Hugh Kenner’s strength as a critic is twofold: His ability to focus on particular works and reveal their structures and meanings is unparalleled; at the same time, he is capable of relating literature to events surrounding it, whether they are social, political, or philosophical. His refusal to accept conventional boundaries for criticism provides new and valid ways of looking at writing and gives his readers the chance to experience the connections they otherwise would have missed—such as those between Alexander Pope and Buster Keaton.
It has been written that Kenner’s critical method is that of exegesis—that is, he studies literature not only for its obvious message but also for its hidden text, its unstated meanings. Sometimes these are obvious points that a writer takes for granted but which a later reader needs explained. Sometimes they are entire systems of relationships which expand beyond the literary text. The Counterfeiters is a classic example of Kenner working in this mode. It pulls together such diverse characters and themes, and in such a short compass, that any reader is enlightened, and the perceptive reader must reconsider traditional views of eighteenth (and twentieth) century literature.
Ideally, The Counterfeiters should be read in tandem with another of Kenner’s short works, Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (1962). Together, the two supply a fresh perspective on the methods and motives of writers who use satire, irony, and the “counterfeit” in constructing their art. These themes often occur throughout Kenner’s critical writings, most notably in The Pound Era (1971), but nowhere are they set in more cogent or concentrated form than in The Counterfeiters.