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British literary critic Frank Kermode dies at age 90

By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, August 19, 2010; B07

Frank Kermode, 90, an English literary critic who wrote masterfully, and in a digestible fashion, on a range of interests, including Shakespeare, the Bible and Kurt Vonnegut, died Aug. 17 in Cambridge, England. No cause of death was reported.

Considered one Britain's most prolific and admired academics -- he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991 -- Mr. Kermode's critiques were often praised for their graceful prose and fresh perspective. He wrote his first book at age 20 and his last, on the works of E.M. Forster, this past year.

Mr. Kermode held teaching positions at some of world's most prestigious universities, including Cambridge University in England, Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Through his articles for scholarly journals and periodicals such as the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books, Mr. Kermode helped guide his readers to understand the idiosyncrasies and nuances of a particular work, as well as the literary conventions it employed and traditions to which it belonged.

"He was a trans-Atlantic critic," said Helen Vendler, a poetry critic and professor at Harvard University, who first met Mr. Kermode in the early 1980s and was amused by his dry irony and signature pipe. "The wide history and scope of his work, from John Donne to yesterday, was unusual because most people stick to a single century. He had a broad appeal."

She noted that, in the literary world, "you were either reading a new book by Sir Frank or else reading a book he reviewed. He was always in the present."

By his own admission, Mr. Kermode "stumbled into academic life" as a failed novelist and playwright. He said he chose criticism because it did not require as much creativity and because he found that "most criticism is produced on academic assembly lines and is usually derivative, mechanical and very hard to read."

Throughout his career, Mr. Kermode sought to narrow the void between literature's elite academics and its casual readers. While many of his contemporaries focused on specific genres or eras of literature, Mr. Kermode remained a respected generalist.

In his books, Mr. Kermode wrote on the language of Shakespeare, the works of American poet Wallace Stevens and British novelist D.H. Lawrence, and the Bible.

Trained as a scholar of the Renaissance period, Mr. Kermode's best known book, "The Sense of an Ending" (1967), was an exploration of the history of fiction writing in a world that often seems turbulent and chaotic.

He became embroiled in controversy for a short time in the 1960s as the editor of the British literary and political journal Encounter, after reports came out that the magazine was secretly funded by the CIA. Mr. Kermode said that he was ignorant of the scheme and promptly resigned from his post.

John Frank Kermode was born Nov. 29, 1919, in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, about 80 miles off the west coast of England in the Irish Sea.

His father was a shopkeeper, and Mr. Kermode spent his childhood clerking in a warehouse and as a purser aboard a steamship. In his 1995 memoir, called "Not Entitled," he described his father's disappointment in him "being fat, plain, shortsighted, clumsy, idle, dirty" and "very unlikely to add to the family store of sporting cups and medals."

He received a scholarship to attend the University of Liverpool, where he received an undergraduate degree in 1940 and a master's degree in 1947. He spent much of World War II serving in the Royal Navy, laying booms off the coast of Iceland.

His marriages to Maureen Eccles and Anita Van Vactor ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage.

As a scholar, Mr. Kermode sought to bring new ideas on literary theory into the classroom, helping introduce French theorists such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault into British academia in the 1960s. He later distanced himself from some of their more arcane notions of literary interpretation but remained committed to academic freedom.

He left his prestigious job at University College London in 1982 after an unsuccessful battle to achieve tenure for a younger colleague who advocated a structuralist view of literature and film.

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