Hugh Kenner, 80, professor at Hopkins, well-known critic

November 26, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Hugh Kenner, a former English professor at the Johns Hopkins University who was also a critic and celebrated scholar who wrote on James Joyce and Ezra Pound among other literary figures, died of a heart ailment Monday at his home in Athens, Ga. He was 80.

Dr. Kenner taught at Hopkins from 1973 until 1991, when he joined the faculty of the University of Georgia. A specialist in 20th-century literature, Dr. Kenner made his reputation with critical studies of Joyce, Pound, T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats.

Born and raised in a Toronto suburb, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Toronto, studying under media expert Marshall McLuhan. He supported himself in college as a photographer, and took photos throughout his life.

A son, Robert James Kenner of Norwalk, Conn., said yesterday that his father had difficulty deciding whether to study English or mathematics. "He thought he could do much better with English literature, but would be only a competent mathematician," he said.

He earned a doctorate at Yale University, and his published 1951 thesis, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, was widely praised. Among his other books are Dublin's Joyce (1956), The Pound Era (1971), Joyce's Voices (1978) and A Colder Eye, The Modern Irish Writers (1983).

In the early 1950s, Dr. Kenner was appointed an instructor at what is now the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he taught until 1973. He moved to Baltimore after being named Hopkins' Andrew Mellon professor of humanities, and settled on Edgevale Road in Baltimore's Roland Park neighborhood.

From 1991 until his retirement in 1999, he taught at the University of Georgia.

"He had at his fingertips the most interesting collection of facts. If you asked him when the razor blade was invented, he could tell you without blinking an eye," said Sharon Cameron, a Hopkins English professor and friend who lives in New York City.

Dr. Cameron recalled that Dr. Kenner personally knew some of the most important literary figures in the 20th century - Samuel Beckett, as well as Eliot and Pound, and silent-film star Charlie Chaplin.

"When he was chair of the English department, he dispensed with academic pretensions with wit," Dr. Cameron said. "He could be inexplicably funny. He once introduced a speaker by cutting to these basics: `... was born. He grew up. He will now give a paper.'"

She recalled that Dr. Kenner wore a hearing aid and some people believed he turned it off when he was bored.

"However, you could not count on his not listening," she said. "Just as you were ready to say he had tuned out, he would interject the most penetrating remark on what had been said. Hugh Kenner had a preternatural ability to know what was important both in his writing and in his relations with colleagues and friends. He always seemed to me at the height of his power."

Critic C. K. Stead, writing in The Times Literary Supplement, called him "the most readable of living critics."

"He could get off a good wisecrack. When asked about leaving Santa Barbara, he said it was no harder than checking out of a motel," said James H. Bready, a book columnist for The Sun.

In 1982, on the 100th anniversary of James Joyce's birth, Dr. Kenner wrote in The Sun that Joyce re-created "the Dublin of 1904 street by street, stone by stone: a Dublin made out of words chiseled, set and joined as English words had never been before: a phantom city peopled with the names and voices he remembered and a few that he invented."

In a 1983 U.S. News and World Report interview, Dr. Kenner said of his academic role: "It is difficult to teach students to write because many of them can't imagine when they'll ever have to do it. They know that if they go into business they can dictate a letter. ... If schools were to stop pretending that writing is a perfectly natural act, like breathing, they might get somewhere with youngsters."

Family members said Dr. Kenner spent his spare time building electronic appliances and computers from Heath-Zenith kits. After building one of the computers, he wrote a user's guide for it.

He was formerly a parishioner of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

A devoted Baltimore Orioles fan who attended many games at old Memorial Stadium, Dr. Kenner returned this year to see the team at Camden Yards. "He loved it," his son said.

A private family service will be held Friday in Georgia; plans for a public memorial service in Baltimore were incomplete.

Survivors also include his wife of 38 years, the former Mary Anne Bittner; two other sons, John Kenner and Michael Kenner, both of Watsonville, Calif.; four daughters, Catherine Kenner of Menomonee Falls, Wis., Julia Kenner of Stamford, Conn., Margaret Kenner of New York City and Elizabeth Kenner of Chicago; and 12 grandchildren. His first wife, the former Mary Josephine Waite, died in 1964.

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