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A Passion for Joyce: The Letters of Hugh Kenner and Adaline Glasheen (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. 180-183 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0034

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In A Tour of the Darkling Plain: The “Finnegans Wake” Letters of Thornton Wilder and Adaline Glasheen, 1950–1975, the companion volume to the one under review, Glasheen writes this about Hugh Kenner:

I had a perfectly awful time with the Joycean writer, Hugh Kenner, who sent me a book that he has written on Joyce. Parts of it were brilliant, I thought—he’s quite hot on FW and the liturgy for instance—but Kenner’s is what I imagine the R[oman] C[atholic] party line is going to be on Joyce and I find it abominable. All hail to technique, damn Joyce’s people.1

That was in January 1954. Three years later, in November 1957, Kenner visited Glasheen with his wife, and her tune had changed somewhat: “As I guess I ought to have guessed from the shirty arrogance of his writing, he is a handsome, stammering boy of 35, his nice wife’s son. He was amusing & did an imitation of Ezra Pound imitating Henry James (whom he knew) speaking in his last manner” (Tour 171). In the new volume, whatever she asserted elsewhere, her admiration for the “boy” Kenner underpins nearly every letter. Indeed, in her letter to Kenner in December 1953, she has a different take on the typescript of Dublin’s Joyce,2 which she had dismissed in her letter to Thornton Wilder: “Your book is a wonderful book. It is so good I know it will be published” (35). Within a short time, Kenner became her tutor and she his acolyte, but sometimes the relationship was reversed. In fact, Kenner constantly sought her approval, and presumably for that reason he sent her copies of his manuscripts before publication. Equally, Glasheen could produce the kind of naive question that prompted something other than dismissal in Kenner. In response to a photocopy of Joyce’s Voices,3 for example, she asks in a voice not that easy to pin down: “what is the Muse exactly?” (215).

While they may not have been soulmates, Glasheen and Kenner did share much in their likes and dislikes. Their attitude toward Richard Ellmann’s biography and toward the man himself is not so much a form of petulance or settled hatred as a leitmotif that binds all three of them together in an historical embrace, which, in its own way, looks distinctly Joycean. On 3 October 1959, she exclaims, “Ellmann has done it! He has written a biography that lacks time, place and characters. Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark is nothing to it!” (73). Back came Kenner’s reply on 15 November 1959: “If only he could be proved to have committed an enormous enough boner, Joyce would be Delivered from his Spell. In default of which, I see Joyce rapidly turning into a character in a book by Ellmann” (75). To Kenner, Ellmann’s biography lacked “curiosity” about his subject, and Joyce emerges as “a half-mad bourgeois who believed in coincidence” (75).

The charge is familiar to most readers of this journal. To my mind, however, both Ellmann and Kenner, the warring brothers, were involved in forms of rescue, especially in making Joyce acceptable in the academy (which Kenner should have responded to more positively, especially when he had done so much for Pound’s reputation). As we look back from today’s perspective, we can afford to be more generous. Kenner’s insistence on curiosity is something that I am drawn to more today than I am to the liberal-humanist portrait of Joyce in the standard biography. Equally, Ellmann’s lack of care with regard to the ten years Joyce spent in Trieste is not that easy to explain whether in terms of ideology or impatience with the project. Writing about the 1959 biography, Kenner imagined Ellmann “plotting while we slept” (75), but there is more to it than this. After spending time with Tom Staley at Tulsa in September 1975, Kenner suggests to Glasheen: “Try this on for size—my formulation, not his [Staley’s] ‘The Joyce of Ulysses was a Triestine novelist who used Irish material’” (149). Here was the “enormous enough boner” with which to fell Ellmann, but in...

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