Modern Lover

Guy Davenport, 2003.

The life of the unclassifiable writer, critic, and American philosophe Guy Davenport (1927–2005), spent largely as a university professor in Lexington, Kentucky, seems a cosmopolitan fantasy of how an intellectual might thrive in the provinces. “Living in Kentucky makes every other place delightful,” he once quipped, but Davenport’s isolation gave him the freedom to create prolifically—more than forty books spanning fiction, poetry, literary and art criticism, and translation—without the buzzings of the metropolis to distract him. His stories, published in collections from the ’70s to the ’90s, are marvelous constructions intermingling fact and fiction, built from the biographies of artists and writers, philosophers and presidents. He wrote in compact forms, never publishing anything longer than a novella, and liked to call himself a “minor, experimental” writer, though he was deemed important enough to receive a MacArthur Fellowship in 1990. In following the windings of his curiosity and research, no matter how obscure or idiosyncratic, Davenport leveled an implicit rebuke to the self-styled “major” writer, and offered us something more slithery and mysterious—and pleasurable.

He was fortunate to be graced with a few unlikely neighbors worth knowing, as unorthodox in their chosen endeavors as he was in his: The photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard lived a stone’s throw away, and Thomas Merton might venture out from the nearby Trappist monastery and drop in unexpectedly, “looking for all the world like Jean Genet in denim jacket and jeans.” Residing alone (though not far from his companion of thirty years, Bonnie Jean Cox), Davenport lived a life of aesthetic commitment that extended into the physical space of his home. His dining room, converted into an office, was what his literary executor, Erik Reece, has described as a “monument to high modernism,” a sanctum adorned with the avant-garde art he admired and anchored by the replica he made of the table in Ezra Pound’s 1920s Paris apartment. From there he spun out his own multifarious contribution to literary modernism, becoming one of its final practitioners.

Reece, a former student and longtime friend of Davenport’s who has written with equal sensitivity about him as man and as writer, has edited the first posthumous survey of his achievement. Davenport was an exceedingly private man, unlikely to be the subject of a biography, so one of the reasons we should welcome The Guy Davenport Reader is for its glimpses into a personality that was mostly subsumed in his work. Reece’s own contribution, a postscript reminiscence, gives a sense of Davenport’s humor and charisma without papering over his flaws: a prickly temperament that could seem chilly and aloof, and a tendency to expect so much from friendship that he suffered from frequent bouts of loneliness, the flip side of his productive habits of solitude.

The autobiographical essays gathered here, pleasingly meandering and chatty, are among Davenport’s most accessible writings. At their best, they offer a direct road into the heart of his sensibility: omnivorous, alert to unsuspected revelations, but also committed to devoting sustained attention to whatever is under his gaze. He was not a humble man, but there is an essential modesty to his intuition that knowledge of any given thing is inexhaustible. “Finding” recalls how his father would regularly take the family on Sunday-afternoon excursions hunting for “Indian arrows,” a blanket term for whatever archaeological discoveries might turn up in the vicinity of their home in the Savannah Valley of South Carolina and Georgia. “I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures),” he wrote. “I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known.” Here we see the childhood origins of Davenport’s literary foraging, his method of wandering in the fields and byways of cultural history and assembling what he has found, collagelike, in creations that retain much of the wondrousness of the initial act of discovery. His voracious scavenging is also connected to the wanderings of prehistoric humans—the rediscovery of the archaic via modernism is one of his persistent themes—and to those of latter-day walkers, such as his hero Thoreau or Robert Walser, whose tragicomic life and death are dramatized in Davenport’s story “A Field of Snow on a Slope of the Rosenberg.”

The Reader is partitioned according to genre, with sections devoted to stories, essays, poems, translations, and excerpts from his journals. But such distinctions are nearly absurd when applied to Davenport’s restless, shape-shifting oeuvre. Immersed in ideas and what he once called “the adagio rhythms of history,” Davenport’s fiction is its own species of creative nonfiction; the essays’ fragments and aphorisms call to mind the longhand night-thoughts of the journal writer (he always wrote in his notebooks at night); a translation might be set within a story, as with the beautifully unadorned rendering of an ancient Chinese ode in “The Concord Sonata,” reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s more plainspoken lyrics. It’s hardly surprising that some of Davenport’s tales, which he liked to refer to as “assemblages,” crossed generic borders during gestation: “Tatlin!,” the title story of his first collection of fiction, was in its embryonic phase a painting, according to Davenport, and “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” a madcap reimagining of Kafka’s 1909 visit as a journalist to write up one of the first air shows in Europe, was originally mapped out to be an academic essay.

Davenport’s tendency to trust such transformations speaks not only to his fluency in varying modes but also to the underlying spirit of his aesthetic enterprise, his conviction that one can always discover—which is to say, make—affinities among forms. He delighted in fitting together unlike things to show them in surprising harmony, even as each component retains its difference: “Everything is an incongruity if you study it well.” Reading Davenport is a kaleidoscopic experience in the sense that the vantage of a particular passage or even a sentence can suddenly break apart and yield unexpected reconfigurations. One of the stories included in the Reader is “Veranda Hung with Wisteria,” a brief meditation as aptly described as a prose poem or excerpt from some unrealized essay, first published in The Cardiff Team (1996). The text in full reads:

The adoration of mountains, Mr. Poe read in Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos, and the contemplation of flowers distinguish Chinese poetry from that of Greece and Rome. Ssu-ma Kuang, statesman and poet, described in his Garden, written around the time of the Norman invasion of England, his wide view of the river Kiang crowded with junks and sampans, the black green of the pines beyond his terrace of peonies and chrysanthemums, the blue green of the shrubbery, the red gold of the persimmons, while he expected with contentment the arrival of friends who would read their verses to him and listen to his.

This serpentine paragraph is pure Davenport: deceptively unassuming, not far in mood from the fanciful chinoiserie of Imagist poetry that he admired, and yet in concert with the bold Cézanne colors of the flowers and bushes, we find references to commerce and war, the twin engines that dictate the course of civilizations. The pastoral is juxtaposed with the world historical. Like nearly all his fiction, it is a tale of the study—conspicuously so, triggered by Poe reading a sentence by Humboldt—but in its concluding image of the refined satisfactions of a community of poets, it is also a moral vision, an idyll of the good life in miniature. Davenport’s ever-expanding erudition is inseparable from his efforts to articulate how we might best live.

We should hold on to Davenport because he seems to be receding from us. Although it’s been a mere eight years since he died of lung cancer, he was a man of the kind of twentieth century that hasn’t flowed smoothly into the twenty-first. He was a backward-looking futurist whose innovations do not leap forward into an undiscovered country but rather lead back into a vast, eclectic library and museum, and ultimately to the ancient world’s fragments and the cave paintings of Lascaux (one of his cultural touchstones, whose discovery in 1940 is the basis for his story “Robot”). And yet he remains topical as a political thinker, because he voiced a philosophy that runs counter to the triumphalist narrative of digital culture—not as some cartoon Luddite, but as a man who valued human freedom in all its fullness, and was alert to the insidious social threats to it. He regarded the “technological tyranny” of late-twentieth-century America to be an outrageous corruption of human eros, which was for him an absolute value. One can feel his scorn from beyond the grave for a people who now regard the smartphone almost literally as an essential bodily appendage. “The thing about technology is that it owns us,” he said, invoking a dictum of his beloved Diogenes, which he translated as “A man keeps and feeds a lion. The lion owns a man.” In an age of eroding privacy and an overbearing surveillance state, we would do well to follow Davenport in his excavations of antiquity and all the other human epochs, in order to better attune ourselves to the hidden costs of our contemporary wonders.

James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America.