Aug 272010

Jeet and Robin 005

A little over a decade ago, Hugh Kenner returned to Canada to deliver the Massey Lectures, a long-standing Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio lecture series. House of Anansi subsequently published Kenner’s lectures under the title The Elsewhere Community, and Jeet Heer wrote the following review essay for Canadian Notes & Queries #55 (the same magazine, not the same issue, that just published my essay on Alice Munro). Though all this happened some time ago, it’s a pleasure to bring Jeet’s essay back on Numéro Cinq; new eyes make the piece new. And some of Kenner’s background may come as a surprise to a new generation of American readers.

Jeet Heer, whom I have come to know since he scrambled up the bear-sex idea in my novel Elle a couple of weeks ago, is a graceful man, a widely published and prolific literary journalist and a comic book scholar (he is finishing his doctorate at York University, incidentally, my alma mater, in Toronto).


On Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community

By Jeet Heer

Canadians, who are now merely indifferent to literature, once lived in fear of it. Customs agents, armed with a high school education and a list of proscribed authors, stood guard not only against smut but also naturalism, aestheticism and modernism – anything strange and foreign. As late as 1946 books by Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were deemed by official policy to be dangerous to the Dominion.

During this distant era, Hugh Kenner, a student at the University of Toronto, developed an interest in twentieth-century literature. His mentors of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, both of whom benefited from studying abroad, had brought back word of modernism of the Canadian hinterland. Kenner discovered that Joyce’s Ulysses, otherwise verboten in Canada, could be found in the restricted access section of the University of Toronto library. However, in order to take a look at the illicit text, Kenner needed to secure two letters of reference: one from a religious authority and one from a medical doctor. Kenner knew a priest who could vouch for his morals, but unfortunately, was unable to find an obliging M.D. to attest to the fact that reading Joyce would not corrupt his physical stamina. Ultimately, Kenner had a family friend, a Jesuit priest, smuggle into Canada a copy of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Reading Ulysses, along with meeting Ezra Pound in 1948, was a turning point in Kenner’s life. Modernism, he quickly decided, was the central literature of his time. While D.H. Lawrence was also forbidden in Canada, Kenner believed that it was Joyce’s masterly of language, much more than his sexual frankness, that made him a revolutionary writer. He once made a sharp comparison between Lawrence and Jocye:

The telling difference between Constance Chatterly’s surrender (“She was utterly incapable of resisting it. From her breast flowed the answering, immense, yearning over him; she must give him anything, anything”) and Marion Bloom’s (“yes and my heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”) is a difference in the molecular structure of language: the former, a Victorian survival applied to counter-Victorian situations, the latter a radical linguistic innovation, rhythm and syntax interlocked, assured. Which is why the presence or absence on American shores of Lady Chatterly’s Lover ultimately makes no difference except to the publishing trade and the custodians of the immature, while the presence of Ulysses has for some decades been slowly altering the world.

Confident of the importance of modernism, Kenner would spend his career writing about not only Joyce and Pound, but also their many friend and disciples, including T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and W.B. Yeats. Viewed as a whole, Kenner’s critical oeuvre constitutes our best guide to twentieth-century English literature. No one else has written about such a range of authors with as much care, as much thought, as much perception. Moreover, especially in major books like The Pound Era (1971), Kenner has written prose of rare grace and energy, making him one of the few academic literary critics who delight as well as illuminate.

Because Canadian universities of the early 1950s, following the model of Oxford, disdained books written after 1850, Kenner ended up in the more hospitable academic environment of the United States. Teaching first at the University of California starting in 1950, then Johns Hopkins and now the University of George, where he has been since 1991, Kenner earned a reputation as “one of the great American literary critics” (despite the fact that he’s never taken out American citizenship, relying instead on a 50-year-old green card). Slowly, news of Kenner’s achievement has filtered back to his native land. The choice of Kenner to deliver the 1997 Massey Lectures, which aired on CBC radio’s Ideas program, can be seen as a highbrow variant of James Cameron winning the Oscar: the story of a local boy making cultural good.

It is easy enough to mock the provincial and philistine Canada that Kenner grew up in. Yet that intellectual wasteland contained a few scattered pockets of deep culture and learning. The Kenner household, headed by two high school teaches with cultural aspirations, was one such oasis. Kenner Collegiate in Peterborough, Ontario, is named after Kenner’s father, a classicist. With parents such as these, it is no accident Kenner came out of a high school with a solid background in French, German, Latin and Greek. This linguistic competence would come in handy when Kenner encountered Joyce’s multilingual Finnegans Wake and talked with the polyglot Ezra Pound, who appreciated conversation with someone who picked up on classical allusions.

Kenner begins his lectures by describing a trip that his father made to Rome in the late nineteenth century. This journey, a middle-class variation of the Grand Tour pioneered by British aristocrats, serves as a model for a form a self-improvement that combines prior learning with a willingness to travel. For the elder Kenner, already steeped in Latin, the very dust of Rome evoked “Cicero’s lips of eloquence and Caesar’s brain of power.” In calling on readers to journey to “an elsewhere community” Kenner is not praising mindless tourism, but outlining the value of a similar form of travel, one which enriches both the mind and the senses.

Trustworthy mentors are essential for the rewarding trips to an elsewhere community. Kenner gives many examples, both real and imaginary, of the best sort of tour guide, Circe guiding Odysseus, Virgil guiding Dante, Yeats guiding Pound, Pound in turn guiding a slew of other writers. “Mentoring: that became second nature to Pound.” When Kenner talks about the “the Pound era” is referring not just to Pound the writer but also Pound the tireless aid and catalyst who helped Eliot, Joyce and man others achieve their best work.

Frye and McLuhan were Kenner’s Canadian mentors. From them, Kenner learned invaluable lessons, both positive and negative. Not only were they more alive to twentieth-century literature than their academic peers, they were also up on the novel techniques of literary criticism developed to deal with modernism: the “close reading” of texts promoted by F.R. Leavis and the New Critics.

Yet while he was respectful of Frye’s encyclopaedic intelligence, Kenner distrusted the arrogance that went with it. Frye had the hubris of an intellectual conquistador for whom explicating literature became subsumed to the larger task of system-building. As his first book Fearful Symmetry (1947) was about to be published, Frye casually remarked to Kenner, “What a pity that Joyce and Yeats did not live to read my book, it would have saved them so much time.” For Kenner this arrogation of the critic’s role (taken to an even further extreme by Frye’s disciple Harold Bloom) is supremely wrongheaded: the critic should help readers gain a better understanding of the writer but not eclipse literature with flashy and irrelevant displays of intellectual pyrotechnics. Like a good tour guide, the critic exists to illuminate our experience of art, not to supplant it with overbearing commentary.

Frye, Kenner, once mildly noted, did “have a taste for systems and ‘key,’ something it’s easy to think of as Canadian (his contemporary, Marshall McLuhan comes to mind).” Frye’s systems were built on Linnean categories, Jungian archetypes and biblical myths; McLuhan’s systems were elaborate historical narratives that combined conspiracy theories with technological determinism. In the late 1940s, Kenner had been much closer to McLuhan: warm friends, they had planned to co-write books on such disparate subjects as T.S. Eliot and the cartoonist Al Capp (whose comic strip Li’l Abner then enjoyed Dilbert-like popularity). McLuhan and Kenner shared not only a love of modernism but also a belief that it was fruitful to connect modern literature with developments in technology and popular culture.

Yet the two men eventually drifted apart for complex reasons rooted in different temperaments. Like Frye, McLuhan was all too willing to subsume literature to his larger intellectual purposes. For example, the gnomic text of Finnegan’s Wake was used to validate McLuhan’s “laws of media” in the same fashion that lesser minds try to read the future in scribblings of Nostradamus. Floating into the ether as a media guru, McLuhan lost the literary critics essential skill of being able to accurately respond to the words on the page. Kenner, by contrast, would continue to be interested in how art actually works even when writing about the impact of technology in The Mechanic Muse (1987) or popular culture in Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings (1994) – a profile of the animator who directed the adventures of Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

A chapter of The Elsewhere Community is taken up with Kenner describing his meetings with the great modernists after being advised by Ezra Pound that “you have an obligation to visit the great men of your time.” In offering his anecdotes about T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore, Kenner is not serving up the literary equivalent of fan-magazine gush or tabloid gossip. Rather, Kenner wants to demonstrate how much can be gleaned by observing an author’s everyday talk and writing habits. The Jamesian formality of Pound’s speech is contrasted with the voice of the cranky crackerbarrel sage found in his letters. “Pound was the first man I’d ever met who always spoke in complete sentences. His first utterance that afternoon was a subordinate clause.” A moving account is given of how Lewis and Williams continued to write in old age despite the debilitation, respectively, of blindness and a stroke. They had to get words out even in the most trying situations, true writers to the end. As ever the critic’s goal here is to be attentive to language and pay attention to how sentences are made. Unfortunately, the cramped space of the lecture format prevents Kenner from fully pursuing this topic with the same depth found in his previous works.

We need to turn to Kenner’s earlier book Joyce’s Voices (1978) to get a fair sample of his critical acuteness.

Scanning A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man fifty years ago, Wyndham Lewis was caught by what seemed an inadvertency of diction in a book not quite, as he thought, “swept and tidied”: “Every morning, therefore, Uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse but not before he had greased and brushed scrupulously his back hair and brushed and put on his tall hat.”

Lewis thought that in catching Joyce writing “repaired” he had caught him off guard. “People,” he said “repair to places in works of fiction of the humblest order.” He was characterizing Joyce as a humble scriveners who kept himself from dropping into cliché by not wholly incessant vigilance. But the normal Joycean vigilance has not faltered here… “repaired” wears invisible quotations marks. It would be Uncle Charles’s own words should he chance to say what he was doing. Uncle Charles has notions of semantic elegance, akin to his ritual brushing of his hat; we hear him employing the word “salubrious,” also the word “mollifying.” If Uncle Charles spoke at all of his excursions to what he calls the outhouse, he would speak of “repairing” there.

Not that he does so speak, in our hearing. Rather, a speck of his characterizing vocabulary attends our sense of him. A word he need not even utter is there like a gnat in the air beside him, for us to perceive in the same field of attention in which we note who “scrupulously” he brushes his hat. This is apparently something new in fiction, the normally neutral narrative vocabulary pervaded by a little cloud of idioms which a character might use if he were managing the narrative.

From there, Kenner launches into a brilliant discussion of Joyce’s narrative styles. As the poet Donald Hall noted, this little book is “a delight to read. And Kenner’s leaping wit, his metaphors, his transitions from insight to insight, his lively attention to Joyce’s inventions – these qualities make it difficult, if you pick the book up one evening, not to finish it before turning off the light…. We feel in Kenner a genuine affection for the loved and lived-with text.”

The Elsewhere Community serves as a Kenner sampler, giving us a quick sketch of his career. Fully the equal of his mentors Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, Kenner deserves a reputation and readership as extensive as theirs.

—By Jeet Heer

See also Jeet Heer in Slate, in the UK Guardian, interviewed on comic books, and on R. Crumb in Book Forum.

  2 Responses to “Canadians in the Attic: On Hugh Kenner’s The Elsewhere Community — Jeet Heer”

  1. I look at the shelf above me and see three Kenner titles: Dublin’s Joyce, Joyce’s Voices, and A Colder Eye. I know of him as a Joyce scholar, but didn’t know his background. I look forward to reading the essay.

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