A SINKING ISLAND: The Modern English Writers by Hugh Kenner

A SINKING ISLAND: The Modern English Writers

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Kenner just about writes off modern English letters in this ill-tempered book, part of his series that's dealt with modern American writing (A Homemade World) and Irish (A Colder Eye). British literature is, Kenner would say, all but nonexistent. The century's sterling exceptions have been T.S. Eliot, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, and Basil Bunting (though it's only on the last that Kenner seems to exert himself with keen appreciation, having written so much about the others previously). And it's in relation to this pantheon that he sees nearly everything else falling way short. As a certified stylist, an impressively smart man, Kenner can make his darts invariably sleek: ""Bloomsbury, on normal occasions scornful of money and 'opinion,' saved its passion for bright uneventfulness, over which it would huff and puff till the literati took it for daring."" Most of Auden is dismissed as ""mechanically alert and bogus""; a novel is defined as ""a book for people who'd acquired the skills of reading, though one couldn't say what in particular they'd read."" Kenner's occasional tossed rose is usually eccentric or unlikely as well: a nod to Arnold Bennett, to the Knox version of the Bible, to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Maybe most probing is his hypothesis about British literary desuetude in this century; Kenner wonders whether it was caused by the introduction of the Everyman's Library, a series of inexpensive books marketed as classics--books the publisher chose only if their authors were dead and the copyright had run out. British reading habits, middle-to, high-brow, were therefore exposed only to work that by nature was uncontemporary. Hardly rigorous (a discussion of British literature that doesn't speak of Henry Green?) and bound to offend someone with the turn of every page, this is a scattershot, syncopated, less than weighty turn around a literary estate that Kenner makes clear from the title onward was once in much, much better shape.

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1987
Publisher: Knopf