Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Lives Well Lived

I wonder how many academics, literary and otherwise, go to sleep every night imagining that they might be Bernard Knox or Frank Kermode.  Forget fat little guys with scruffy beards and a tone of aggrieved rancor: at least from a distance (I never met either one of them), Knox and Kermode were a very model of civilty, affability, and bottomless cultural attainment, lightly worn.

Knox, who died last  month at 95, was a Classicist, specifically a student of Greek; he held what must be one of the most prestigious jobs in American academic life, as founding director of Harvard's Center for Hellenic studies (the current director, Gregory Nagy, is another classicist whose name is uttered in hushed tones).   His list of more-or-less academic publications it formidable.  But I suspect that most people who know of him encountered him first in the pages of The Atlantic or The New York Review of Books, where he was a frequent presence as an essayist/reviewer.  Indeed if there is any general criticism of his work, it would have to be that he was too soft; it seems he rarely disliked anything--although the alert reader might note that from time to time in appearing to review a particular book, he would simply change the subject.   On the other hand, it was Knox who first surfaced a noteworthy literary scandal: it was Knox in a review who noted the similarities between While England Sleeps by David Leavitt and the earlier World Within World by Stephen Spender, which Knox had also reviewed some 26 years before.

Aside from his narrowly literary/academic career, Knox was also one of the last of those with an imperishable conversation-opener--a rip-roaring World War II story.  Starting with his natural ability at languages, he found himself harnessed into a parachute from the OSS, and I wouldn't be surprised if he found listeners willing to let his stories work their  way into the conversation for the rest of his life.

Outside of wartime espionage, perhaps the most confrontational presentation he ever made in his life was his Jefferson Lecture in 1992, titled "The Oldest Dead White European Males."  It was, inevitably, a defense of classical culture.  But beyond the title, it was vintage Knox; fluent, measured,  firm in its views without appearing insistent or sounding shrill.

Reading the record, I get the impression that Knox has been inactive in recent years.  He certainly had the right, but in this he would differ from Kermode, who died this week at 90, kept working virtually until the end.  As an academic he began modestly, first a student at Liverpool, then with academic posts at Durham and Reading.  The Guardian reports that he was happiest at reading, and well he might be: it was there he wrote Romantic Images, the book with which he made his bones among professors.  He made it to University College London in 1967 and from there went on to hold (as a friend tells the Guardian) "virtually every endowed chair worth having in the British Isles."

Kermode was even more fertile as a reviewer than Knox.  Kermode was also an appreciator, but he was the kind of reviewer/critic who could be counted on to bring something new to the table--to add an insight or a spin which, though rooted in the work at hand, would take you off in a direction you wouldn't have expected to go before.  He was also the longtime editor of the Fontana Modern Masters series of introductions to great academics. They say a generation of British schoolboys cut their teeth on them and although I was never a British schoolboy, I think I have a few tucked away around here even now.

I suppose there were people who thought both Knox and Kermode to be too polite, too (seemingly) civilized.  Maybe.  But it certainly wasn't the case that they lacked firm views, nor (certainly!) were they shy in sharing them.  They just found away to make their efforts seem effortless, and to convey in everything the did, a quiet confidence.  Lives well lived, and lives to envy.

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