Frank Kermode, funky covers and the canon

August 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm (Art and design, intellectuals, Jim D, literature)

As a young undergraduate in the 1970’s I desperately wanted to get to grips with literary theory, and especially “structuralism” and “deconstruction.” Don’t ask why. Anyway, no-one I knew could adequately explain these concepts to me, but I discovered the Fontana “Modern Masters” series, which provided some excellent, comprehensible introductions to the likes of Barthes, Chomsky, Marcuse and Levi-Strauss. The series also included political figures like Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, as well as various rather randomly selected artistic, literary and scientific “modern masters” including Le Corbusier, Einstein and Joyce. It was all invaluable stuff for impressing people at student parties. The general editor of the series was Frank Kermode, who died on Tueday aged 90. I owe him more than I can say.

Anyway, I bought almost all the “Modern Masters” and wish now that I’d kept them, not least for their funky cover-art:

ARTAUD by Martin Esslin, 1976 BARTHES by Jonathan Culler, 1983 BECKETT by A Alvarez, 1973 CAMUS by Conor Cruise O'Brien, 1970 CHOMSKY by John Lyons, 1970 DARWIN by Wilma George, 1982 DURKHEIM by Anthony Giddens, 1978 EINSTEIN by Jeremy Bernstein, 1973
ELIOT by Stephen Spender, 1975 ENGELS by David McLellan, 1977 EVANS-PRITCHARD by Mary Douglas, 1980 FANON by David Caute, 1970 FREUD by Richard Wollheim, 1971 GANDHI by George Woodcock, 1972 GRAMSCI by James Joll, 1977 GUEVARA by Andrew Sinclair, 1970
HEIDEGGER by George Steiner, 1978 JOYCE by John Gross, 1971 JUNG by Anthony Storr, 1973 KAFKA by Erich Heller, 1974 KEYNES by D E Moggridge, 1976 KLEIN by Hanna Segal, 1979 LAING by Edgar Z Friedenberg, 1973 LAWRENCE by Frank Kermode, 1973
LE CORBUSIER by Stephen Gardiner, 1974 LENIN by Robert Conquest, 1972 LÉVI-STRAUSS by Edmund Leach, 1970 LUKÁCS by George Lichtheim, 1970 McLUHAN by Jonathan Miller, 1971 MAILER by Richard Poirier, 1972 MARCUSE by Alasdair MacIntyre, 1970 MARX by David McLellan, 1975
NIETZSCHE by J P Stern, 1978 ORWELL by Raymond Williams, 1971 PAVLOV by Jeffrey A Gray, 1979 PIAGET by Margaret A Boden, 1979 POPPER by Bryan Magee, 1973 POUND by Donald Davie, 1975 PROUST by Roger Shattuck, 1974 REICH by Charles Rycroft, 1971
RUSSELL by A J Ayer, 1972 SARTRE by Arthur C Danto, 1975 SAUSSURE by Jonathan Culler, 1976 SCHOENBERG by Charles Rosen, 1976 TROTSKY by Irving Howe, 1978 WEBER by Donald G MacRae, 1974 WITTGENSTEIN by David Pears, 1971 YEATS by Denis Donoghue, 1971
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I was pleased to read in several of the obituaries, that despite his championing of literary theory in the 1970s and 80s, Kermode came to dislike the more pretentious and self-important of the ‘theorists’, “who seem largely to have lost interest in literature as such.” He remained, to the end, an unfashionably staunch defender of of the literary canon, and in particular, of Shakespeare. In his book Forms of Attention (1985) he issued what amounts to a warning about threats to the canon, and a call to its defence:

“Canons, which negate the distinction between knowledge and opinion, which are instruments of survival built to be time-proof, not reason-proof, are of course deconstructible; if people think there should not be such things, they may very well find the means to destroy them. Their defense cannot any longer be undertaken by central institutional power; they cannot any longer be compulsory, though it is hard to see how the normal operation of learned institutions, including recruitment, can manage without them.”


  1. Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said,

    A fine collection of images there.

  2. les said,

    yeah, they are great looking covers. the artist must have been influenced by frank stella. by the way, i still have the modern masters copy of levi-strauss and lukacs (guess i was working my way through the “l”s at one point). the others that i use to own have gone where the woodbine twineth.

  3. Rosie said,

    I tried structuralism, deconstructionalism and the rest of ’em then gave up and went back to reading literature and criticism by people who could actually write and who had a feeling for what they read. I found Kermode pretty hard going though.

  4. Funky frank | Jadelogistics said,

    […] Frank Kermode, funky covers and the canon « Shiraz SocialistOpen House: Frank’s Funky Single Bedroom, Single Family – The Huffington Post … A painter when he’s not pushing papers for his government day job, Frank’s home is filled with art, pieces that remind him of friends past and present. A gift from his good friend and fellow artist Laura* memorializes Frank’s late partner… […]

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