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Hugh Kenner, RIP

This week Warner Bros. released “Looney Tunes Golden Collection,” a four-DVD set of Looney Tunes cartoons from the ’40s and ’50s. In today’s Wall Street Journal Terry Teachout pays tribute to the collective artistic genius expressed in these cartoons in a wonderful column made available online on OpinionJournal: “That’s not all, folks!”
Like millions of baby boomers, I grew up on Looney Tunes, so to speak, but only learned that the cartoons were seriously funny from the great literary critic Hugh Kenner, the preeminent expositor of modernism in all its forms. Kenner devoted a book to the artistry of Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones, and after reading the book I never saw those cartoons through the same eyes.
Coincidentally, thanks to Teachout’s excellent blog After Last Night, I have discovered that Kenner died yesterday at age 80. Teachout steers his readers to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s fine New York Times obituary of Kenner.
William Buckley included Kenner’s astonishing essay “The Sleep Machine” in his anthology of American conservative writing Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? The essay reviewed and demolished a supremely condescending and ignorant book on five literary modernists deemed politically unenlightened by the book’s high-minded author. Kenner’s omniscience was never put to more devastating use.
Buckley introduced the essay with an appreciation that applies to much of Kenner’s work. Describing Kenner’s method in the essay, Buckley writes: “He begins by a most meticulous examination of the particular scholarly gaffes of the author; then he takes his criticism to a more generic level, demonstrating the failure of the critic to understand what he was talking about; and then toward a transcendent level, on to his constantiation that what in fact they [Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis and D.H. Lawrence] are talking about learned men must understand: must have some appreciation of, if we are to conserve the heritage. He is impatient with literary ideologists who sniff about looking for any failure on the subject to pay appropriate obeisance to the reigning symbols of the social order…”
Kenner, however, rarely used his remarkable gifts for purposes of destruction; his gifts found their natural outlet in exposition and appreciation, with a uniquely wide range. In his book The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy, for example, Kenner put his learning to use in exploring “a variety of themes which the Dewey Decimal System (a Romantic artifact) prefers to keep in different parts of the building: the Enlightenment; Buster Keaton (stoic comedian); Albrecht Durer; Joyce, Swift, Pope; closed systems, mathematical and mechanical; Charles Babbage and his Calculating Engines…” and so on. We shall not look upon his like again. RIP.

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