Saul Bellow Versus Hugh Kenner

Saul Bellow: Hugh Kenner foe

Saul Bellow’s selected letters have just been published and, at least according to a review by Jeff Simon, they reveal that the Nobel Prize winning novelist really hated the literary critic Hugh Kenner:

There are 708 letters here and none of them seem much like practice, whether nominating Roth for the Nobel Prize in 2000 or cheerfully enlisting Karl Shapiro in a mock club for “haters of Hugh Kenner.” With his old friend Isaac Rosenfeld, he says, “I used to join clubs of this sort” including a “Faerie Queene Club to which nobody could belong who had read The Faerie Queene. When I read the first canto, I was put on probation, and when I read more I was expelled. But no one could ever dislodge me from a Hugh Kenner Society.”

What was the source of Bellow’s animosity? I’d have to read the letters to find out, but I strongly suspect that at the root of it all was a very critical  review Kenner wrote of Delmore Schwartz’s Vaudeville for  a Princess. Writing in the October 1951 issue of Poetry, Kenner dismissed Schwartz’s book as silly and sappy. Bellow and Schwartz were great friends, and the novelist felt particularly protective of the poet because of Schwartz’s mental unstability. Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1971) is partially about his friendship with Schwartz.

It’s worth remembering that when Kenner first emerged as a critic in the late 1940s and 1950s he was hugely (or Hughly) controversial, in large part because he championed the fascist modernists such as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, then at a low point in their reputations.

In 1954 in a famous Partisan Review essay called “The Age of Conformity” Irving Howe wrote “When a charlatan like Wyndham Lewis is revived and praised for his wisdom, it is done, predictably, by a Hugh Kenner in The Hudson Review.” Howe seemed to have second thoughts about this because when he later reprinted this essay he struck out the sentence about Kenner.  In 1958, Leslie Fiedler wrote that the typical young conservative critic was “a limp, Hugh Kennerish admirer of Ezra Pound or Wyndham Lewis, dreaming that all their manly spite and vigour are his own; and writing careful exegeses of the Cantos, in which he conceals certain bitter political comments for the initiated.”

A distance echo of these anti-Kenner tirades can be found in James Atlas’ 2000 biography of Saul Bellow where a review by Kenner is described in these, to me very unfair, terms: “And Hugh Kenner, who liked to go as far as he could in the direction of overt anti-Semitism….” The review Atlas alludes to can be found in Kenner’s book Historical Fictions, and it’s not at all anti-Semitic but rather a good assessment of Bellow’s career.

I suppose behind all these polemics lies the Ezra Pound controversy, and perhaps also the larger and fraught issue of Jewish/Catholic relations.

Be that as it may, it’s interesting that Kenner faced so much hostility so early in his career.

For a kinder Kenner assessment, readers might want to go to the blog Numero Cinq, which has reprinted an essay I did on the great modernist critic a few years ago. The essay can found found here.

An appetizer:

Canadians, who are now merely indifferent to literature, once lived in fear of it. Customs agents, armed with a high school education and a list of proscribed authors, stood guard not only against smut but also naturalism, aestheticism and modernism – anything strange and foreign. As late as 1946 books by Balzac, Guy de Maupassant, Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce were deemed by official policy to be dangerous to the Dominion.

During this distant era, Hugh Kenner, a student at the University of Toronto, developed an interest in twentieth-century literature. His mentors of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, both of whom benefited from studying abroad, had brought back word of modernism of the Canadian hinterland. Kenner discovered that Joyce’s Ulysses, otherwise verboten in Canada, could be found in the restricted access section of the University of Toronto library. However, in order to take a look at the illicit text, Kenner needed to secure two letters of reference: one from a religious authority and one from a medical doctor. Kenner knew a priest who could vouch for his morals, but unfortunately, was unable to find an obliging M.D. to attest to the fact that reading Joyce would not corrupt his physical stamina. Ultimately, Kenner had a family friend, a Jesuit priest, smuggle into Canada a copy of the greatest novel of the 20th century.

5 thoughts on “Saul Bellow Versus Hugh Kenner

  1. It’s disappointing to see that there is no thread for this particular blog post. I’ve read The Demon of Progress In Modern Art by Wyndham Lewis, and thought it was as enjoyable as Tom Wolfe’s forays into the field of art criticism. I’ve always been curious about his fiction, however, and if you’ve read it, would you say it is underrated, overrated, worth reading, not worth reading?

  2. Lewis’s fiction is worth reading with provisos. In my experience (I’ve tried most of his novels but haven’t been able to finish all of them) it’s very uneven. The best is “The Revenge For Love” — a real masterpiece. “Self-Condemned” is interesting if you care about Canadian history — there’s a portrait of the young Marshall McLuhan in there. Lewis’ hatred for Toronto is pretty funny. The more avante-gard fiction such “The Apes of God” are virtually unreadable. Even Northrop Frye, who read everything, had to stuggle to make it through “The Apes of God.”

  3. Sweet! I loved McLuhan’s little cameo in the second part of the Enderby Quartet. I’d paged through The Apes of God, but it looked like ambien in print, so I’ll try and get Self-Condemned on my Kindle.

  4. Bellow was himself a great admirer of Wyndham Lewis. The phrase ‘moronic inferno’ (which Martin Amis got from Bellow) was originally Lewis’s coinage.

    It is at best an oversimplification to call Lewis a ‘fascist modernist’ but it’s quite a common one. Lewis denounced anti-semitism in early 1939, (though he had not been innocent of it himself) advocating the admission of Jewish refugees to Britain. He had turned against Hitler in late 1937 (having in 1931 regarded him as a ‘man of peace’). Bellow recognized Lewis as ‘a brilliant critic and observer’.

    Lewis’s 1954 novel is called ‘Self Condemned’ – a small but crucial difference from ‘Self-Condemned’.

  5. Paul Edwards is, of couse, one of the world’s great experts on Wyndham Lewis. So I’ll defer to his comments: Bellow was, as Edwards notes, an admirer of Lewis (there are many references to Lewis in Bellow’s essay collection “It All Adds Up.” It’s true that Lewis, to his credit, came to regret his fliration with fascism, so yes “fascist modernist” is a bit of a simplification, although not entirely inaccurate I think for describing Lewis’ political/cultural position in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and also for explaining why Kenner’s championing of Lewis was controversial. And of course “Self Condemned” is the right title.

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