Guy Davenport: The last American Jack
What the Lexington-based scholar teaches us about our world
Guy Davenport came to teach English at the University of Kentucky in 1963.
At the time, Lexington was no more than a college town surrounded by horse farms and a handful of stone quarries. No high-rise hotels or bank towers serrated the skyline, and the city was completely devoid of the suburban sprawl of Walmarts and shopping malls that currently dominate the urban county terrain.
Lexington, even more so in the early ’60s, was an unlikely spot to land such an intellectual and artistic talent, given it was so far removed from the centers — New York, Chicago, Ed Ruscha and the LA scene that was just beginning to bud — where the arts openly thrived. Asked why he chose UK, Davenport said it was “the remotest offer with the most pay.” That witty and wry criterion — so funny on one hand, so foreboding on the other — surmises Davenport’s view that the modern American metropolis is growing ever more bereft of the natural inspirations that fueled previous generations of American artists. Better to hunker down in the outskirts and write in cloistral quiet than get gobbled up in the death throes of a “botched civilization.”
But what was the real indictment that sparked Davenport’s conviction to stay in the margins? By the time he won the MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as the million-dollar genius grant), Davenport, who died in 2005, could have taught pretty much anywhere in the world, and yet he stayed in Lexington. I’m sure that after 20 some-odd years in one place you’re bound to form certain attachments, but why did he stay? After all, conversations about homoeroticism in Melville or the body-conscious spirituality of George Santayana seldom preoccupy many dinner conversations in the Pentecostal South.
Guy Davenport was certainly a very private man — most academics still don’t know that he lived in Lexington — and he hated the racket of the city, but these dislikes for metropolitan life were born more from his native South Carolina temperament than a fundamental conviction. So why deprive himself of the spotlight? What did his seclusion protest?
To answer this we must first outline Guy Davenport as the Jack of many trades and talents he was.
Guy Davenport smoked Marlboros like a 20 year-old, drew figures like an ancient Greek, and painted in the abstract. He lived the life of cloistered intellectual rigor like Thomas Merton, whom he befriended in Lexington, and traveled to Copenhagen every year. He “liked himself” a piece of stale cake and fed a possum that lived in his yard the scraps from his breakfast. He also liked to set out a dish of sugar to feed the ants and wasps, and he kept his TV and DVD player in a converted garage so as not to distract him while typing in his house.
Like my grandmother, he refused to learn how to drive and cursed the automobile as the cockroach bane of American culture. He served two years in both the Airborne and Infantry at Fort Bragg. He disagreed with our invasion of Iraq, but believed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to prevent the loss of millions more lives. As a Rhodes Scholar, he studied Old English under J.R.R. Tolkien and wrote Oxford’s first thesis on James Joyce. He later discovered that his old professor had a college dormmate from Kentucky who supplied the young Tolkien with tales concerning all the Baggins and Barefoot and Barefeet surnames to fill the households of The Shire like the Shelby County White Pages. Davenport later petitioned the great writers of the day to free Ezra Pound from Saint Elizabeth’s; only Robert Frost neglected to approve. He was a “New Books” reviewer at Harper’s magazine and also sat on the committee that awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Though in his 70s the first and only time I met him, Davenport was still limber and energetic. His eyes beamed with vital rigor. At times I thought I could actually discern behind those bright bulbs the golden honeycomb that was his mind.
First and foremost Davenport was a man of letters, a talent and term dwindling scarce in a time when academics, as well as our imaginations, have become more singularly focused and compartmentalized — and let’s not mince words: limited. He wrote essays and poems, translated the likes of Archilochos, Sappho and Herakleitos, and created fiction in the high modernist style. His stories are famous for their strange intersections of intellectual personages: James Joyce and Guillaume Apollinaire talking Kora and the muse of modernity aboard the “The Haile Selassie Funeral Train”; Max Brod and Kafka bump into Wittgenstein as a crewman for one of mankind’s first flying machines in “The Aeroplanes at Brescia.”
Davenport’s essays, which still rope in the most acclaim, distinguish themselves by his keen ability to shine a spotlight intimacy into the great minds of the past. Not only do you feel like you’re on familiar terms with Edgar Allen Poe or Grant Wood or Walt Whitman, after Davenport’s engrossing commentary, you feel as if you’ve actually participated in their genius. When I first picked up “The Geography of the Imagination” and raced through its pages, I felt initiated into the real cultural legacy of not only the United States, but of Western Civilization. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to Picasso, from Emerson to Charles Olson, I began to see threads, clues, integrating vast epochs of time. The imagination grows by its own accord and maintains its own proportions. Individual artists and thinkers — sometimes by conscious design, sometimes through enticing accidents — dot the terrain of the Imagination’s collective geography. Certainly the objects and methods of individual artists change, but the balanced precision of form, content and appeal remain. Davenport’s work attuned me to all this. In short, I became civilized.
I met Guy Davenport in Lexington in the fall of 2003. I wrote him a letter and he invited me to his house on Sayre Avenue for coffee. He retired from the University of Kentucky in 1990, so I never officially studied with him, but his reputation was still illustrious to say the least. My sapling mind likened the experience to munching baked ham with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Intimidated by his genius, I resolved to clip the academic tact with more direct questions so as not to trip up and betray my ignorance, but my impassiveness soon melted away when he answered the door with such hospitality. Apparently he really appreciated my letter to him, especially my anecdote about trying to order Louis Zukofsky’s “A” from Barnes and Noble and how the lady at the counter strawed the air through her nostrils and sighed: “A what?”
Make no mistake: I listened more than spoke. Right off, we got into James Joyce. Davenport told me about how “Finnegan’s Wake” — besides being structured on the social philosophy of Giambatista Vico — also mirrored the plot of one of the worst detective novels written in the 19th century. Davenport then produced a piecemeal edition of “The Work in Progress” and told me how at Oxford his advisor informed him that he couldn’t write his thesis on an author who is still alive (Joyce had been dead for over a decade!). Though widely considered the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare, Joyce was often scoffed at by the European literati. This, as Davenport confided, was due in part to Gertrude Stein, who derided the bard of “The Dubliners” as a debauched Caliban and beastly drunk. It wasn’t even until the 1990s that Ireland lifted the ban on Joyce’s books, and he was their greatest artist. And to wow me even more, Davenport said that Joyce had an open copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” on his desk the day he died.
Davenport’s house in Lexington was quaint enough from the outside. It had a covered porch and large windows. An undergraduate architecture studio at the University of Kentucky designed and built his “garage,” where Davenport kept his TV and DVD player, but just sitting in his den was the real treat. Besides about a million books, there was art: photographs by Eudora Welty and Thomas Merton; sketches by Henri Matisse; and a remarkable portrait of Ezra Pound. Black-and-white snapshots of rustic intellectuals in both beards and calico peered down from the mantel and shelves. I wonder how many of those faces have passed into oblivion now that Davenport is no longer there to remember them. There was one photo of a burly man pausing for the camera while splitting logs. Davenport said the man was an autodidact like me in that he never really started reading until he was an adult, only the man in the picture quit school when he was 12. I cannot for the life of me remember the man’s name, though I’ll never forget his full-toothed smile and the exaltation in which he handled the ax.
The main halls of Davenport’s house were shelved with books. He showed me his upstairs painting studio, a sort of room-sized dormer surrounded by windows that flooded the space with natural light. Some of his paintings leaned around uncovered. He told me how the writer Erik Reece was able to read words into the colored bands and shapes of Davenport’s abstract paintings and titled them accordingly (in his book “A Balance of Quinces: The Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport”). I studied “Air” for a moment before returning downstairs.
I noticed that Davenport kept certain vestiges of nature close to his typewriter: a hunk of honeycomb, a pine cone, the spirals of a tan speckled conch; I think these things kept his imagination connected to the architecture of the living planet. In nature, things repeat certain patterns as they continue to build and develop, but at the same time they result in stunning and unique formations. Davenport’s story “Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier” mimics the honey-hive in that each paragraph of the story is the same size and shape as its predecessor, save for the last, which is truncated. After all, every wall has two faces, and we must step out of the labyrinth somewhere.
Davenport was the master of the anecdote. He collected them from his own experiences and from others. Even if he met someone just once, some fortuitous tidbit would shake loose from the encounter. Like the time he introduced T.S. Eliot for a reading at Harvard. Before entering the lecture hall, Eliot noted a portrait of his much younger visage posted above the door. He sort of grimaced and turned to Davenport and said: “It seems the expression has changed.”
Sometimes he never met them at all, yet he still managed to form an anecdote. Like with Jean-Paul Sartre punditing existentialism to a circle of colleagues in the back booths of a Parisian café. Thinking that his pipe had gone out, Sartre stuffed it into his pocket. Seconds later, lent ignited and the pocket began to smoke, but Sartre was so engrossed in his discourse that he failed to notice it. The young Davenport decided to save the philosopher and his coat by reaching across the table and pouring his water into the smoldering pocket. Sartre continued on oblivious, finishing his spiel almost a full hour later. The two never even met.
Anecdotes fill Davenport’s essays. They give them a vitality of voice and place that most writers lack. It’s often through anecdote that he allows his readers to feel more comfortable with minds of monumental stature — such as Sartre and Eliot. Davenport had the unique knack of discovering those real moments that made “Genius” accessible.
So now that we’ve flapped out some of the blur from this Polaroid and are beginning to see Guy Davenport in more detail, we can return to the opening gambit: What developments in American culture prompted him to hunker down and brace for bad weather? The answer requires us to look as much backward in time as forward.
W.H. Auden once said that if you were to dig up an ancient Athenian and lead him on a guided tour of contemporary New York, he would ask something like: “Yes, I’ve seen the works of a great civilization; I’ve seen your skyscrapers, your subways, and your Internet cafés, but why have I yet to meet any of your civilized persons? I only encounter specialists, artists who know nothing of science, scientists who know nothing of art, philosophers who have no interest in God … and politicians who only know other politicians.”
I don’t mean to suggest Davenport would have us revert to the times of the ancient Aegean. The quality of contemporary American life is prodigious to say the least, and I wouldn’t swap the current luxuries of air conditioning and HBO for a bath once a month and endless paranoia about what calamity of plague or foreign invader will drop by next week to wipe my namesake from the face of the earth. But that’s not the issue here, that’s not what Davenport begs us to ask. The issue is where does our civilization currently reside? Is civilization something that flourishes through each individual, or does it impose on us from the outside? If so, when did this transfer happen? Why?
Modernity didn’t arrive without great resistance. To say we went through some growing pains would be to say Hunter S. Thompson dabbled in drugs. In the early part of the 20th century, Western Civilization rampaged death and annihilation under the guise of “The War to End All Wars” and watched as the toll of 20 million bodies piled high upon the blasted plains and artillery rubble. At the time World War I was the most extreme collective psychological break in human history, leaving the more curious to wonder why the most “civilized” and industrial nations on the planet decided to commit suicide. Yet, unsatisfied by this first self-crippling effort, the world went at it again fewer than 20 years later. Germany was by far the most industrialized nation on the planet. Japan held the same prestige in the Eastern Hemisphere. Certainly, genocide is no recent blight on humanity. But the Nazis made the extermination of the Jews a matter of cost-effective industry. It’s as if industrialization, in making life more convenient and comfortable, left us with the leisure and technology to hack out more economical ways of massacring each other.
There are smaller tallies on the scorecard of maladjustment. Virginia Woolf said that the modern era was christened with the invention of the telephone. Having two independent voices talking at once in your head is perhaps the most perfect symbol of modernity’s fragmentation. Besides this iconic significance, is it not the schizophrenic insertion of another person’s voice into our heads that is the supreme goal of a totalitarian state?
As documented by Eula Biss in February’s Harper’s (Davenport spent a year writing the “New Books” column for the magazine), the street-side proliferation of the telephone pole created very serious rifts throughout the country. Besides being gaudy eyesores that obscured each house’s view of its environs (originally each telephone connection had its own line, often resulting in over 40 lines from crosstree to crosstree), the telephone pole, like its telegraph progenitor, expedited bad news, and people rejected it with voracious hostility. Often constables from other jurisdictions would come in and perch atop the poles so no one could chop them down until the lines were connected and the crime for bringing the polls down became a felony. Once rooted, telephone poles often became a convenient gallows for public lynching. Perhaps they were possessed by the same demon of atrocity that wanted to arrow the road to Rome with the rot of crucified Christians.
As well as the cockroach car, Davenport hated the impertinence of the telephone and preferred to keep up correspondence by mail. Like Samuel Coleridge almost two centuries prior, Davenport was an unparalleled interpersonal communicator. He had the skinny on everyone. A list of his more famous consorts included “Sam” Beckett, Eudora Welty, Hugh Kenner, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, “Bucky” Fuller, Allen Ginsberg, Stan Brakhage, Ronald Johnson, Louis Zukofsky and Ralph Eugene Meatyard. It’s great to run into a talent such as Lee K. Abbott and discover that he had a correspondence with Davenport. Abbott is one of the best American short story writers alive today. Like Checkov, Raymond Carver and Davenport, Abbott refuses to write a novel. Where it was my fascination with James Joyce that brought me to Davenport in the first place, I’m sure Davenport was impressed by Abbott’s verve and language that so splendidly continues the legacy of Eudora Welty and John Cheever. It will be decades before Davenport’s influence can be documented.
People usually assume that the Ford-style assembly line came about because it’s the most efficient means of production. Though true today, it wasn’t true in 1910. In fact, one “trained mechanic” could complete construction on a ready-to-drive automobile in less time than it took a contemporary manufacturing plant.
So why did Henry Ford stick with the idea despite its initial drawbacks? To disenfranchise labor. To reduce the skill of the laborer to a single, monotonous task is to reduce labor’s ability to strike and collectively bargain. Anybody can learn how to pull a lever, and it wasn’t like there was a shortage of hungry people in the world. If your workers had a skill they could demand things because of the time it would take to train their replacements, so why would any employer grant labor the power? Why do you think industrial magnates bought the media and bribed as much police as they could to bash the local upstarts back into submission? Authority is most outraged when those without power step up in denial.
Today we just dump the manufacturing problem overseas. Let the poor peasants of Southeast Asia and Latin America grind away for dollars a week to the deity of mass production.
Besides getting hooked on fossil fuels and being reduced to a consumer debt-plantation, the other great casualty of modern America is the loss of perspective. No, I don’t mean people have lost the ability to form their own views and opinions — just watch 10 minutes of FOX News and you’ll find we certainly have no shortage of those. I’m talking about the ability of one place to distinguish itself from another. Traveling cross-country without a map or GPS, how could any one of us distinguish one interstate roadside town from another? By the number of BP signs or by the presence or absence of a 24-hour McDonald’s? Or let’s say you woke up locked in an undisclosed kitchen. There are no windows or local periodicals and you’re searching for something — anything — to tell you what state you’re in. You rummage the cabinets and the refrigerator, finding only the same brands you could find anyplace else. And that’s our food.
Davenport praised Shaker craftsmanship for its spare grace and function. When a Shaker artisan set out to make a desk or dresser, he or she designed it specifically for the room in which it was to be used. Form amounted to function and place, and Shaker craftsmanship is nonetheless beautiful for it. Greek families had all their dishes and pottery painted with their favorite myths and histories and then used them. John Ruskin (the first Jack, though he be from England) noted that the flowers and leaves that seem mere decoration on a Gothic cathedral could actually be found in the adjacent hillsides and pastures. Kentucky was once known for a couple beverages you couldn’t find anyplace else and a grass that turned bright blue when it grew waist-high and began to flower.
This is all to say that craft, besides funding local economies, brings perspective to place. By filling our homes and enhancing our daily tasks with unique beauty, craft lives, breathes and even dies with us. Craft is not art; it is living culture. Mass production makes us universally equal in giving us all the same products. Craft makes us democratically equal by giving one place the power to offer something another place cannot. Domination of the market is the goal of mass production. Perspective is the power of craft.
Davenport believed that convenience should never have become the impetus behind technology. Do we really need volume control on our steering wheels or voice command dialing on our telephones? Sure, Davenport was fascinated by flying machines, but the important thing about those aeronautical contraptions was the dexterity and physical skill necessary to fly them. Every cockpit in “The Aeroplanes at Brescia” requires a buzzing flurry of twisted knobs and yanked levers and gears to keep airborne. As with Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers, who implored her flock to “do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow,” Davenport believed that technology should complement human initiative and skill, not divorce our physical and intellectual finesse from it.
Perhaps the highlight of my visit with Davenport was when our discussion turned to the cave paintings of Lascaux. The second I asked him about the name of the dog (Robot) of the boys who discovered the cavern after an errant Nazi artillery shell jostled open the lid, Davenport hopped up and produced a book of photographs from the site. As I flipped through the pages, regarding the tangle of horns, the bucking hooves and the brown arches of thumb-drawn spines, Davenport reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s words when he first came across those painted walls: “Art never really gets any better.”
“You know they sealed them,” Davenport said as he opened another pack of Marlboros and discarded the empty box into the fireplace.
“Who?” I asked.
“The caveman tribe. They painted the walls and then sealed them inside. You see,” Davenport began as he lit a cigarette, “they were impregnating the soil with the images of the animals they wanted to engender above.”
We discussed the possible motivations of this impregnation, and concluded that it was not out of greed for more filets and shanks, but in recompense for the animals they had already slain and eaten. The kind of awe and adoration implied in their elegant yet feral art implies a reverence for nature that avarice cannot so genuinely dissemble.
No, it doesn’t get any better. All art from the “Paleolithic Bull on Grassy Plain” to the digital mixed media of the late Jeremy Blake follows the dictums of a shared aesthetic intuition and a sense of balance, intention and proportion that says: “Yes, this is art.” Davenport applied this sort of thinking to his study of past masters. After reading his interpretation of Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic,” literary scholar Hugh Kenner said there was no way Wood could’ve been aware of all the allusions Davenport suggested. From the seven holy shrubs of Solomon to the Louisiana shoals that forked up the mother-of-pearl buttons on the man’s shirt, Kenner maintained that there was no way Davenport could prove Wood was alluding to all the things contained in Davenport’s essay.
But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s there to be discerned because it draws from a shared cultural aesthetic and imaginative force. The essay wasn’t so much about what “American Gothic” represents today, but what it meant to see the painting then, in its own milieu, where most still went to church to learn their “stories” and the Midwest witnessed the beginning of denim production and the first proliferation of prefabricated houses.
The Athenians, who believed human nature was precisely that part of nature that made the natural world visible, maintained that civilization depended upon a vast and ritualized synchronization between human agency and the flow of the universe. Any citizen — meaning a wealthy denizen of the educated upper echelons — was capable of capturing the content of an entire culture, from winemaking to figuring the proper proportions required to sustain an arch. Civilization was not just some city but an entire universe of words, marble columns and stars animated and aligned in their imaginations. More than a culture, it was their personal responsibility to keep the natural truths they’d discovered from slipping back into the barbaric dark that literally engulfed them.
Today, the world works perfectly fine without us. Sure, it’s consumerism, it’s the strictures of law, it’s statistics and mortgage payments — but it is not civilization, not in the old sense. With its torture bureaucracy and digital automation, the world we’ve created has spiraled out of reach. Even worse, it imposes many arcane — and sometimes brutal — systems upon the constituent humanity it’s no longer enough in touch with to serve. Few among us can comprehend the network of unseen social, legal and technological intricacies that go into toasting a slice of Wonderbread. Fewer still could even list them. I know I couldn’t. It’s as if civilization has lost the ability to communicate its purpose and function with the people it contains. Gas prices, religious dogma, NGO production contracts: Over the last hundred years, people around the world have been punished and put to death because of distant inanities from other nations they have never even seen. Kafka noticed this. That’s what Davenport meant when he said Kafka writes “about the history that has not yet happened.” Where Joyce closed the book on the Western tradition in literature, Kafka “ascended like a new star.”
Instead of trusting tradition, Kafka mutated away its moral purpose. The societies of Kafka’s fiction bloat with procedures and trials, and inflict litanies of horrendous punishment. But the logic that governs their operation defies comprehension. Kafka’s universe is a nest of aberrations borne upon the back of deeper aberrations, where the protagonist is doomed to perpetually violate the laws and norms he cannot comprehend enough to protest or obey. Anyone who has filled out a loan application or tried to repair the motherboard of a PC could tell you the same. Civilization is out of the hands of the individual.
Some may carp that Davenport was an anachronism, a Hellenist nostalgic for a time he never experienced firsthand — but they would be missing the point. No Faust could exist today. The tentacles of the human mind simply can’t reach far enough to grasp the vast categories of our knowledge. This, really, has been the case since the Academy of Athens, but the problem now is that we’ve become too specialized. There are branches bifurcating other branches, and often the trained only feel “authorized” to comment on what incurs under their expertise. Evolution is Fact, not because a few fossils tell us so, but because all the sciences — from the physics behind carbon dating to the interplanetary astronomy that tells us what comet led to what extinction — coincide to back it up. What great feats will we be capable of when the microbiologist loses the ability to translate his discoveries to the zoologist? A good “naturalist” was once defined by the ability to not only draw landscapes and creatures encountered, but to describe them as well. So, will there come a time when even the sciences become to specialized to relate?
Even in writing you’ll find those who can write fiction and nonfiction, but not both. Besides being expert at both, Davenport wrote poetry, translated Greek, French and Hebrew, and was a terrific sketch artist and painter. He could write about such past scientists as Louis Agassiz and such designer/architects as Tatlin and Buckmister Fuller (Jacks all). He understood natural and geological history and allowed those insights to inform his writing.
So in the end it seems Guy Davenport thought the best way to remain civilized was to stay out of the city. It wasn’t a return to some mythic golden period that Davenport sought for America in his intellectual work, but the development of continuity between the excellence of the past and the ample possibility of the present. At no time in recorded history have we been capable of more astounding feats of imagination and science. Yet a bleak irony seems to nullify our advancements. The modern industrial age brought the interstate, open-heart surgery and the computer, but it also gave us the death camp and toxic waste. We are now more aware of the millions of species of flora and fauna that populate our planet while at the same time responsible for the gratuitous rise in their extinction.
In an age where corporations ride the razor’s edge of maximum efficiency and cataclysmic risk, Davenport would have us re-evaluate the nature of profit, and design a new system of capitalism stabilized and perpetuated on subsistence, not convenience and the bottom dollar. He would put the culture and craft back into our daily work so that its immediate value and democratic power would not become lost to us.
Maybe then the 21st century won’t abandon America to the barbaric convenience of drive-through windows, statistic-based health care coverage and zero percent introductory APR.