Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy is a collection of five interrelated essays which address a profound change which began in English literature and culture shortly before 1700 and whose effects continue well into the twentieth century. This shift in outlook has been known by several terms, the most famous of which is T. S. Eliot’s “disassociation of sensibility,” but it may also be identified with the rise of the philosophical school known as empiricism.

Generally speaking, empiricism is a philosophy which relies totally on experiment and observation, rejecting theory in favor of fact. In England, the rise of empiricism dates from the second half of the seventeenth century, and the chartering of the Royal Society in 1665 is a convenient date for its arrival.

The Counterfeiters is a study of the changes empiricism made in English literature and culture, and later in American literature and culture. Although literary criticism is its starting point, the work touches upon a number of other salient, yet sometimes surprising connections, from computers and their programs to Buster Keaton and his films.

The study is thematically rather than chronologically structured. Chapter 1, “Counterfeitable Man,” presents the general theme: Since empiricism has divorced “facts” from human beings, and since language is now regarded merely as the conveyer of those facts, it is possible to assemble language (much as a machine is...

(The entire section is 616 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Borkland, Elmer. “Hugh Kenner,” in Contemporary Literary Critics, 1982 (second edition).

Croce, Arlene. “Pope to Pop Art,” in National Review. XX (February 13, 1968), pp. 143-146.

Donoghue, Denis. “Parts of Speech,” in The New York Review of Books. XII (February 13, 1969), pp. 22-25.

Griffin, Lloyd W. Review in Library Journal. XCIII (January 1, 1968), p. 84.

Sale, Roger. “Hugh Kenner,” in On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic, 1979.