Paradox in Chesterton, 1947
The Poetry of Ezra Pound, 1951
Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guidebook, 1954
Dublin’s Joyce, 1955
Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature, 1958
The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, 1959
Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study, 1961, expanded 1973
Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians, 1962
The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy, 1968
The Pound Era, 1971
Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller, 1973
A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, 1973
A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers, 1974
Geodesic Math and How to Use It, 1976
Joyce’s Voices, 1978
A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, 1983
The Mechanic Muse, 1987
A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers, 1988
Mazes: Essays, 1989
Historical Fictions: Essays, 1990
Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, 1994
The Elsewhere Community, 1998
The Art of Poetry, 1959
T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1962
Seventeenth Century Poetry: The Schools of Donne and Jonson, 1964
Studies in Change: A Book of the Short Story, 1965
Desmond Egan: Selected Poems, 1992
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 subjects, approaching their creations from within, rather than from without. Some critics have claimed that it is this complete identification with his subjects that keeps Kenner from fully recognizing and discussing their moral flaws and leads him to overvalue the work of those he studies.
Two small but important works from the 1960’s marked the full-scale development of these aspects of Kenner’s criticism: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett and The Counterfeiters. In these studies, Kenner emphasizes the text as a complete and unified whole and defines the task of the critic as the explication of the internal coherence of the work. Critical explication should not, however, be limited solely to the written work, although that is its primary focus; rather, the critic must place the text within its social, moral, economic, and even religious contexts. In pursuit of this complete understanding, Kenner applies insights from other disciplines, including Thomist philosophy, mathematics, and cybernetics. With this mode of analysis, in which explication follows the lead of the text rather than imposing a rigid, external system upon it, Kenner made connections and deductions that no one had made before but which, once made, seem both unmistakable and obvious. He takes nothing for granted and attempts to fit even the smallest detail into the grand design of the work. In this sense each Kenner study of a text is a re-creation of that text, and so every analysis is as different as the individual work requires. In pursuit of this end, Kenner takes on the point of view, even the style, of the author he studies; the ultimate example of this virtuosity is in The Pound Era, where the style shifts from chapter to chapter as it follows the artistic development not only of Ezra Pound but of an entire generation as well.
Kenner has also written in depth about the work of James Joyce. Dublin’s Joyce, expanded from Kenner’s doctoral thesis, treats Joyce as a writer who has successfully transferred Ireland’s tradition of oral literature to the printed page. Joyce’s Voices expands this insight with the Uncle Charles Principle, the way the voice of the omniscient narrator of Ulysses (1922) changes to resemble that of the character being described. Kenner’s Ulysses is an excellent brief summary of that book. A Colder Eye applies the treatment of Joyce as an Irish writer to such other figures as William Butler Yeats, John M. Synge, and Beckett.
Kenner, a polymath, has ranged far outside the narrow preserves of literary criticism. His interest in Buckminster Fuller, for instance, led to the popular explication Bucky and the highly technical Geodesic Math and How to Use It. Mazes: Essays includes essays on information theory, dictionaries, fractals, and the speed of light, as well as reminiscences about Marshall McLuhan and “the making of the Modernist canon.” Kenner joined the computer age quickly and began writing a regular column for Byte. His selective appreciation of the best of popular culture led him to write Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, in which he subjects the creator of Wile E. Coyote to the same deep study and insightful analysis he had given the creator of Leopold Bloom. The Elsewhere Community serves as an intellectual autobiography as it traces the quest for “elsewhere” as manifested in such concepts as Grand Tours to the Continent, literary visits, and the Internet.
Kenner made several major contributions to twentieth century literary criticism. He proved to be a brilliant expositor of some of the more difficult texts of the times, giving readers an opportunity to understand and appreciate the artistic beauty and intellectual content of works such as Pound’s Cantos (1925-1968) and Joyce’s Ulysses. He also demonstrated through these studies that modern writers such as Pound and Joyce are best approached on lines suggested–even demanded–by their individual creations and that each writer’s text is the only true guide for the reader.