In the Literary Jungle

A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers

by Hugh Kenner
Knopf, 221 pp., $8.95

In Radical Pursuit: Critical Essays and Lectures

by W.D. Snodgrass
Harper & Row, 364 pp., $10.00

A Map of Misreading

by Harold Bloom
Oxford, 206 pp., $8.95

“An act of attention”; “a minute obligation to fact”; “the witty transit through minute predilections”; “through cluttered tidiness, the reader must move like a cat.” The phrases are Hugh Kenner’s and they describe and characterize the poems of Marianne Moore. But they also describe, and even enact, the criticism of Hugh Kenner, and they do something to explain why his chapter on Marianne Moore should be the best thing in his new book. Kenner combs the world like a critical Sherlock Holmes, isolating details, making distinctions, collecting verbal and technological specimens. Recalling Miss Moore’s comparison of the feel of a snake to the feel of rose petals, he registers both the pose and the precision in that conceit: “It was perhaps too poetic a remark to make its point, but she never allowed a fear of being thought poetic to deter her from accuracy…. In her poems, things utter puns to the senses.”

Unlike Holmes, though, Kenner doesn’t always solve the case; doesn’t always even see that there is a case, and his work easily deteriorates into fussiness and gossip. It is interesting that he should know, for example, that the middle names of Hjalmar Schacht were Horace and Greeley, but having committed that particular act of attention, Kenner simply turns his attention elsewhere. Similarly, the catalogues of nearly simultaneous events which appear in The Pound Era, floated by irony and by a sense of energies shuttling between the events themselves, degenerate in A Homemade World into flat and quirky statements. Compare these two evocations of 1904. From the earlier work:

The Great Train Robbery had been filmed the year before, the Ford Motor Company had been founded, and Orville Wright had been airborne for twelve seconds…. In what was still St. Petersburg Ivan Pavlov received word of a Nobel Prize for his work on the physiology of digestion, and Igor Stravinsky the judgment of Rimski-Korsakov that his talents were less well suited to law than to music. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life appeared that year in Vienna (and Peter Pan in London). In Dublin there was much action. The Mechanics’ Institute Playhouse and what had been the adjoining city morgue were connected and at year’s end opened as the Abbey Theatre. On June 16 a man who never existed wandered about the city for eighteen hours, in the process sanctifying a negligible front door at 7 Eccles Street….

and from the new work:

James Joyce commenced A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1904, the year after two Americans, sons of a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, had flown on man-made wings at Kitty Hawk.

Dedalus, you see. Flying. Mr. Wright senior is just padding. Kenner’s taste for technology has lured him into triviality. Or perhaps, having the clues but not the case, the master detective is looking for the missing mystery, and hopes to find it in such raids on the insignificant.

This is the…

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