SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 29, 2008

Essex County Chronicles: Remembering Manchester's 'literary superstar," Herb Kenny

Essex County Chronicles

While he is pretty much forgotten today, even in his own hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, Herbert A. Kenny was once one of the region's true literary superstars.

During his lifetime, Kenny (1913-2002) was renowned in Greater Boston literary circles as a reporter, critic, author of both prose and poetry, and storyteller. He was hired by the Boston Post shortly after his graduation from Boston College in 1934 and worked for the paper until its demise in 1957. The next two decades Kenny spent at the Boston Globe where he served as a reporter, editorial writer, and book editor.

During that same period Kenny began carving out a reputation as a man of letters. He would eventually write 13 books, including three volumes of poetry, and in 1956 was chosen by Robert Frost as the winner of the prestigious Robert Frost Fellowship. A magnet for other writers and a born organizer, Kenny was also the founder of the successful Boston Globe Book Festival and a co-founder of the National Book Critics Circle.

Kenny was of Irish Catholic descent and never forgot his roots. Included in his literary oeuvre are "A Catholic Quiz Book" (1947) and "Sonnets on the Virgin Mary: A Marian Year" (1957). Kenny also penned "Literary Dublin: A History" (1974) and a novel, written when he was 86 years old, entitled "Paddy Madigan: An Irish Idyll."

But the Manchester-by-the-Sea "Renaissance man" could never be accused of being parochial. Kenny also authored a book on the arts in Israel and was a Dante scholar. He and his friend Alfred Mansfield Brooks, a Gloucester art historian and long-time president of the Cape Ann Historical Association, both spoke fluent Italian and made a study of the noted poet. Kenny translated Dante's "The Divine Comedy" into English and recorded the poem as a book on tape.

Closer to home, Kenny's "Newspaper Row : Journalism in the Pre-television Era" (Globe Pequot Press, 1987) reflected his historical interest in his chosen profession. The colorful book was described by one critic as a look back at the "rogues' gallery of murderers and swindlers, bootleggers and bookies, politicians of every stripe, and other flotsam that provided materials for Boston newspapers during the years between 1890 and 1956."

While a prolific writer, Kenny was hardly one-dimensional. He was deeply involved in his adopted community of Manchester-by-the-Sea where he moved with his wife, Theresa, after their wedding. He was a fixture on the town's zoning board of appeals for a quarter of a century and also served a stint on its board of selectmen. Kenny at various times organized a Greek club and a chess club (he co-authored a book on chess trivia) and was an avid sailor and tennis player.

Given his long association with the North Shore, it was inevitable that Kenny would turn his literary eye towards the area's history, and in 1971 his "Cape Ann: Cape America" appeared in local bookstores. Published by Curious Traveler Press and billed as a "regional guidebook," Kenny's work focused on the communities of Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Essex and Ipswich. In its pages the author wanders from topic to topic, covering everything from the flora and fauna of the region to its role as a setting for Hollywood movies.

Naturally there are chapters on the North Shore's literary heritage. Kenny tosses off the names of important men and women of letters with ties to Cape Ann, including Richard Henry Dana, Rudyard Kipling, and his own contemporary, Gloucester writer-activist Joe Garland. The author also quotes liberally from poems by Charles Olsen, the objectivist poet who settled in Gloucester and worked tirelessly to save the town's character in the face of encroaching development.

"Cape Ann: Cape America" concludes with one of Kenny's own poems, "At a Gloucester Memorial," inspired by a visit to the famed "Man at the Wheel" statue overlooking Gloucester Harbor. It paid tribute, as does the memorial itself, to the fishermen of Gloucester who ".. had shopped a square dance with their wives, barked at their children and filled their pipes," and later perished at sea.

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Jim McAllister of Salem writes a weekly column on the history of the North Shore.