(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

There was a time, Hugh Kenner reminds readers in the opening pages of his linked series of essays entitled The Elsewhere Community, when the truly educated Briton or American was the one who had made at least one visit to the continent of Europe—specifically Western Europe, and particularly France, the Alps, and Italy, culminating at Rome. It was known as the Grand Tour and was considered a fixed part of one’s intellectual and cultural development. Even if the tour could not be especially grand, it was still enlightening, as travelers as diverse as Edward Gibbon, William Wordsworth, and H. R. H. Kenner (the author’s grandfather) all discovered. The Grand Tour was enlightening precisely because it was a tour—it took the traveler “elsewhere.”

Such journeying, Kenner maintains, is how we learn as human beings and learn to be human beings. We learn by going somewhere else, physically, emotionally, or intellectually—and sometimes all three at once. “A special and unparalleled way to know is to go where you’ve never been. And the key to this quest for knowledge is elsewhere.’”

In the beginning, the elsewhere was a literal place. For the English-speaking community it was the Grand Tour of Europe, a visit that become ever more important and memorable the farther west the origins of the traveler. Thus, Americans and Canadians (Kenner, like his grandfather, is Canadian) went to an “elsewhere” subtly distinct from and more affecting than the destination for the English or Scots. When travelers from the New World left Europe, they had a different set of experiences and changes from those of the Britons. Some Americans, such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, went on the tour and never really returned at all.

Pound did return for a while. Following World War II he was imprisoned in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. St. Elizabeths was an institution for the mentally ill, and Pound was considered to be either insane or a traitor (perhaps both) for the radio broadcasts he had made in Fascist Italy during the war. While the United States government puzzled over what to do with this world-famous author (his 1948 book,The Pisan Cantos, won the esteemed Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress while he was in St. Elizabeths), he could receive visitors. In the summer of 1948 Hugh Kenner became one of those visitors, and Pound became his mentor; that first two-hour visit proved to be the font of Kenner’s subsequent career.

Pound was, as Kenner puts it, “a bona fide resident of elsewhere.” Pound’s elsewhere was not merely geographical; it was an elsewhere of the mind and spirit, one that carried him back with equal facility to the Mediterranean world of Homer, the philosophical China of Confucius, and the Provençal castles of the troubadours. However, Pound’s elsewhere was not the dead, useless past, but a past that still influenced and to some extent existed in the present. For many, Homer was an irrelevant poet of Victorian translators’ impenetrable diction and confusing syntax; but Pound’s Homer was a vital and relevant contemporary who had much to teach Pound and his fellow writers.

Those fellow writers, drawn together by Pound’s personality and intellect, formed among themselves a kind of Elsewhere Community that revolutionized modern literature. Members of that community included William Butler Yeats (Pound served as his secretary for a time, and Yeats was mentor to Pound, as Pound would be mentor to so many others); T. S. Eliot (Pound helped refine The Waste Land [1922] from a large mass of poetic ore); and James Joyce (Pound arranged for serial publication of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1914-1915] andUlysses [1922] and rounded up financial support for the always-impoverished Irishman). There were others—so many, and all of them so influenced by Pound, that when Hugh Kenner wrote his 1971 study of this period of literature he called it simply The Pound Era. It was the study of a special kind of Elsewhere Community that spanned both space and time, with members on both sides of the Atlantic, and was active throughout the twentieth century.

However, if visiting Pound in St. Elizabeths was in and of itself a journey to an Elsewhere Community, Kenner recognized that it was not the end of the journey. Encouraged by Pound (and aided by letters of introduction and recommendation), Kenner set out to visit in person the other members of that community. It was, in its own way, an intellectual Grand Tour, where the sites were not the ruins of Rome or the Alpine passes but the great poets and writers of the period such as T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore.

However, although he came to visit them as writers, Kenner stayed to know them as human beings and as friends. In The Elsewhere Community he crafts brief, memorable portraits of them as individuals, each with his or her own unique “pattern of shaped energy” (to use a phrase of Ezra Pound’s) that was that person’s personality. Meeting such individuals is part of traveling to the Elsewhere Community. To appreciate their individuality and learn from it helps one to become part of that Elsewhere Community.

T. S....

(The entire section is 2148 words.)