Walter Kendrick–who died Sunday morning with terrifying suddenness–was a great wit and a great scholar whose scholarship ranged freely over a staggering range of interests. His books include The Secret Museum, an indispensable survey of the history of pornography, The Thrill of Fear, an aphoristic meditation on “scary entertainment,” and Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924-25, which he coauthored with Perry Meisel.
From the beginning Walter was central to the VLS as a writer and editor, lending it both the panache of his style and the undemonstrative authority of his intellectual grasp, whether the subject was Freud or Trollope or Ruskin, hermeneutics or romance novels, the roots of gay radicalism or the undercurrents of Victorian sexuality. To read him was to participate in an endlessly diverting, deeply serious conversation in which he seemed always to inject a note of almost whimsical calm into precisely those aspects of human life most likely to stir up uncontrolled hysteria and crusading zeal. I can still remember the amused aplomb with which Walter, brought on a cable TV show as a scholar of pornography, stared down a representative of the Christian Right.
As an editor, Walter was incomparable; contributors had the singular pleasure of working with a line editor for whom the niceties of grammar and diction held a delight not remotely pedantic. He loved language, just as he loved the play of ideas. I remember an evening when, after arguing the importance of Pater, he sealed his argument by reading, with real eloquence, the passage from The Renaissance that concludes: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” He then added: “That’s what all those musicians in the East Village are doing, just following Pater and burning with a hard, gemlike flame.” In his own gently acerbic fashion that’s what Walter was doing too. For those who had the pleasure of knowing him, the world has lost a portion of its buoyance.