The American Scholar
Kenneth Lynn, 1923-2001
Jul 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 41 • By WILFRED M. MCCLAY
KENNETH LYNN ENJOYED a long and productive career as a scholar of American literary and intellectual life, first at Harvard, then in a quixotic attempt to turn Washington's Federal City College into a serious university, then at Johns Hopkins, and then in a very active retirement. He produced countless articles, essays, and reviews, and thirteen books, including important studies of Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Ernest Hemingway, and Charlie Chaplin. His was in no sense an unfulfilled talent.
But what made his death on June 24 at age seventy-eight so hard to take was the fact that, contrary to the universal pattern, his work was actually getting steadily better. And there was every reason to believe the large-canvas biography of Rudyard Kipling on which he was hard at work at his death-a bold departure for a man whose entire previous career had focused upon the study of American figures-would be his finest work yet. He had already sketched out ambitious travel plans, not only to do research but to visit many of the places Kipling had been. The project was about to move into high gear. Kenneth Lynn seemed only to be gathering strength, until the very moment leukemia appeared at his door and stayed until night came.
I can remember exactly when I first encountered his name. It was in a 1979 issue of the American Scholar, in a clutch of irate letters about an article Lynn had written called "The Regressive Historians." What on earth had this man said, to produce such bile in response? The offended letter-writers made the article so intriguing I had to go back to the previous issue-and once I read it, I was hooked forever.
Although the politicization of historical scholarship was not yet as advanced in 1979 as it is today, narrow academicism and dreary prose were plentifully in evidence, and the ideological deformations now so familiar were taking hold. In that discouraging context, Lynn's essay came as a sheer astonishment. I had never found anything written by a contemporary American historian that was so forceful, pithy, graceful, funny, and fearless. Academics love to use the word "provocative" as a term of approbation, but they scream bloody murder whenever something genuinely provocative actually comes along. And here, by God, was a genuinely provocative piece of writing by a live-wire scholar who wrote like a dream, was free of the smelly orthodoxies, was ready to take on the eminences of his field, was willing to make waves, and was able to make the study of American history the exciting thing it deserves to be. After reading "The Regressive Historians," I knew I wanted to go to graduate school where Kenneth Lynn taught.
When I found him at Johns Hopkins, he turned out to be not at all what I had expected. A ruggedly handsome, athletic man then in his late fifties, with finely chiseled features, jutting jaw, penetrating blue eyes, and an impressive head of wavy brown hair, he looked every inch "The Professor from Central Casting," even down to his old-fashioned woolen tweed suits with their antique lapels and baggy straight-legged trousers. So I expected to find him an efficient, highly methodical teacher, disciplined, conservative, and hierarchical in his methods. But he was not that way at all. Indeed, he always seemed to me slightly uneasy in the teacher's role, partly because his approach to teaching was so unorthodox and intuitive, but also because he was so often preoccupied with whatever questions he was writing or thinking about. He refused to reduce teaching to a didactic process and maintained an almost improvisational air. There were times when no one-perhaps including him -knew exactly what was coming next.
In fact, this lack of a method turned out to be one of his greatest strengths. It meant that he didn't so much teach us as let us in on his thoughts-which were infinitely more interesting and instructive than merely "covering the material." Unlike many of his Hopkins colleagues, he had no interest in training people, no interest in creating disciples, no interest in building an empire. Nor did he have much of a commitment to the discipline of history in itself. He had been in the English department at Harvard and history at Hopkins, and he was equally at home, and equally not at home, in either setting. Disciplinary identity was irrelevant to him. What he wanted to do was write and think.