Kenner as an Eliot Fan
“Your whimsical thoughts, if you live long enough, will be back haunting you.”1 So begins Hugh Kenner’s 1984 article, “The Making of the Modernist Canon.” My own whimsical haunting by Kenner and the Kenner canon happened when I was still young, the night before my PhD oral exams at Yale. Back then, we had to take nine historical topics in English Literature from Anglo-Saxon through the twentieth century: the traditional canon indeed. However, if, brazenly, one dared, one could propose a “double topic” covering both a genre and a historical field. This meant double the time and questions for, in my case, my lovingly crafted double topic “Modernism and its Defense.” While my waking mind rightly feared Grendel’s mother and Areopagitica before the test, my sleeping mind had other plans. That October night, all night, I was led through an endless museum of global artifacts behind glass, which I had to label accurately though I knew I had no idea what they were. These were selected by no other ghostly guide than Ernest Fenollosa himself, who, jumping out of the pages of The Pound Era, insisted that each and every item was part of THE VORTEX. My actual exams were nothing compared to that genteel and endless interrogation.
As a scholar of Anglo-American modernism and T. S. Eliot, I met one of my first guides to my career through Hugh Kenner, and disentangling my own ideas about twentieth-century modernisms and the largely white male modernists of The Pound Era has been an enduring challenge. It took me twenty years, moreover, to realize the following fact: Kenner was a fairly unabashed fan of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, et al. My current work, driven by recent revelations in the Emily Hale papers at Princeton, works to break down the border between scholarship and fandom, impersonality and attachment, objective annotation and invested interpretation. All of this has taken me a long time and some paradigm shifts, schooled as I was in the high modernist canon. Moreover, the idiosyncrasies of Kenner’s work meant that, frustratingly, in his fannishness, if not in his politics or delineated canon, he was already a model for the kind of scholarship I now seek to emulate. He wears his fannishness on his sleeve, emulating and resembling the authors he analyzes—noted even in earliest reviews of The Pound Era. But there are problems, of course, that come with being a fan, and in the following pages I’d like to ask: What might we learn about Kenner’s work—particularly The Invisible Poet—if we read it through the lens of fanfiction and fan studies? This question stems from a larger project about literary modernism as a kind of canonical fandom, but that’s another story.2
Fanfiction is usually defined as “derivative amateur writing” based on another text or a real historical person.3 According to Anne Jamison, “fanfiction asserts the rights of storytellers to take possession of characters and settings from other people’s narratives and tell their own tales about them”;4 fanfic “poaches,” to use Henry Jenkins’s term, off of previously published fiction, other media (like TV or movies), or real life to create new unauthorized texts.5 Exactly what counts as fanfiction is a source of considerable debate. While some critics might point to works as early as the Iliad or the Odyssey as a kind of fanfic, as Homer adopted well-known mythical characters in his epics, most agree that the particular affect and circulation of fanfiction more accurately defines works written only in the last forty years.6 Often anonymous, possibly collaborative, discussed on podcasts like Fansplaining, and eschewing copyright infringement through dispersal in zines or on websites like Archive of Our Own (AO3), fanfiction is an immense and hugely popular genre of creative work. Transformative fanfiction frequently aims to re-center marginalized voices from its source text; divergent fanfic reconceives plots and the fates of characters; slash works create new (often queer) couplings, while crossfic takes two or more different sources and creates stories bridging disparate worlds. Like Kenner’s crew of modernists, fanfic shores fragments, reconceives the canon, and often aims, if more earnestly, to épater le bourgeois.
The fanworld is huge, and as Kavita Mudan Finn recently reminded us, fanstudies is also “a capacious and often cacophonous field.” She bemoans academics who “discover and seize upon fan studies terminologies, frameworks, and critical lenses without paying sufficient attention to their larger contexts.”7 In order to try not to do that here, I want to be clear: Kenner’s The Invisible Poet isn’t actually fanfic. It is not anonymous, not collaborative, not amateur (he successfully published it), and the text helped to establish his reputation as a preeminent twentieth-century literary critic. Moreover, it isn’t fiction.
Or is it? In the preface Kenner carefully distinguishes his own book from earlier Eliot scholarship which has been overly biographical or explanatory. Kenner writes:
Let us try another method. Let us assume that the impassive, stationary Man of Letters from whom the Collected Works are thought to emanate is a critical myth, the residuum of a hundred tangential guesses. Let us further assume (it is a convenient fiction, biography does not concern us) a man with certain talents and certain interests who wrote poems intermittently … and reviewed countless books because they were sent him for review and (for many years) he needed the money.8
From this seed of the “convenient fiction” about Eliot the young reviewer, Kenner grows his whole thesis and method; Eliot’s status as a “critical alien,” learned from his years at the Athenaeum, The Egoist, and the Times Literary Supplement, these voices of the “anonymous Establishment,” gave him a “camouflage” strategy (IP, 202). “That strategy,” Kenner writes, made him into the “ideal impersonal poet,” that is, “the committed being who is at the same time detached” (IP, 202). Kenner’s book sketches Eliot’s “development and course of a unique instrument of poetic apprehension,” sticking to explanations of literary sources, echoes, and rhetorical effects because, as Kenner notes, “to this enquiry consideration of rank, of scale, of personality, of belief, of influence are irrelevant” (IP, xiii). For Kenner, a focus on Eliot’s personal beliefs mistakenly directs criticism away from the verse to the life, a life which, due to Eliot’s careful “detachment,” fails to shed much light on the poetry.
Kenner’s work not only proclaims its fictionality but also, like fanfic, takes Eliot’s own direction and uses his strategy of impersonality as its source, method, and guiding principle. According to Kenner’s projected plan, “personality” will be irrelevant for reading Eliot. Seemingly loath to overly cite Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in the book itself, Kenner nonetheless bases his reading of the poems on Eliot’s relationship to the “Tradition,” particularly the tradition that Eliot directs us to read like the Elizabethans, Jules Laforgue, or Francis Herbert Bradley and to hear the verbal echoes, rhetorical effects, and transmuted voices from this “world made out of words.” For Kenner, Eliot is a “wholly verbal poet,” who “deals in effects, not ideas” (IP, 4); the mind of the poet, like Eliot’s well-known catalyst metaphor, is the “platinum” which is necessary for creativity to happen but is itself not affected or found in the final poem.9 Therefore, Kenner aims to avoids biographic or expressive readings, and he cleaves to Eliot’s idea of impersonality as a method. It is enough to say that Eliot’s statement—“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”—is also the key theme of Kenner’s story about Eliot.10 Rather than repeating each time Kenner returns to this idea of impersonality as the best method for reading Eliot, I would like to give one outlandish example, Kenner writes: “The creative mind, according to an intuition toward which Eliot was working in the early essays, isn’t a personal force but a kind of uterine permissiveness. It makes use of the personality to which it is attached, and that is only one of the things of which it makes use” (IP, 111) (“Ezra performed the caesarean Operation,” indeed11).
Critics and reviewers immediately noted Kenner’s uterine absorption of Eliot’s own theory of impersonality in his critical method and the strange melding of Kenner into Eliot that resulted. In The New York Times, Samuel French Morse wrote that “Hugh Kenner in The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot, accomplishes a feat of identification with his subject”;12 similarly, Thomas Staley (to whom all Joyceans are in debt and who recently passed away) asserts Kenner’s “great understanding of and sympathy for Eliot. […] He understood Eliot’s attempts to remove the personal from the work of art. That’s why Kenner titled his book about Eliot The Invisible Poet.”13 Kenner’s fannish identification also occurs in The Pound Era: one reviewer was astonished that “Kenner has made himself inextricable from Pound,” while Christine Froula marvels that in editing Pound, Kenner’s error was often that he felt he knew better than Pound what Pound “ought” to write.14 Whereas in later works Kenner’s judgement of Eliot is more measured or even acerbic (observe the cheese story in The Pound Era or his preference for Pound’s Symbolism over Eliot’s), in The Invisible Poet, Eliot’s theories seem inviolable. As critics have noted, Eliot appears “something very much like scripture” that Kenner must follow,15 and Denis Donoghue adds that often Kenner “seems curiously susceptible to whatever relevant philosophy he undertakes to paraphrase.”16 If fanfiction has an investment in what many of us find an embarrassingly unscholarly or uncritical attachment to a literary text or theory, I’d like us to consider this kind of earnest appropriation of literary texts and figures as perhaps not as different from Kenner’s method as may immediately appear. And the joy in this method is often infectious—such as when he becomes his subject, alluding or giving voice to an author’s words without acknowledgment, in a kind of sly wink to his readers in the know. In our post-theoretical age, we can again appreciate this style in our academic works, though Marjorie Perloff argues that Kenner’s voice has always been popular, noting “the unusual status of The Pound Era, which despite its immense learning and esoteric subject matter, has remained popular with general readers for over 30 years.”17 That is a way of putting it.18
But there is a problem with taking Eliot’s impersonality as the pre-eminent method for reading Eliot’s poetry, a problem that the Emily Hale collection of letters at Princeton has made all too clear. The 1,131 letters that Eliot wrote to Hale, his longtime American love, over the course of twenty-six years—really the entirety of his major poetic achievements—were opened with great excitement in January of 2020. In January 2023, they were published online by the Eliot Foundation, edited by John Haffenden, and eagerly awaited by all who could not make the archive trip to Princeton’s Firestone library. The letters have blown the top off of any attempts to read Eliot’s poetry as impervious to biographical critique. They reveal that Eliot, the conservative poet behind the desk at Faber, had a powerful epistolary love affair with Hale, which he himself admitted, in the letters, would explain to future readers important facets of his poetry. Not privy to these letters but influenced by Eliot’s later towering stature and critical influence, the most institutionally privileged scholarship, enshrined by university presses, estates, and through canonical curricula, was based on a fallacy. Through the New Criticism, through works like Invisible Poet, and on to the scholarly editions of today, Eliot’s dictum that “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry” has held powerful sway, even as we knew about the letters waiting to be opened at Princeton.19
Of course, Kenner already grumbled about the amount of biographical readings of Eliot fifty years ago, and Eliot’s private life and opinions have not stayed out of the academic or public eye since his death in 1965. From scholarly books on Eliot’s Anti-Semitism and prejudice, articles bemoaning his reactionary politics, and even an award-winning film on his relationship with his first wife, Vivien, from scholarship to popular media, audiences have been fascinated by Eliot’s life. The Fall of a Sparrow: Vivien Eliot’s Life and Writings (along with the digital version of Vivien’s diaries and short fiction) published by Ann Pasternak Slater in 2022, a new biography of Eliot’s first wife, is yet another window into his private past. But the Hale archive, I would argue, is different—it presents Eliot, in Eliot’s own words, citing biographical sources for his works, even presenting a kind of roman a clef for several poems. It’s like a little impersonality bomb by Eliot that Hale set off 50 years after her death.
Anthony Cuda, director of the T. S. Eliot International Summer School, nicely summarized the impact of the Hale archive on Eliot scholarship: “the most seasoned Eliot scholars are finding that they must begin again to take the measure of his life and work.”20 In the letters Eliot points out the sources of figures in poems; he calls Burnt Norton a love poem dedicated to Hale. He links all of the female figures to Hale. He also revises our understanding of when Eliot and Hale first met and the extent of their love affair (Eliot talks of the smell of her hair and her perfume). Hale, we learn from the correspondence, contributed to Eliot’s religious passions and inspired many of his most renowned poetic achievements. No one, Eliot wrote, would ever understand many of his poems but Hale, and he wanted to preserve this archive of letters as a guide for later readers. As Frances Dickey has shown, “one of the stunning takeaways of his letters to Hale is the consciously autobiographical nature of his poetry.”21
There is much that must and will be said about impersonality, the Hale correspondence, and Eliot’s Houghton note he set to be released at the time of the archive opening: we await a necessary conversation about modernism, gender, archives, and power. Eliot’s desire to control Emily Hale’s side of the story, to prevent her narrative with a narrative of his own, and his final decision to burn her side of the correspondence, effectively silencing her own voice (and the irony is that she was an actress and teacher of speech classes). Eliot scholars will need to decide how to sit with this fact and how to incorporate into their analysis of his poetry their new knowledge about his sources and frequent muse. Like side-stepping Pound’s anti-Semitism in The Pound Era, Kenner’s approach to reading Eliot’s poetry as “impersonal” (now that we know about the Hale letters) presents a thorny ethical issue; it ignores the very real person whom Eliot arguably mistreated in his lifetime.22 Even for a reader who cares not a whit about Emily Hale the historical person, the letters, in pointing out sources and underscoring potential autobiographical readings, further point to the fictional nature of Eliotic impersonality. It is both a fiction in being impossible (i.e., a poet can’t write something and truly divorce the writing from the life), but it’s also a fiction-making process because it mirrors the creation of narrative fiction, where an author imagines works not confined by real events. The “invisible” poet is a product and author of fiction.
For me, there are therefore two main benefits to reading Kenner’s Invisible Poet through the lens of fanfiction. First, it explains why Kenner’s work is so stylistically unusual and enjoins us to read other formally and theoretically innovative approaches for understanding Eliot. Fanfic has been labeled by Balaka Basu as a kind of “amatory work.”23 Kenner’s Invisible Poet seems such a project to me, demonstrating the affirmative fan fiction compulsion in extending, collecting, explaining, and reviving Eliot’s original imaginative project. If as academics we can welcome this work as what we now see as—in a kind of Wittgensteinian aspect change—fanfiction of Eliot, why not at the same time open the door to other kinds of readings of Eliot which, unabashedly part of fandom, were belittled or ignored in our scholarly past? Might novels, biofictions, or fanfictions of Eliot actually shed light on his poetry? If many of us now teach Jane Eyre alongside Wide Sargasso Sea, a transformative fanfiction which helps us to understand Jane’s Bildungsroman while also making manifest the racism and misogyny underlying a feminist classic, what might teaching The Waste Land alongside not only Kenner’s work but also fanfictions like The Poet’s Girl or The Archivist show us about Eliot?
Second, many scholars trained as “modernists” who studied the movement described in Kenner’s Invisible Poet or The Pound Era or “The Making of the Modernist Canon” now find that term “modernism” simultaneously meaningless or odious (or both). Meredith Martin, at a recent roundtable on “The State of Modernism Now” at Columbia University, gave voice to this view, in arguing that “There is no modernism as we were trained to understanding it—so for our students we cannot replicate that term.”24 The institutional field of “modernism,” many believe, reeks of hierarchy, exclusion, elitism, and white supremacy; it is historically inaccurate and there are (and have been for the last decade) calls for it to be supplanted as a field just as Victorian studies has been replaced by nineteenth-century studies. The expansion temporally and geographically of the term, as a way to point to experimental movements beyond the Western canon, while welcomed by some critics, seems to other readers a further hegemonic absorption of other scholars and fields. The term “modernism” still carries weight though—it points pragmatically to what was a hiring field and remains evocative beyond academia even when under erasure. Is it possible that seeing Invisible Poet as a kind of fanfic allows us to fictionalize the term “modernism” without throwing it out entirely? To see “modernism” as solely what one community of readers explored and imagined (a community of readers who had real, institutional, and sometimes pernicious authority), but not as some sort of truth claim of literary studies, more real about the important literature of the early twentieth-century than other narratives by other communities, whose stories now must be also told? How high that highest candle lights the dark. Here Hugh Kenner may like Grendel’s mother, once again, be haunting my thoughts, so I’ll end with his words. “For a canon,” he writes, “is not a list but a narrative of some intricacy, depending on places and times and opportunities,” and, he continues, “The Modernist canon has been made in part by readers like me.”25