Death of a Polymath

Hugh Kenner’s passing marks the end of an era.

If you want to build a geodesic dome, you could do worse than to turn to the writings of Hugh Kenner, the great critic of modern literature who died last week at age 80. Kenner’s Geodesic Math and How To Use It (1976) has recently been reissued by the University of California Press, after many years of being the most requested out-of-print book in their catalog. English professors don’t normally moonlight as the authors of practical engineering guides, but Kenner was always a bundle of contradictions: a technophile, a Catholic convert, a political and social conservative, a cultural radical, an explicator of recondite poetry, and a celebrator of animated cartoons.

Kenner’s polymathic writing earned him a wide array of admirers in unlikely places. (For many years he was one of the most popular columnists in Byte magazine.) Yet among academic literary critics, Kenner was always an odd man out. Because of his offbeat approach, he belonged to no lit crit school and had no followers. You can’t be a Kennerite the way you can be a Leavisite or a Derridean. Moreover, Kenner’s politics made many people nervous. Many of the modernists Kenner celebrated, notably Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, had been fascists. And so there was occasional suspicion that he was in sympathy with their ideology as well as their aesthetic. In 1958, Leslie Fiedler wrote that the typical young conservative critic was “a limp, Hugh Kennerish admirer of Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, dreaming that all their manly spite and vigor are his own; and writing careful exegeses of the Cantos, in which he conceals certain bitter political comments for the initiated.”

This notion of Kenner as a coverted fascist is simply absurd. Among other things, Kenner was as inclined to praise a left-wing poet, like George Oppen or Robert Duncan, as the Tory modernists. In short, Kenner was a slippery writer who evades any easy political labeling. Rather than placing him on the left-right spectrum, it would be better to describe him as a collector of marginalized thinkers and artists: He loved to demonstrate that figures who were dismissed as cranks or freaks did work that has coherence and value. During his lifetime, Kenner’s crank collection included Marshall McLuhan, Louis Zukofsky, Buckminster Fuller, and Chuck Jones, as well as Pound and Lewis. Some of these figures were right-wingers, but their real commonality is that they tend to be undervalued or misunderstood.

Kenner can, indeed, be described as a conservative, but he was an eccentric one. In the late 1950s, Kenner befriended William F. Buckley. The two men shared a passion for boating and for good prose. Buckley recruited Kenner as poetry editor for National Review, but the assignment proved awkward. Kenner was as much an anomaly at the National Review as he would have been at any other magazine. The only difference was that the National Review, then a fledgling publication without a fully coalesced editorial point of view, had room for distinctive writers. In bringing Kenner onboard at the National Review, Buckley demonstrated the high literary aspiration that he had for his magazine. During the 1950s and 1960s, under the guidance of Editor Frank Meyer, the National Review had an excellent arts section, featuring writers like Guy Davenport, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, and Garry Wills—all of whom had voices as distinct as Kenner himself.

In his few political articles and stray comments, Kenner showed himself to be broadly conservative but never partisan or predictable. Early on, he mocked Ronald Reagan’s fake “aw shucks” populism and warned Buckley against entangling the National Review with Richard Nixon. In his book on Buckminster Fuller, Kenner decried environmental degradation. As a social conservative, he praised a collection of essays by Joseph Sobran that attacked legalized abortions, gay rights, and feminism.

Along with Marshall McLuhan, an early soul mate who shared his interest in technology, and like him converted to Catholicism, he lamented the fact that “middlebrow Catholic intellectuals” of the early 20th century “found a facile role in condemning modernity en bloc. … Alienation from the whole century could be made to seem a Catholic English layman’s moral duty.” Unlike McLuhan, who could be a dense writer, Kenner was a phrase-maker: His best expository prose hummed with energy and sparkled with wit. Consider Kenner’s celebration of Buster Keaton’s films as an example of physics in action, which starts by deftly contextualizing their 1920s sensibility:

You could understand how a thing worked by looking at it. A locomotive, a steam shovel, Calvin Coolidge hid nothing from the mind; they did not require to be explained as all subsequent technology has required endlessly to be explained. … Trajectories Everyman intuited with ease, and the Parallelogram of Forces irradiated his mind as Love does an angel’s. The collaboration between audience and kinetic mime was nearly ideal. No one had trouble understanding how a snagged log with Buster clinging to its end could pivot up like a mast and then out over a waterfall’s lip like bowsprit; nor why, swinging down from its end on a rope to rescue the girl, he launched himself not toward her but away from her; nor by what conversion of potential to kinetic energy he is carried up, having snatched her from her ledge, exactly to that handy shelf of rock.

The characteristic Kenner touches are all present: the vigorous syntax and rich diction, the confident leaping through time and space, the unexpected juxtapositions (the steam shovel with Coolidge), the linkage between technology and culture, and even a slight hint of his religious convictions.

Conservatives often bemoan the passing of the good times, and Kenner’s death easily lends itself to an elegiac tone: Despite the fact that “interdisciplinary” is an academic buzzword, it’s hard to imagine scholars of Kenner’s range emerging again. And even if they arrive, where could they write? Few of the writers who characterized Buckley’s National Review—from Davenport to Kenner—would fit into today’s National Review, where the cultural coverage tends to be minimal and heavily politicized. (Davenport, for one, has in recent years written some of the most charged homoerotic prose in American fiction and for that reason alone wouldn’t fit in at the stridently antigay magazine.) Kenner published everywhere: in National Review, Harper’s, and Life. Yet magazines of this sort give less and less space to literature every passing decade. But this type of nostalgic bewailing is totally at odds with the spirit of Kenner’s own work: He always took an interest in new cultural developments and never fell into the trap of believing he lived in the end-all of times. Over the last two decades, Kenner took a keen interest in computer culture. The true Kenner approach would be not to mourn the death of old magazines but to start new ones, online.