Kenneth S. Lynn, professor emeritus of history and a renowned literary biographer who was said to have "made Hemingway interesting again," died June 24 in New York after a brief illness. He was 78.
An elegant and witty man who, one colleague recalled, had "no tolerance for pomposity," Lynn was perhaps best known for his 1987 biography of Ernest Hemingway, which garnered him the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography.
"Lynn has provided a model of the way biographically informed criticism can catch the pulse of works about which everything appeared to have been said," wrote Frederick Crews, an English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in the New York Review of Books. "In short, he has made Hemingway interesting again."
Lynn retired from Johns Hopkins in 1988 as the Arthur O. Lovejoy Professor of History.
John Russell-Wood, a longtime colleague of Lynn's and former chair of the History Department, said Lynn's work delved deeply into the psychological and political aspects of his subjects.
"He emphasized the importance of establishing a political stance as crucial to textual analysis and how a writer's psyche was critical to understanding a text," Russell-Wood said. "For Kenneth, context was everything. In this, as in other regards, he had no compunction about going against the stream."
In Hemingway: The Life and the Work, Lynn was the first to focus on Hemingway's mother's efforts to dress young Ernest and his sister as twins, something Lynn believed caused sexual confusion for the author but also improved his art.
"He made Hemingway a believable human being and not the fraud [Hemingway] had perpetrated on the public," said Andy Crichton, retired editor of Sports Illustrated and a longtime friend of Lynn's. "He had this ability to see what was really there."
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Lynn entered Harvard College in 1941, completing two years before enlisting in the Army Air Forces, where he served until 1946, having achieved the rank of second lieutenant. To finish his undergraduate studies, Lynn returned to Harvard, where he wrote for the school's then daily newspaper, The Crimson. Crichton remembers Lynn as an outstanding reporter and writer. "He would have been a wonderful reporter," recalled Crichton, who often encouraged his friend to leave his academic pursuits and become a journalist. Had Lynn done so, Crichton predicted, "everybody would have known his name."
Valerie Lynn said her husband did, indeed, toy with the idea of not going to graduate school but rather of pursuing a career in the news business. "It was a toss-up," she said of his 1948 decision to go to graduate school.
Once he chose the academic life, she said, he never wavered. He went on to earn his master's and doctorate at Harvard, where he became a full professor and later was in charge of that school's American Civilization program.
Among his early works was a highly regarded critical edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and an introduction to Uncle Tom's Cabin that helped restore the literary reputation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's story of slavery.
In 1968, Lynn quit his tenured job at Harvard to teach in Washington, D.C., at the Federal City College, an experiment in interracial education that suffered from the racial tension spawned that year by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
In a 1988 interview with Johns Hopkins Magazine, Lynn recalled his days at Federal City College:
"Academic conservatives like myself wanted to teach normal courses," he said. "We couldn't even offer basketball because some faculty members said it was invented by whites. Those were jolly times."
Offered a position at Hopkins, Lynn joined the faculty in 1969. He continued to live in Washington, where he had office study space in the Library of Congress for more than 30 years, his wife said. He went there almost every day.
He continued writing, producing a critical biography of William Dean Howells in 1971, the Hemingway biography in 1987 and a biography of Charlie Chaplin in 1997, but his wife says the book of which he was most proud was his collection of essays, criticism and commentary, The Air-Line to Seattle, which came out in 1983.
"That contains some of the most important thinking that he did in the field," Valerie Lynn said. "He was, in fact, a critic and commentator of the American scene."
As a teacher, Lynn preferred one-on-one discussions with students rather than lectures. Russell-Wood quoted one former student of Lynn's as saying, "Lynn didn't lecture his students. He fed them ideas."
"He sometimes did conventional lectures, and he was very good at it," recalled former student Wilfred McClay, who earned his doctorate in history at Hopkins under Lynn's guidance and who now is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and that school's Chair of Excellence in Humanities. "But it wasn't what he liked to do. What he did was, he let us in on the questions he was asking, the inquiries on which he was engaged. So we got to come along for the ride," McClay continued. "And that was very exciting."
Rob Friedman, who graduated from Hopkins in 1981, took two courses with Lynn and remembered that he was impressed that even though they were undergraduate courses, Lynn taught them like graduate seminars.
Sitting around a long table in Gilman Hall, Lynn would lead freewheeling discussions, always with a sense of humor, said Friedman. And while he could be quite opinionated, Lynn welcomed debate from his students. In fact, a year after taking one of Lynn's courses, Friedman got an invitation to return to continue a heated debate they had had about Nathaneal West's The Day of the Locust.
"He certainly was one of the three or four best professors I had at Hopkins," said Friedman, now a portfolio manager for a mutual fund company in New York.
In addition to his wife, Kenneth Lynn is survived by a son, Andrew Lynn, of Manhattan; two daughters, Betsy Lynn, of Manhattan, and Sophia Lynn, of Washington; a sister; and three grandchildren.