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August 12, 2009

An interview with Erik Reece

“I saw in Guy, I think for the first time in my life, someone who seemed completely alive.” —Erik Reece, from his new book “An American Gospel:
On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God”

 

In writing my article, I had the wonderful opportunity of speaking with Erik Reece about his mentorship with Guy Davenport at the University of Kentucky. Reece first encountered Davenport as an undergraduate at UK in the late ’80s. One of Reece’s teachers at Louisville Male told him that Kentucky had this “real writer” working there, and that Reece should go see him.

“Growing up in a house without any books, and wanting to become a writer myself, I was curious to meet a real writing talent,” Reece said.

The first essay Reece ever handed to Davenport came back with only one comment on it: “Promising.” Exhorted by this spare encouragement, Reece went to work again — the next essay came back with an invitation to Davenport’s house for coffee, and “thus began one of those weird and indefinable professor-student relationships.”

Reece went on to take many more classes with Davenport, and — like most students — was greatly intimidated by Davenport’s presence in the classroom. Reece joked how it took him “like three years to fully relax around him.” As a novice to Davenport’s work, Reece first tried to read the short story “Tatlin!”, but soon became daunted by the story’s dense structure and enlistment of multiple languages. The young undergrad then switched to Davenport’s essays and discovered the style he would go on to emulate.

I asked Reece if he originally approached his mentor about writing a book on Guy’s paintings (“A Balance of Quinces”). Reece said no, and that it was probably Davenport, who in his unpretentious way, hinted to James Laughlin (the founding editor of New Directions Publishing Corp.) that a full-length book could be done about his paintings. As it turned out, Davenport appreciated Reece’s art and movie criticism for the Kentucky Kernel, and — given the fact that Reece was more familiar with Davenport’s paintings than anyone else — touted him as the perfect candidate. Humbled by the recommendation, Reece jumped at the opportunity to publish with the prestigious publishing house that first introduced America to the likes of Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens and Tennessee Williams.

Being that Davenport was a master of the anecdote, I asked Reece to share one about his former mentor. He chuckled and then offered up this gem: “One thing about Guy was that he had no pretensions. I remember he just won the MacArthur Fellowship and it didn’t change him at all. I was with a friend at Kroger and we were walking out and my friend said: ‘Hey! Look at that bum,’ and it was Davenport walking down the road with a bundle of sticks in his hands. I said, ‘That’s Guy Davenport.’ You see, Davenport liked to walk around and collect fallen branches to burn later at home. He didn’t think it was weird. To Guy it was just free firewood.”

Davenport valued himself as an educator above all else, and one can only assume how proud he would be of his former student and collaborator. In many ways Davenport’s true legacy resides not in his books or paintings but in the imaginations he informed. Reece, now the much-heralded author of “Lost Mountain” and writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky, is quickly becoming one of the state’s foremost intellectual stars.

His new book, “An American Gospel,” brilliantly intertwines his own personal history with that of America’s spiritual past. Reece’s father — a homegrown Baptist minister — became distraught by his own lack of conviction and committed suicide at the age of 33. It prompted Reece to reinvent his spirituality and explore alternative — and less oppressive — views of Christianity. The result is a splendid, eco-conscious synthesis that draws from the Gospel of Thomas as well as the insights of such American icons as Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Jefferson and the all but forgotten genius of William Byrd.

Perhaps the most arresting quality of “An American Gospel” is how Reece maintains an unflinching intellectual honesty without betraying his spiritual core, a feat few writers could accomplish so clearly in this day and age. Fewer still would even dare. This is a challenging and insightful book worthy of our immediate attention.