My favorite modern American writer, Guy Davenport, has died.
Don't feel bad if you've never heard of him. It was an inside joke that Davenport fans were so few we could be conveniently identified with two-digit jersey numbers, like a hockey team. For instance, David Eisenman, who was re-issuing a beautiful new version of an old Davenport work, was no. 19.
In 1982, I was a junior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Dickinson was, at the time a famously "preppie" place. It was expensive (though ridiculously cheap by modern standards), and most of my fellow students went home for the holidays to wealthy families in leafy burbs of Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. We studied economics and political science, in classes of professors who had held government positions in the Carter Administration. The place was socially, if not politically, conservative, and the general notion of letting loose and acting wild was a beer-sodden frat party.
I'm not knocking it; it was what it was; and I'm delighted that this school saw fit to hire a "poet in residence." His name was Kerry Shawn Keys, and he lived in a cabin in the woods with a very beautiful girl. He had long black hair and piercing gray eyes and he walked with a wooden staff. I met him first in the school laundromat. If you just glanced at him, you'd mistake him for a hippie poet poseur, and I think he knew that about himself and enjoyed it. Because he really had poetry in his veins. His own work was excellent, authentic, even if the frank zen earthiness of it shocked some of the Izod-clad student body. And he had an ear for the good stuff.
I took his seminar that spring. He introduced us to Gary Snyder, Ted Hughes -- tough, modern verse. We brought in our own works and read them aloud. They were as bad as you can imagine, but he found what was good in them.
At one point he quoted a line ... "balanced on the fine edge, now of the wind's sword, now of the wave's blade" ... from Guy Davenport's translation of Archilochos. He said I definitely should read Archilochos. By which me meant I should read Davenport, because I didn't read Greek at the time and as far as I know neither did Keys. So I tracked down "Seven Greeks" at the school library and took it home to my attic apartment and fell in love with it.
Seven poets from impossibly ancient times who survive only in tatters, rags of verse from moth-eaten mummy-wrap and words quoted by other authors. Yet under Davenport's deft touch, the mere chaff of words became poetry itself. Sappho and Archilochos read as though they could have been contemporaries of Hughes and Snyder. I've bought "Seven Greeks" six times in my life. I'm forever lending it to people I know won't return it (and I don't intend them to).
It took me years to discover that this Guy Davenport person had done more than translations. I don't remember now whether I discovered that by reading a review or by accident while browsing bookstores. But I do remember that "Eclogues" was the first original work of his that I picked up. Since then I've bought everything I can find, and it's not easy to find.
Davenport was one of the last living disciples of Ezra Pound. He was a brilliant and learned man, but with a warm, salt-of-the-earth, Southern sensibility. Think Pound without the prickly aestheticism and the Ivy League snobbery, without the fascism. Like his fellow Southern scholar Hugh Kenner, who also died recently (and whose works Davenport illustrated), Davenport imbued Pounds "ideogramatic" idea of poetry and put it to work in prose.
Pound, based on a brilliant misreading of the structure of Chinese writing, thought he saw in Chinese characters an overlaying of real things that became an insight when you saw several things through one another.
Davenport, for my money, does it better than Pound. In criticism, social commentary, and historical fiction, Davenport had the knack of plunging an arm into the stream of time and pulling up luminous pebbles, then arranging them brilliantly. In one essay, "The Geography of the Imagination," Davenport relates the Dogon trickster legends of West Africa to Brer Rabbit, to an essay on furniture by Poe, to Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West" (seen in terms of World War I and the first three stories in Joyce's "The Dubliners"), to the Persephone myth (and its realization in a bit of O. Henry sentiment). It ends with a close analysis of classical imagery in Grant Wood's painting, "American Gothic." Along the way, Davenport introduces, in cameo appearances, John Philip Sousa, Heraclitus, Amerigo Vespucci, the sack of Eleusis by the Visigoths, the idea of Germany, Thomas Jefferson's dinners, the discovery of binary stars, and the industrial revolution. The essay itself is not quite 12 pages long.
One of my favorite Davenport works is "The Wooden Dove of Archytas." In it, he tells two stories at once, alternately, without further elaboration. In ancient Greece, a philosopher-schoolmaster puts his class to work and devises a steam-powered artificial bird that is meant to really fly in the presence of the skeptical parents. And in the modern American South, the descendants of slaves and the descendants of local Indian tribes arrange a mourning service for a beloved pet dove.
One of my favorite pleasures is reading "The Wooden Dove of Archytas" aloud -- my wife and son enjoy this enough to indulge me once in a while: it's a challenging dance to shift the accents, Greek, Cherokee, Southern black, and Davenport's ear is spot-on. The real mark of good writing is that it's better when read aloud.
I understand ancient Greece far better through Davenport's fictions than I do through stilted translations of ancient poems and tragedies. It reminds me of what someone said about Thomas U. Walter, the great Greek revival architect: He doesn't just imitate the Greeks; he thinks the way they thought.
This is modernism, but it's modernism with the dirt under its fingernails. It's made of real things, not abstractions, and it's made in love, of the word, of the story, of the characters, of the reader.
Bruce Bawer on Davenport:
Modernism was Davenport's turf, Pound his hero. But since, in his view, the twentieth century's genius was that it began "to connect what had seemed to be abrupt discontinuities of culture into whole fabrics," he did not stay put in his own period but ventured far afield, seeking out and discerning ties across cultures, disciplines, and centuries (Don Quixote's influence on Lolita; Conrad's Chance as "a translation, into another style, of Dombey and Son"), and writing stories ("Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta") in which personages from far-flung epochs and places bumped up against one another. For Davenport, civilization was one unbroken text: If Apollinaire "could see the modern," he observed, it was "because he loved all that had lasted from before. You see Cézanne by loving Poussin and you see Poussin by loving Pompeii and you see Pompeii by loving Cnossos." Just as the North Carolina poet Lenard Moore had learned to see "tobacco country ... through the eyes of the medieval Japanese poet Basho," so was the young Davenport, an aspiring painter, helped to see his native South Carolina countryside by Constable's English landscapes ("Culture," as Davenport wrote in these pages last year, "continues").
Naturally, Davenport's disciples defy and transcend political categories and every other pigeon-hole. Like the writer himself. Davenport wrote that Lévi-Strauss was too original of mind "to be the exponent of a master or a school," and Bawer correctly observes that "he might have been referring to himself."
Long a contributor to National Review, he mocked academic groupthink —- and thwacked the New York Review of Books for having "done more to discourage good writing in the United States than the Litkontrol branch of the Politburo has in the Soviet Union." But he also railed against conservative orthodoxies, reviling religious fundamentalism and decrying capitalism's obliteration of American communities.
Having watched my neighbors cut down a century-old pine tree, the better to park their six cars on their lawn (they only have five people in the family), I could only wish for the skill of Davenport to invoke down the proper curse on their heads.
Indeed, even as Davenport rejoiced in modernism and echoed his idol Pound's determination to "make it new," he (who never learned to drive) despised modern technology, comparing the twentieth century —- the "most miserable of ages since the Barbarians poured into Rome" —- unfavorably to Whitman's time: "His age walked with a sprier step than ours; it bounced in buckboard and carriage; a man on a horse has his blood shaken and his muscles pulled. A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth. ... Dullness, constant numbing dullness, was the last thing Whitman would have thought of America, but that is what has happened." If Susan Sontag called for an erotics of art, for Davenport —- whose forthrightly homoerotic fiction celebrated active minds in active bodies —- art, ideas, and frank physicality were parts of a single whole (as a character in the title story of The Cardiff Team  puts it, "Finding out about what's in books and the world and feeling great in my pants were cooperative").
In Davenport's view, modern Americans, possessed by the twin demons of anti-intellectualism and car lust, had sold both mind and body in return for a mess of pottage—and forfeited their souls in the process. And he saw this Faustian transaction mirrored in the fate of an apple and a pear tree near his Lexington house that "had grown around each other in a double spiral" of breathtaking beauty, only to fall one day to a developer's chain saw, its cruel scream "the language of devils at their business."
I became a devotee of Davenport's writing -- fiction and non-fiction alike -- long before I knew much about the man himself. And when he died earlier this year, Davenport still was someone I knew mostly by the biographical details he revealed in his writings.
Now, an unsigned remembrance in the New Criterion tells me I liked him even better than I thought I did, without knowing it.
A less academic personality is difficult to imagine. Indeed, although Guy was a gentle, accommodating soul, someone whose unextinguishable curiosity generally left him amused rather than indignant at the spectacle of human foibles, he made an exception for the arid, the pedantic, the politically correct, in short, for the academic —- the one term, so far as we can recall, that was for him invariably a term of diminishment, a term of contempt.
And so forth. That's not the main point of the piece, which is a delightful romp through Davenport's greatest hits in writing essays and reviews.