James?” Kenner mourns at Pound’s passing. Behind James stand Paine, the Lowells, the Adams family, all that to which James was heir. Embodied in him was the prospect of an aristocratic moment in American literature. But he went where he could be more at home, to Europe, where culture was “simply environment.” “If there was a copy of Homer in Connecticut, it was because someone had decided to bring it along, or send for it,” says Kenner. (Whereas they grow beside the Arno, like mimosa?) And so James left behind “Whitman’s multitudes,” and in so doing set a pattern. Eliot, too, left, fled the women and the smells, to where he could write “The Waste Land,” which is not, Kenner tells us, “homemade,” but the real thing, like statues. No one who stayed behind managed to apply to any good purpose the evident meaning of James and of the worship of “culture”: that what is most civilized is what is most real.
It would be interesting to see an interpretation of a James novel by Hugh Kenner. He may find, if he approaches the text in innocence, that it is difficult to bear out (except in anecdotes of James’s personal elegance) his apparent view that James is unequivocal about the cultivated virtues; for instance, about the capacity, even of extremely well-born types, to rise above the nastiness of physical necessity. There is a scene in The Golden Bowl in which Charlotte Verver, in her first explicitly adulterous interlude with the Prince, finds herself explaining the arrangement of carriages by which she knew that his wife was out. Suddenly her craftiness embarrasses her, and she tries to smile it away: “It’s not a question,” she says, “of a carriage the more or the less. It’s not a question, even, if you come to that, of a cab. It’s so beautiful . . . that it’s not a question of anything vulgar or horrid.” But the context gives her arrogance the lie: she and the Prince can by no pretense of “beauty” rise above the dodging or catching of carriages, the watching of shadows, if they are to pursue the intended expression of their human nature.
Kenner’s reading of Eliot is another matter. His most recent pronouncements, in The Pound Era, show a supercilious interest in Eliot as a neo-Jamesian dandy. But there is also evidence, from the general excellence of his 1959 volume, The Invisible Poet, that Eliot is the writer to whom Kenner is closest spiritually. The terms of their revolt against the modern age are strikingly alike, particularly in their contempt for those emotional realities of human existence which the Romantic era had taught the world to celebrate. We owe to Kenner the most pessimistic view of the meaning of “The Waste Land,” a view which has always seemed to me, at least, accurate.
We owe to Kenner too, however, the less defensible notion that “The Waste Land” is the ur-text of modernism (as David Thorburn has put it), and Kenner has contributed to the opinion as well that Joyce’s Ulysses is likewise founded on the same unambiguous Eliotic disdain for contemporary man. It is here that Kenner’s unspoken assumptions have been most misguiding. As a critic, he is by temperament deaf to the note of real affirmation or triumph in any work, even when the note of affirmation would seem hard to miss, as in “Some Friends from Pascalouga,” one of the most beautiful poems Wallace Stevens ever wrote:
Tell me more of the eagle,
And you, black Sly,
Tell me how he descended
Out of the morning sky.
There follow four stanzas of the eagle descending, “his heavy wings/ Spread on the sun-bronzed air.” True, this is a fiction: there are no eagles in Stevens’s Hartford, and few left anywhere, but their flight is here in the poem, told once and forever. Kenner’s insensitivity to this poem should be preserved in a neurological wax museum. The lovely names Cotton and Sly he finds boring, for they “are both names in any decent-sized telephone book,” and the talk in the poem is of eagles, he makes out, because it “may as well be of a bird’s descent as anything.”
It is true that such affirmation as is expressed in modern literature is more often of a kind that takes much listening and a good ear. It is never more than partial, but it takes what glory it has from the very fact of its partialness and impermanence. If we need anything from critics of modernism, it is help in discerning this neglected and suppressed affirming strain.
In the summer of 1974 Lionel Trilling began an address to the Aspen Institute by saying that “at the present time in American society, there are few factors to be perceived, if any at all, which make it likely that within the next quarter-century there will be articulated in a convincing and effectual way an educational ideal that has a positive and significant connection with the humanistic educational traditions of the past.” His remarks did not grow more hopeful as they continued. Can one then say that Trilling reflected that despair of a contemporary prospect of cultural renewal, attended faintly by nostalgia, which Kenner has made the principal sign of the high modern sensibility? One recalls Kenner’s cynical lament that Homer is not a part of the natural environment in Connecticut; or his recollection of James’s wardrobe; or his sneers at the rabble who applaud Whitman and scorn Wyndham Lewis. Clearly there is a need for discriminating among ways of championing “high culture.”
Kenner has been much associated with the Catholic Right: apparently he is its Minister of Literary Culture. But as such he has set himself the most thankless and ill-conceived of tasks. Tacitly, implicitly, he urges on his audience the advantages of a cultural aristocracy, and derides the democratic assumptions of their imagination. He even pretends—what leads to grotesque distortions, resembling Pound’s praise for Van Buren—that our literary tradition is really one of natural aristocrats gone astray accidentally, if permanently. He wishes on America the elevated European languors of art: literature as privilege. These are the terms in which he summons his readers to the classics.
And it is here that Kenner’s career has its sharp relevance for problems of definition facing American conservatism. The predicament that he epitomizes has been admirably caught by John Diggins in Up from Communism:
The American conservative . . . must find his ideological roots in America’s historical experience. As a body of principles, conservatism cannot be created ex nihilo and instilled into society; rather it develops organically from the wisdom of the ages. When the National Review intellectual turns to the American past, however, he finds himself in the awkward role of the anti-liberal conservative trying to conserve liberalism.
Trilling’s path, by contrast, leads him into a different contradiction, one less oppressive and even suggestive of hope. He refers in the Aspen paper to a book in which members of the urban working class are cited who feel a challenge to themselves and to their children “to become ‘cultured,’ in the intellectual’s sense of that word.” Trilling remarks:
If, following [this] lead, I suggest that there is an affinity between the way in which higher education is conceived by traditional humanism and the way in which it is conceived, instinctually as it were, by a significant group of uneducated people who want to be educated, have I not in effect said that the educational ideal of traditional humanism can count upon being ceaselessly sustained and renewed?
Trilling is ultimately unable to respond in the affirmative to this question, but it is instructive to see him entertain the proposition in the first place, because in doing so he is explicitly seeking a democratic basis for the establishment of a learned culture in America. Whatever its degree of improbability, such a basis is the only one our tradition gives us a right to expect.
1 Knopf, 221 pp., $8.95.
2 My debt to this review is apparent. It has been reprinted as “Three Obsessed Critics” in Marcus’s collection, Representations.