A New Book of Hugh Kenner’s Letters Reminds Us That He Was Marshall McLuhan’s Star Student

23Oct18
Hugh Kenner (1923-2003)

“Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner” has been for me, and will be for many others, the most intellectually exhilarating work published in 2018. In roughly 1,000 letters, mainly from the 1960s and ’70s, two of the great literary polymaths of the second half of the last century converse about art and literature, scholarship, translation, the follies of academe, and the life of the mind. As a bonus, the book’s redoubtable editor, Edward M. Burns, identifies every name, reference and allusion, elevating his sometimes essaylike notes into an integral, invaluable part of the correspondence itself.

Nearly all of Hugh Kenner’s work can be viewed as an extended commentary on 20th-century modernism or, as his 1971 magnum opus called it, “The Pound Era.”Not only did Kenner (1923-2003) produce groundbreaking studies of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and Samuel Beckett, but his own darting prose, abounding in surprising factoids and anecdotes, also makes his writing vastly entertaining; Guy Davenport once compared reading his friend’s work to the thrill of opening presents on Christmas morning. As one might expect from a star student of Marshall McLuhan, Kenner regularly probes the effect of new technologies, such as the typewriter and telephone, on early modernist literature. This McLuhanesque bent eventually led him to bring out entire books about R. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of geodesic domes, and cartoon legend Chuck Jones, the genius behind Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote. (Source where you can read the rest: https://goo.gl/NTH6AQ)

A Short Biography of Hugh Kenner

[William Hugh Kenner]; b. 7 Jan., 1923 at Peterborough, Ontario; son of Henry Rowe Hocking [K], a Catholic headmaster and teacher of classical languages; grandson of a mathematician after whom the local school was named; born with speech defect, and presumed deaf; became an early reader and a childhood polymath; studied under Marshall McLuhan at Toronto Univ.; grad. BA 1945 and MA 1946, with Gold Medal in English; introduced by McLuhan to Ezra Pound, who told him it was his duty to meet all the great men of his age; published Paradox in Chesterton (1948), intro. by McLuhan; undertook his PhD at Yale, supervised by Cleanth Brooks, and grad. 1950; visited Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth’s with McLuhan, 1948; his “The Portrait in Perspective” appeared in Seon Givens, ed. James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism (1948);
issued The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951), composed in six weeks and intended ‘to help as many people as possible to read Pound for themselves’ at the time of the Bollingen award, and won the Porter Prize; taught at Santa Barbara 1950-73; issued Dublin’s Joyce (1955), Samuel Beckett (1965), and The Pound Era (1971), a monumental study of Anglo-American Modernism; resigned from American Academy of Arts and Sciences, at committee’s repudiation of the Emerson-Thoreau Award to Ezra Pound; appt. Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Johns Hopkins University, 1973-1990; issued Joyce’s Voices (1978), and Ulysses (1982) -a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel; castigated Richard Ellmann in a review of the revised edition of James Joyce (orig. 1959; rev. 1982) for accepting what Kenner called ‘Irish Facts’ LS, 17 Dec. 1982); issued A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (1983), a work that made him enemies among Irish critics leading to disputations in print with Thomas Kinsella and others… (Read the rest at https://goo.gl/4dwGy5)

See Hugh Kenner and Marshall McLuhan previously published on this blog: https://goo.gl/cGUuUN



4 Responses to “A New Book of Hugh Kenner’s Letters Reminds Us That He Was Marshall McLuhan’s Star Student”

  1. Saying HK was McLuhan’s star student is misleading. The review more accurately says a star student. It worth noting that McLuhan arrived to the UofT in 1946 and that Kenner took his degrees BA 1945 and MA 1946. Fulford says “McLuhan often gets identified as Kenner’s mentor, which doesn’t quite tell the story.” and further says ” Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan quotes his resentful remark: “I have fed Kenner too much off my plate.”” It’s worth noting that Kenner moved on to Yale and the influence of Brooks and the school of American New Criticism and yes as recommended by McLuhan. As Kenner leaves Toronto, Theall is on the threshold of leaving Yale at Brooks urging to come to Toronto to study as McLuhan’s first PhD student and in the process become integrated into the important developing years of the Toronto School of Communications a term coined by Theall! It can be argued that Theall was McLuhan’s star student.

    Andrew Chystall hones in on the Kenner/McLuhan relationship in his The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan and of particular note he quotes a letter to Joe Keough (july 1970) where McLuhan disses Kenner calling him a parasite. (And similarly he vindictively attacked Theall.)

    Fulford quotes Kenner saying of McLuhan, “it was a good thing to get clear of him.”

    • Thanks for your well-articulated comments, Michael. Theall or Kenner? Whose star shone the brightest? That’s debatable and it’s probably safer to give both equivalency. However, as far as stardom is concerned, I was thinking more about the careers of both as opposed to how they did as students under MM, both of whom were amazingly productive and full of achievements. I gave the nod to Kenner because of his considerable output in writing books about all the greatest modernist writers, including The Pound Era which has had great influence.

      “Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era could as well be known as the Kenner era, for there is no critic who has more firmly established his claim to valuable literary property than has Kenner to the first three decades of the 20th century in England. Author of previous studies of Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Pound (to name a few), Kenner bestrides modern literature if not like a colossus then at least a presence of formidable proportions”… ( https://goo.gl/s93gbe )

      I have all of Theall’s books on McLuhan and although his scholarly output was not as great as Kenner’s he accomplished other great things in establishing the Communication Department at McGill, co-founding the Canadian Communication Association and going on to be the President of Trent University. I’m sorry to hear that MM was petulant about acknowledging his two star students, given that he himself benefitted from the influences of his Cambridge Practical Criticism teachers, Innis, Wyndham Lewis and others. He no doubt absorbed as much as he could from his sources of influence. As Newton once wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” (1675)

      I have published a note on Donald Theall earlier on my blog at https://goo.gl/VfVXej. I think I’ll leave the title of my posting on Kenner as is. Thank you for your comments…….Alex

  2. 3 Edward M. Burns

    I am appreciative of the comments made by Michael Edwards and Alex Kuskis about my book “Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner.” I was careful to refer to McLuhan as a mentor to HK, never as his teacher (in the academic sense– which he never was). In writing about HK’s “The Poetry of Ezra Pound” (written while he was a graduate student at Yale University) and his book about Eliot, “The Invisible Poet,” I quoted at length passages in which HK writes that these books were stimulated by his and McLuhan’s reading each poet’s works and the discussions they had. While HK studied with Cleanth Brooks, he was never a New Critic–and I am careful to assert this. It was McLuhan who introduced HK to Felix Giovanelli who he first had known they they each taught at St. Louis University. Giovanelli was also a mentor to HK when he was working on his doctorate at Yale (see particularly 1963, note 502, pp. 526-7). The complex relationship between HK and McLuhan was never directly referred to in the letters, and so I never addressed it in my notes. What was crucial for HK was that it was McLuhan, who, driving him to New Haven to begin his graduate studies at Yale, took him to Washington, D.C. to meet Pound at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

  3. 4 Edward M. Burns

    I apologize for misstating Michael Edmunds name.


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