When the eminent English critic Frank Kermode died last month, the Washington Post duly noted his passing and added prosaically that “no cause of death was reported.” But as Kermode took his leave at the age of 90, you would think curiosity on that score would be less than ravenous: He’d had a long run and, after writing or editing 50 books for more than 50 years and holding down academic posts at a half-dozen universities (where he occasionally had to fend off the claws of academic betrayal, bickering, and general malevolence), he most likely went quietly of a well-earned fatigue.
What didn’t take him was despair. No matter how the fashions of the professoriate waxed and waned, Kermode remained steadily and, some might say, stubbornly enthralled with authors and with the books, great and good, they wrote. The novelist David Lodge called Kermode “the finest English critic of his generation.”
Literary criticism may be a parlor game to most, but in an age of endangered traditions and dissolving perspectives, not to say publishers’ flagrant willingness to fill our shelves with nonsense, the deliberate effort to read books in order to evaluate and expand upon their meanings for a less read or less clever public pays cultural dividends. Some critics, such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, emerged as the light changed over the literary landscape and did their part to usher in freshened understandings about what words can do. They also benefited from insights afforded only to literary artists. But Kermode came along a generation after all the excitement. The profession of critical letters must have seemed a dreary business in the late 1940s and early ’50s, but seeing he had no future as a poet or playwright, he “stumbled into academic life” and donned the scholar’s gown to begin a long career of teaching and writing.
Frank Kermode came from working-class stock. Born on the Isle of Man in 1919, he clocked in early years as a clerk and later as purser on a steamship—subsequently serving in the Royal Navy during World War II—but a scholarship took him to the University of Liverpool. He chose to read English literature, but knowing perhaps that the son of a shopkeeper would need every arrow his quiver could hold, Kermode made sure he paid his humanist’s dues by taking on not only Greek and Latin but French, German, and Italian as well, in their historic as well as their modern incarnations. His was the dogged ambition of a serious man, not a dilettante. He wished to meet the past on something like equal terms, and nothing in the Western literary tradition would be alien to him.
While Kermode made himself, on paper, a scholar of the Renaissance—Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne—he found his learned curiosity too wide-ranging to be confined to two or three centuries and became a critic of all literary writing in the English language. His studies would eventually extend all the way up to D. H. Lawrence and Wallace Stevens, and only a year ago he offered up what would become his last book, on E. M. Forster. His other studies included, most famously, The Sense of an Ending (1967), The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction (1983), Shakespeare’s Language (2000), and a memoir, Not Entitled (1995).
Although he strenuously believed that literature existed to be read and enjoyed rather than reduced and dissected, Kermode, ever the tolerant thinker suspicious of the dogmatist, still welcomed in a collegial spirit the critical winds blowing from the continent in the 1960s and ’70s in the forms of structuralism and deconstruction, and even defended a few of the movements’ devotees—running aground a few times, and once resigning a post at Cambridge in protest. But he remained a critic eager to reach out from academia to wider audiences, reviewing new novels from Updike to DeLillo, appearing on the Third Programme, the BBC’s arts and culture showcase, and later cofounding the London Review of Books. All of this made him a public figure and kind of “media don,” not an unmixed blessing for a man of letters.
It has been said that much critical writing in the rarefied climes of literature consists of telling authors how they should have said what they didn’t mean. Frank Kermode remained content with what they actually said, and he dedicated himself in all he did to spreading the gospel of good reading.
Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus, directs the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.