In Memoriam Hugh Kenner

I was sorry to read that Hugh Kenner died yesterday. The Times obituary gives a few highlights, mentioning Dublin’s Joyce (1956), The Pound Era (1971), A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975), Joyce’s Voices (1978), Ulysses (1980; revised in 1987), and A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers (1983).

Two other wonderful Kenner books are The Mechanic Muse (1987), and, my favorites, The Stoic Comedians (1963), and The Counterfeiters (1968).

In The Mechanic Muse, Kenner discusses the technologies that made modernism occur: the subway and the telephone, the linotype and typewriter, and finally the computer, which both extended and cancelled the modernist-mechanical era. As Kenner wrote:

Founded on faith in the possibility of insight – the Joycean epiphany, the Poundian image that can flash in an instant of time; on faith, too, that technology need not consign the arts to irrelevance, the Modernist enterprise evolved its verbal technologies, its poem- and novel-machines of intricate interacting discrete pieces. The technology on which it drew for tacit analogies is largely obsolescent now: as much so as, say, Dante’s Earth-centered cosmos.

In The Stoic Comedians and The Counterfeiters, which cover adjacent terrain, Kenner offers a expository tour of humor in a mechanical age. His very subtle argument, with hilarious examples, takes in Joyce, Swift, Pope, Beckett, Keaton, Warhol, and Nathanael West. He proves that Gulliver is really a horse, and that Charles Babbage, the great Victorian inventor, is a literary master whose best passages, such as the description of a machine for helping child laborers sort needles, are savagely funny.

Kenner, who contemplated becoming a mathematician, instead studied literature in Toronto with Marshall McLuhan. That he was unafraid of technology and had a mentor like McLuhan gave him a head start on topics that would not become popular for years – sometimes decades – after he first dealt with them. In 1951, Kenner dedicated his first book, The Poetry of Ezra Pound, to “Marshall McLluhan, A catalog, his jewels of conversation.” That same year finds McLuhan writing to Pound: “I don’t know whether you have heard about the present crowd at Mass. Inst. Of Tech? They show more promise than all the literary blokes on this continent.”

Having an eye on MIT, on integrated circuitry and cybernetics in the early fifties allowed Kenner to see not only the impact of mechanization on modernism, but also the cultural significance of the obsolescence of mechanical technologies. He was a literary historian, not a contemporary advocate. The first chapter of The Mechanic Muse is called “In Memorian Etaoin Shrdlu.” These are the letters used by old-style typesetters to fill out a line of botched type.

“High modernism did not outlast transparent technology,” Kenner wrote in that chapter. “Beckett, its last master, already carries it into the intangible realm of information theory. And Beckett, it’s become commonplace to say, is a bridge to the so-called Post-Modern. That is: to our present world of enigmatic ‘text,’ of foregrounded codes and redundancies, of microchips through which what moves may be less interesting than the process of moving it elegantly. All that absorbs, in Silicon Valley and at MIT, intelligence of a rarified order. It’s another subject.”

In honor of Kenner, who always had a fondness for the oblique tribute and reference, below are a few links on the important but nearly forgotten life of Etaoin Shrdlu.

Michael Quinion describes E.S.’s origins in Weird Words.

A precise and fascinating physical description of the motion typesetters used to get Etaoin Shrdlu into a line is given by James David Pearce.

And how E.S. circulated in the computer science, AI community is explained by Kwang Poon on his blog.

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