Hugh Kenner Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Hugh Kenner, one of the most original and provocative of twentieth century literary critics, is the acknowledged master interpreter of such great modernist writers as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Of these authors, Kenner has been most closely linked with Pound: From Kenner’s first major work, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, through his masterpiece The Pound Era, he has shaped the direction of Pound studies. The only child of Henry Rowe Hocking Kenner and his wife, Mary Williams, Kenner was exposed to literature and culture early and intensely. His father was a classics teacher and principal of the local high school, and his mother taught German and French. Kenner learned to read before he was three years old, and his devotion to the printed page was intensified when his hearing was severely damaged by an attack of influenza at the age of five. In 1945, Kenner received a B.A. from the University of Toronto; an M.A. from the same school followed in 1946.

Kenner married Mary Josephine Waite in 1947, and the couple had five children. After his wife’s death in 1964, Kenner married Mary Anne Bittner, with whom he had two children. After teaching at Assumption College, in Windsor, Ontario, for two years, Kenner, on the advice of his friend and colleague Marshall McLuhan, entered the doctoral program in English literature at Yale University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1950. He then took a position at the English department of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he remained until 1973, when he became the Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

From the very start of his career, Kenner was identified with the modernist writers, especially the Irish and Anglo-Americans such as Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Eliot, and Pound. His first major publication, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, initiated serious academic attention to the work of that writer, whose personal and artistic reputation was then still heavily clouded by Pound’s support for the Fascist regime in Italy during World War II and his violent anti-American and anti-Semitic diatribes over the radio. By concentrating on the poetry, Kenner avoided these issues. In his full-length and comprehensive work twenty years later, The Pound Era, he was thought to have been less successful in dealing with this aspect of the poet’s career. These books showed two aspects of Kenner’s work: His startling originality and keen perceptions, especially on matters other critics often overlooked or took for granted, and his uncanny ability to enter into the personality and style of his...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Borkland, Elmer. Contemporary Literary Critics. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1982. Borkland’s essay on Kenner treats him as an overly difficult writer.

Davenport, Guy. “Hugh Kenner: The Kenner Era.” National Review, December 31, 1985. Davenport, who illustrated several of Kenner’s books, offers a sympathetic and perceptive study of Kenner’s work.

Goodwin, Willard. Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography. Albany, N.Y.: Whitston, 2001. Records Hugh Kenner’s published works in chronological sequence by date of publication. Contains a foreword by Guy Davenport.

Lipking, Lawrence. “Kenner.” Denver Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1977). A thorough critical study of Kenner’s writing.

Sale, Roger. “Hugh Kenner.” In On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Shows an appreciation of the complexity of Kenner’s thought.