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Kermode, Sir (John) Frankfree

(1919–2010)
  • Stefan Collini

Sir (John) Frank Kermode (1919–2010)

by Charlie MacDonald, 2000

© Charlie MacDonald

Kermode, Sir (John) Frank (1919–2010), literary scholar and critic, was born on 29 November 1919 in Douglas, Isle of Man, the only son and elder child of John Pritchard Kermode (1894–1966), warehouseman for a ferry company, and his wife, Doris Pearl, née Kennedy (1893–1967), a former waitress. He spent the first eighteen years of his life in Douglas, where his parents struggled to maintain a respectable yet always precarious standard of life. This background, together with the fact that as a child he was (as he later exaggerated) 'fat, plain, shortsighted, clumsy, idle, dirty' (Kermode, 11), left him with a permanent stratum of vulnerability and social unease. Despite his largely bookless home, his intelligence and dexterity with words manifested themselves early; when still not quite ten years old he came first in the examinations that allowed him to attend Douglas high school, from where in 1937 he won a scholarship, rare at that time and in that place, enabling him to study at the University of Liverpool. The English course there was of the traditional historical kind, providing him with a solid grounding in literature from Beowulf onwards, to set alongside his early education in classics: thereafter he was always formidably well read, in several literatures. In Liverpool he also cultivated his taste in music, which was to be a lifelong passion, while politically his undergraduate years were marked by a more short-lived attraction to pacifism.

Kermode graduated in the summer of 1940, immediately after the fall of France. Commissioned into the navy, he embarked on six dreary years of largely futile inactivity recalled with unforgettable bleak comedy in his memoir, Not Entitled (1995). The greater part of 1941 and 1942 was spent aboard a converted merchantman near Reykjavik, repeatedly failing to lay an anti-submarine boom. Many months were spent docked in Algiers, waiting for something to happen; several more were spent in Portland, Oregon, waiting for a new ship, an escort carrier, to be fitted out. Having sailed back to British waters, this vessel was intended to play a part in hunting down the German battleship Tirpitz, but, having struck a mine off Lowestoft, it instead spent much of 1944 in dry dock being repaired. In 1945 the ship was dispatched to Sydney, to take part in the final assault on Japan, but, after various inconsequential manoeuvres, the ending of the war rendered it surplus to requirements, which is largely how Kermode himself, not naturally gifted with powers of command, had felt throughout the war. His chief contribution to the allied cause consisted in writing reports to the Admiralty on behalf of his far less literate senior officers, reports that could not, for all his literary skill, altogether disguise the fact that they were mostly records of inaction and failed action.

Early career and literary journalism

Uncertain of his future after the war but drawn to some form of the literary life, Kermode tried, wholly unsuccessfully, to get stories published and plays accepted while undertaking a year (1946–7) of somewhat unwilling postgraduate research at Liverpool, funded by a scholarship awarded after his success in his final examinations six years earlier. At the end of this year he was offered a post as assistant lecturer in English at King's College, Newcastle, then part of the University of Durham. Perhaps on the strength of this modest security, he married Maureen Eccles (1923–2004), from Liverpool, on 20 December 1947. She was a shorthand typist, the daughter of William Henry Eccles, shipping company manager.

In 1949 Kermode moved to a lectureship at the University of Reading. He later regarded the nine years he spent there as among the happiest periods of his life. The English department, led by the eccentric but scholarly D. J. Gordon, was congenial; Kermode's publishing career was launched with notable élan; his colleague John Wain proved to be a conduit to giving talks on the Third Programme and to literary journalism; he enjoyed playing cricket up and down the Thames valley for the Reading staff team; and his twin children, Deborah and Mark, were born there (in 1956).

Kermode's earliest, and in some respects most constant, scholarly interests lay in the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, and Milton. He first attracted the notice of the wider scholarly world with his edition of The Tempest for the Arden series in 1954, which, while fully meeting the exacting textual demands of such editions, drew on the kind of historical scholarship associated with the Warburg Institute in London to set the play in a wider cultural frame, emphasizing its negotiation of the impact made by the discovery of the New World on understandings of religious and ethnic identities. But the work that really established his reputation was Romantic Image, published in 1957. This book ranged widely, but was centred on the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, far from the period in which Kermode had established his scholarly credentials, thus initiating the practice that was to characterize the rest of his career in which he moved freely over the whole span of English and American literature from the Renaissance onwards. To understand the stir caused by this short book it is necessary to recall the almost papal sway of T. S. Eliot over English literature and criticism at this time. Kermode's book directly challenged the conception of the unifying power of the poetic 'image' that was central to the Eliotic imperium, thereby also casting doubt on the quasi-historical scheme derived from Eliot's identification of a 'dissociation of sensibility' in the middle of the seventeenth century. Kermode not only showed how what was taken to be the revolutionary poetic of modernism was in reality an extension of long familiar ideas from the Romantic period; he also cast a sceptical eye over the whole Romantic elevation of the artist and the phantom of that 'wholeness of experience' to which the artistic genius was supposed to have special access. This quietly stylish and confident book announced the arrival of a notably independent-minded scholar–critic of impressive range.

In 1958, at the relatively young age of thirty-nine, Kermode was appointed to the John Edward Taylor chair of English literature at the University of Manchester (having lost six years to the war, he was younger still in professional terms). Thereafter, he became something of a serial professor, holding several of the most prestigious chairs in the subject. He took up the Winterstoke chair at Bristol in 1965, moved to the Lord Northcliffe chair of modern English literature at University College, London, in 1967, and finally to the King Edward VII chair of English literature at Cambridge in 1974. But alongside his academic and scholarly career he began while at Reading to write reviews and essays for newspapers and general cultural periodicals, a form of writing, with its own special demands, at which he excelled and which did so much to define his literary identity. His years in Manchester saw the beginning of a long relationship with The Guardian (then still the Manchester Guardian) as well as of regular contributions to the New Statesman, The Spectator, and later The Listener. The acknowledged quality of his writing soon led to the first of several collections of his occasional pieces, Puzzles and Epiphanies: Essays and Reviews, 1958–1961 (1962); he was to publish some half a dozen such collections altogether, none of them mere opportunist pieces of book making.

It was testimony to his personal standing in the world of metropolitan literary journalism that in 1965, while teaching at a provincial university, Kermode was invited to be the co-editor, in succession to Stephen Spender, of what many saw as the pre-eminent English-language journal of ideas at the time, Encounter. This role was short-lived and ended unhappily when in 1966 the journal was convincingly accused of being funded by the American Central Intelligence Agency as part of their cold war propaganda. Initially Kermode allowed himself to be persuaded that this allegation was baseless, but eventually came to recognize that he had to resign. His own later reflections on the episode were characteristically rueful, if also perhaps a little disingenuous: 'I allowed myself to be involved in an enterprise of which I was too ignorant … [in] a world in which I was unqualified to play a part' (Kermode, 241).

In taking up the Northcliffe chair in London in 1967 Kermode embarked on another period of his life to which he later looked back with particular affection, one that enabled several of his identities to come together. As an energetic head of department, he was able to reorganize the syllabus, blending more recent literature, including American, with a firm grounding in the canon from Chaucer onwards. During his years in London he presided over a graduate seminar that became celebrated for inviting as speakers many of the representatives and champions of the new, often French, theoretical developments in the study of literature (or of ‘texts’, as it started to become common to say). Kermode was naturally hospitable to ideas and relatively undogmatic; during this period he welcomed the new approaches as opening up interesting ways to account for the effects that literary texts can have. Later, he was to become more critical of those imperialistic, and usually second-hand, forms of ‘theory’ that he saw as displacing proper attentiveness to literature itself, always his primary commitment, but in the late 1960s and 1970s he was an influential figure in helping to make the sometimes narrow world of academic ‘Eng lit’ receptive to more adventurous approaches.

Kermode also played an increasingly active role in wider literary and cultural life. He was a member of the Arts Council from 1968 to 1971, the chair of the Poetry Book Society from 1968 to 1976, and one of the judges of the inaugural Booker prize in 1969. And it was during his years at University College, London, that he initiated one of the most influential publishing undertakings with which he was to be associated, becoming general editor of the Fontana Modern Masters series of introductory but sophisticated guides to leading recent writers and thinkers (he himself contributed the volume on D. H. Lawrence in 1973). Their colourful covers, part of a single interlocking design, became icons of the 1970s; some fifty titles were published in the series, and the books, which included some inspired pairings of author and subject, enjoyed a particularly enthusiastic take-up among the greatly expanded number of university students during that decade. Another significant (and, as it proved, even longer lasting) contribution to intellectual life in Britain was his part in helping to found the London Review of Books in 1979, with Karl Miller, his friend and successor in the Northcliffe chair, as the first editor. Kermode was to contribute over 230 pieces to this publication, the last only months before his death. His beautifully crafted, attentive, unobtrusively learned review-essays became one of the signature features of the journal: many of his best pieces were written for Miller and for Mary-Kay Wilmers, initially deputy editor and then editor from 1992. His final collection, Bury Place Papers, which appeared at the end of 2009, was published by the London Review of Books itself, providing an impressive sample of his essays for that journal over the previous thirty years.

Major critical works

From the late 1950s onwards Kermode's academic writing ranged ever more widely, marrying a spirit of intellectual ambition to his characteristically alert and resourceful reading of literature in several genres. The fact that in 1960 alone he published books on Milton and on Wallace Stevens signalled his distance from conventional academic specialization (and his fearsome productivity). He championed Stevens's work before it was fashionable, and he always had a particular admiration and affection for the intricate music of this poetry of everyday epiphanies. But in the course of the 1960s and early 1970s he was drawn to wider questions about the way literary texts achieved their distinctive effects, focusing particularly on prose fiction and what was coming to be called ‘narratology’.

In what was perhaps his most original book, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (1967), Kermode explored some of the ways in which literature attempts to engage with and comprehend temporality, in particular the mind's search for patterns that can yield beginnings and endings, ultimately forms of genesis and apocalypse. Even, as he famously pointed out, when the clock goes 'tick, tick', we, in our need for rhythms and our addiction to endings, hear it as going 'tick, tock'—'tick is a humble genesis, tock a feeble apocalypse' (p. 45). We can never wholly make sense of our lives, but what, in Kermode's view, literature can do is 'attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives' (ibid., 3), especially our constant attempt to make things end with the bang of shapely form rather than the whimper of untidy reality. The Sense of an Ending was, in a characteristically oblique way, a vindication of the claims of fiction, the imaginative exploration of human possibility, especially as contrasted with the conservative operation of myth:

Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were … Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. Myths make sense in terms of a lost order of time … fictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now.

ibid., 39

Between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s Kermode was invited to give practically every prestigious series of lectures in literature. Several of his best-known books were the outcome of these invitations, including the Mary Flexner lectures at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania (The Sense of an Ending, 1967); the T. S. Eliot lectures at Kent (The Classic, 1975), the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard (The Genesis of Secrecy, 1979); the Wellek lectures at the University of California, Irvine (Forms of Attention, 1985), the Northcliffe lectures at University College, London, and the Clarendon lectures at Oxford (History and Value, 1988); and the Bucknell lectures in literary theory (Poetry, Narrative, History, 1990).

These books touched on a dazzling variety of themes and forms of writing, from biblical narratives in The Genesis of Secrecy to the left-wing literature of the 1930s in History and Value. But one of the constant characteristics of Kermode's work was might be called a respect for the distinctiveness of literature, a desire to render homage to its endlessly renewed power to delight and surprise and move the reader. 'The poem is the cry of its occasion', Stevens had written (An ordinary evening in New Haven, The Auroras of Autumn, 1950, xii); Kermode believed that the critic's first duty was to try to be as adequate as possible to the particularity of the written expression of that experience. As he put it in one of his last major works, Shakespeare's Language (2000), some of the most powerful literature provokes in us the kind of concentration

T. S. Eliot had in mind when he spoke of the bewildering minute, the moment of dazzled recognition, from which one draws back and, having regained composure, tries to think of something to say about an experience too disconcerting to be thought of as simply pleasant.

p. 151

Kermode returned to this theme in his final public lecture, delivered before a large audience at the British Museum in February 2010, in which he ruminated on the 'shudder' which is one of the involuntary responses that such moments of recognition can compel from us. But at the same time he resisted any inclination to pull rank on less intense forms of reading experience or to reduce criticism to the search for such moments. When discussing why certain works acquired the status of 'classics', he observed how a great play such as King Lear (a work he never ceased to regard with a kind of awe) renews itself in each generation: it 'subsists in change, prevails, by being patient of interpretation' (F. Kermode, The Classic, 1975, 134). The phrase is characteristic, no less in its unexpectedness than in its rightness. But it could be said that, as a critic, Kermode himself was 'patient of interpretation', never regarding any account as final, never slackening in the kind of vigilant reading that knew itself to be in the service of the literary work rather than an attempt to master it for ulterior purposes.

In addition to producing his own extensive oeuvre, Kermode participated in several collaborative pieces of scholarly publishing. He co-edited with John Hollander and others the massive Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973); he was for several years the general editor of the Oxford Authors series and later of the Fontana Masterguides series; his interest in narrative having led him into biblical criticism, he co-edited with Robert Alter The Literary Guide to the Bible (1987); he co-edited, with Peter Parker, A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, and with Anita Kermode The Oxford Book of Letters (both 1996); and he produced editions of, and ‘case-books’ about, several individual authors and works.

Cambridge and after

The invitation (from the crown, as the arrangement then was) to take up the King Edward VII chair of English literature at Cambridge was an acknowledgement of the professional pre-eminence Kermode had achieved by this date. He initially hesitated: he was happy in London and had had no previous connection with either of the ancient universities—indeed, was somewhat wary of them. But ultimately he accepted, thus embarking on what he later lamented was the unhappiest period of his professional life. A professor in Cambridge, even the occupant of the King Edward chair, had none of the executive powers enjoyed by the holders of such posts elsewhere, and Kermode was irked by the captious resistance to change he encountered among his new colleagues. Matters came to a head in 1980–81 over the English faculty's decision not to upgrade a somewhat controversial assistant lecturer, Colin MacCabe, to a permanent lectureship. The episode, which received extensive coverage in the national press, was widely interpreted as a struggle over the place of ‘theory’ in the study of English; Kermode was no zealot for this cause, but he was not willing meekly to accept what he perceived as a vengeful attempt to resist all intellectual change in the Cambridge English faculty, an institution he later described, with a little malicious glee of his own, as 'exceptionally hostile to any kind of thought at all' (Salusinzsky, 105). Accordingly, he went into battle for the ‘radical’ side. When roused on a scholarly matter, he could be a formidable controversialist, but he was no politician; in this episode, after much unpleasantness, he found himself on the losing side.

Dispirited by the constant feuding, Kermode took early retirement from Cambridge in 1982, accepting a half-time appointment as professor of the humanities at Columbia University. He had long enjoyed good relations with American academia, frequently lecturing or holding visiting posts there, and he became almost as regular a contributor to literary journalism in the United States as in Britain, ranging from the New York Times Book Review to Partisan Review; he had a particularly fruitful and long-lived relationship with the New York Review of Books, for which he wrote regularly until his death. None the less, after three years he returned permanently to Britain, living in Cambridge but having no formal (and much of the time little informal) contact with the university.

The familiar phrase about ‘a long and productive retirement’ scarcely does justice to the Stakhanovite pace at which Kermode kept himself working for a further two decades or more. Nor did he confine himself to the shorter forms, though it seemed that a month rarely went by without his appearing in one of the major literary journals. The most notable book to emerge from these years was the 320-page Shakespeare's Language (2000), which enjoyed considerable commercial as well as critical success. This drew on Kermode's remarkable range of learning—he was, without question, primarily a critic, yet he was also more learned than most literary-historical scholars—and a lifetime of engagement with Shakespeare. The book's own graceful, limpid prose seduced the non-specialist reader into a rewarding appreciation of the development of the dramatist's poetic art. Concerning E. M. Forster, published in 2009, was a slighter production, growing out of his Clark lectures two years previously, but offering insights and assessments from his protracted familiarity with an author who interested and disappointed him in almost equal measure.

Another work of Kermode's retirement years was Not Entitled: a Memoir (1995), an engaging, ruminative account, principally of his early life and war service, that won him many new admirers. There was an undertow of rueful melancholy in much of his writing, an Eeyoreish capacity to take satisfaction in the frequency with which gloomy expectations were fulfilled, and writing about his own life allowed this tone to achieve its full picaresque potential, the quiet comedy being shot through with self-reproach. He represented himself as stumbling from failure to failure, yet his was by any standards a successful career, garlanded with honours. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1973, an honorary fellow of King's College, Cambridge, in 1988, and in 1991 he was knighted ‘for services to literature’. He was awarded numerous honorary degrees as well as being made a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Accademia dei Lincei, and an officier des Arts et des Sciences. Notable among tributes of another kind was There Are Kermodians: a Liber Amicorum for Frank Kermode, edited by Anthony Holden and Ursula Owen, which appeared in 1999, an indication of the warm affection he inspired in an unusually diverse array of friends.

Kermode's first marriage had foundered during his early London years, a time, according to his tactful retrospect, when 'my private life was in a great muddle' (Kermode, 213). On 5 June 1976 he married a 36-year-old American writer and publisher, Anita Van Vactor, daughter of Allan Fleming Bullard, attorney, but in the 1990s this marriage also ended in divorce. Thereafter he lived alone in Cambridge; he enjoyed a close relationship with Ursula Owen for over a decade and a briefer one with Heather Glen in the two years before his death. He died at his home, 9 The Oast House, Grange Road, Cambridge, on 17 August 2010, of cancer of the tongue; his funeral took place in King's College chapel on 31 August and his ashes were, following his wish, scattered at sea between Liverpool and Douglas. He was survived by his two children.

Reputation

Kermode did not belong to any critical school, nor did he found one. His own early training was in literary history, inflected by a Warburgian attentiveness to the ramifying presence of the classical tradition, but he soon subsumed such learning into a wider literary responsiveness. He thought of William Empson, at least early Empson, as the one indisputable genius of twentieth-century English criticism, just as he came to regard Roland Barthes as the most compelling of the literary theorists. These affiliations help identify Kermode's style, and indeed stylishness, as a critic without explaining it: he was drawn to whatever opened up the literary work to the richest possible reading experience, hostile to whatever pre-empted or foreclosed that experience in the name of non-literary concerns.

Kermode did not seek or produce disciples—indeed, he took a perverse pride in pointing out that 'there aren't any Kermodians' (hence the contrary contention in the title of the Liber Amicorum). Nor did he enduringly reshape understanding of a major phase of literary history or even propose a radically revised canon. Yet he might still be seen as pre-eminent among the English-language literary critics who came to maturity in the second half of the twentieth century. His range was surely unrivalled, and his quiet, unshowy perceptiveness served as a reproach to noisier styles of criticism. In addition, his openness to ideas, yet his subordination of all intellectual constructions to the prime task of doing justice to the literary distinctiveness of every piece of writing he discussed, gave his work both richness and discipline. And none could match the sheer volume of shrewd, informed judgement—his astonishing, tireless capacity to be fresh, thoughtful, and right. Kermode was not a programmatic critic, not a political critic, not a warrior critic: he was simply—yet as fully and gracefully as the role could require—a literary critic, one of the best there has ever been.

Sources

  • I. Salusinzsky, Criticism in society (1987), 98–121
  • F. Kermode, Not entitled: a memoir (1995)
  • A. Holden and U. Owen, eds., There are Kermodians: a liber amicorum for Frank Kermode (1999)
  • New York Times (19 Aug 2010)
  • The Independent (21 Aug 2010)
  • The Observer (22 Aug 2010)
  • Times Higher Education Supplement (26 Aug 2010)
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (29 Aug 2010)
  • London Review of Books (23 Sept 2010)
  • WW (2010)
  • personal knowledge (2014)
  • private information (2014)
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • Princeton University Library, USA

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview recordings

Likenesses

  • M. Crabtree, photographs, 2000, Camera Press, London
  • M. Godwin, photographs, 2000, Getty Images, London
  • C. MacDonald, photograph, 2000, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • J. Bell, photographs, 2006, Camera Press, London
  • E. McCabe, photograph, 2008, Camera Press, London
  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£738,802: probate, 28 Jan 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

(1849–)
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)