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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 8, 2003 | Vol. 33 No. 14
Obituary: Hugh Kenner, Longtime Professor and Noted Literary Critic, Dies at 80

Hugh Kenner at Johns Hopkins in an undated photograph.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Renowned literary critic Hugh Kenner, often regarded as the pre-eminent commentator on the works of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, died of a heart attack on Nov. 24 at his home in Athens, Ga. He was 80.

The author and professor was widely viewed as America's foremost authority on literary modernism. Kenner taught from 1973 to 1990 at Johns Hopkins, where he was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities.

Kenner's career spanned 50 years, during which he authored 25 books, contributed to at least 200 others and produced nearly 1,000 articles and other publications. Somewhat of a chameleon in terms of his interests — he wrote about everything from geodesic domes to the animated cartoons of Chuck Jones — he is perhaps best known for his books Dublin's Joyce (1955) The Pound Era (1971) and Joyce's Voices (1978), all of which are now considered classics of criticism.

To many, Kenner defined the field of modernism and fixed the modern canon for the 20th century. He often wrote about subjects before they entered the mainstream, and some contend that it was Kenner who brought a new and important level of sophistication to the understanding of such artists as Pound and Samuel Beckett.

Peers, colleagues and former students described Kenner's gifts of analysis as immense and his reservoir of knowledge, bottomless.

Sharon Cameron, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Johns Hopkins and a friend of Kenner's, said that he had a keen intellect that could dance around more than just works of literature.

"He had at his fingertips the most interesting collection of facts. If you asked him when the razor blade was invented, he could tell you without blinking an eye," Cameron recently told The Baltimore Sun.

Cameron and others said Kenner had a unique, entertaining personality that would often leave you smiling.

"When he was chair of the English Department, he dispensed with academic pretensions with wit," she said. "He could be inexplicably funny. He once introduced a speaker by cutting to these basics: '... was born. He grew up. He will now give a paper.' "

Eric Sundquist, acting dean of humanities at UCLA, who took several classes with Kenner during his days as a JHU graduate student, said that his former professor, in addition to being one of the most incomparable critics of his generation, was also a unique and gifted teacher.

"One thing I found remarkable was his extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge. He could quote from memory large passages of seemingly all the major modern literary works," Sundquist said. "He could be in class discussing Beckett at one moment and then suddenly quote 20 to 30 lines from Paradise Lost, sheerly from memory."

Kenner was born in 1923 in Peterborough, Ontario, to Mary Kenner and Henry Rowe Hocking Kenner, who was a school principal and instructor of Greek and Latin. He studied under Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, where he received both his bachelor's and master's degrees. He then attended Yale University, where his doctoral dissertation, "The Poetry of Ezra Pound," received the Porter Prize in 1950.

His first faculty appointment was at Santa Barbara College, which later became the University of California at Santa Barbara. He taught there for 13 years before coming in 1973 to Johns Hopkins, from which he retired in 1990.

Ronald Paulson, the William D. and Robin Mayer Professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, who was chair of the English Department when Kenner was hired, said that Johns Hopkins was fortunate to secure an individual at the very peak of his career.

Paulson said that during the time Kenner penned most of his major work, his chief rival in the world of literary criticism was Richard Ellman. Comparing the two, Paulson said that Ellman was more a biographer, whereas Kenner was a "genuine critic."

"He made the works of Joyce, Eliot and many others critically exciting," Paulson said. "He was somewhat of a maverick who had a voice all his own. Kenner was trained as a new critic, and as such made his books fairly personal. He was a beautiful writer."

From 1990 until 1999, Kenner taught at the University of Georgia. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago and Trent University and two Guggenheim fellowships and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

In addition to his writing, Kenner, who had a hearing impairment throughout most of his life, was an avid photographer and somewhat of a tinkerer. He once built for himself a computer using parts from a Heath-Zenith kit, and then wrote its user's guide.

During his life, Kenner befriended many of the major figures of literary modernism, including Samuel Beckett, William F. Buckley, T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis. Other major figures about whom Kenner wrote extensively were Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf and William Butler Yeats.

When he was at Johns Hopkins, Kenner penned such noted works as A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975), A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (1983) and A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers (1988).

He also wrote on mathematics, science, technology and the visual arts. Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller (1973) is a nonacademic introduction to Fuller's theories of cosmic order and its physical properties. His critical works on popular culture and film include the biography Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings and articles on silent-film star Buster Keaton.

Paulson said that Kenner's contribution to literature is immeasurable and that it's a testament to his talent that he was so influential and authoritative, yet still accessible. The critic Richard Eder once wrote in The Los Angeles Times that "Kenner doesn't write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it like a party-goer 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 and begins a one-to-one discussion."

Kenner is survived by his wife, the former Mary Anne Bittner, whom he married in 1965; five children from his first marriage; and two children from his second marriage. His first wife, Mary Josephine Waite Kenner, whom he married in 1947, died in 1964.


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