It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Guy Davenport, poet, novelist, book illustrator, essayist nonpareil, raconteur indefatigable, master of humane inquiry. Guy was entirely sui generis, an autodidact of the old school who managed to sample Duke, Merton College at Oxford, and Harvard University (Ph.D. on Ezra Pound) with no visible deformation. He taught for decades: at Washington University in St. Louis, at Haverford College, and at the University of Kentucky from 1963 until 1991 when a MacArthur “genius” award (for once they got it right) set him free, free at last. Yet if Guy was in, he most certainly was not of, the academy. 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.

At first blush, Guy’s anti-academic animus might seem odd, for few people were more learned in so many fields than Guy Davenport. Part classicist, part visual artist, entirely a man of letters, Guy was as at home in the niceties of botanical taxonomy as he was in the world of the Greek Anthology. He had rummaged around expertly in the arcana of Pound’s Cantos, had followed Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, and what he didn’t know about Kafka or Proust or Henry James wasn’t worth knowing. He had a keen eye for etymology, not just in the dictionary sense of word derivations, but in what we might call (though Guy would never have called) the metaphysical sense: he knew that the etymology of “etymology” was the science or logos of the true (etumos) meanings of words, and it was that inexhaustible, ever-wily beast which was his ultimate intellectual prey. Nevertheless, though he was a meticulous, almost a persnickety, scholar—quick to register a misspelling, grammatical solecism, rote usage, or factual error—he was too firmly grounded in the felt pulse of what he studied to be called “academic.” It is not quite right to say that Guy lived through the ideas he entertained—there is a sense in which George Eliot’s supreme pedant, Mr. Casaubon, did that. Rather, he understood that life is animated, for good and for ill, by ideas, and that a scrupulous regard for reality is the necessary accomplice of any genuine intellectual pursuit. Guy was a dazzlingly imaginative writer, but one whose final allegiance was to truth. Hence his respect for science, for the factual, for the ascertainable details of whatever subject happened to embrace him. It is telling that his first book, published in 1963, was about the nineteenth-century American naturalist Louis Agassiz.

Guy was the recipient of many awards and honors: the MacArthur, as mentioned, an O. Henry Award, a Morton Dauwen Zabel award for fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and many others. He wrote more than a score of books and contributed hundreds of essays and reviews to a galaxy of magazines: Harper’s, National Review (to which he contributed regularly in the 1960s and 1970s), and many “little magazines.” Guy was also a frequent contributor to The New Criterion, beginning in 1987 with a review of a translation of Proust’s reflections on reading Ruskin.

Proust, Hawthorne, Kafka, Darwin, the naturalist and travel writer William Bartram, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, Augustus John, some recently published scientific writings by Thoreau, Gertrude Stein, Stephen Crane, Nabokov’s lepidoptery, and The Oxford Book of Comic Verse: Guy juggled a multiplicity of subjects for The New Criterion. In 1992, in a review of a biography about Hawthorne, Guy summed up our master of Gothic fastidiousness in words that seem to us to apply to Davenport as much as to Hawthorne: “Quite early he learned to live in his imagination, though he also had the rare gift of living sanely and evenly in the practical world, taking his time with a patient diffidence.” That combination of imaginative zeal, level sanity, and infinite patience is a quality that stamps everything Guy wrote.

One of the pleasures of reading Guy Davenport is learning things. This may sound like small beer, but think about it: how often do you actually learn something from reading an essay or review? Did you know that Thoreau invented and marketed the lead pencil? (He also, Guy tells us, invented raisin bread.) “The fascination this text holds for us,” Guy wrote about Faith in a Seed,

is precisely Thoreau’s detective work in finding out how squirrels disperse seeds by making their winter store, and how birds drop part of their dinner, how winter wind sails seeds across snow, how “parachute seeds” ride the air. (The phrase is startling until we realize that we are in the age of ballooning, and thus of parachutes, long before the airplane.) Sherlock Holmes, we remember, invoked Thoreau in the matter of circumstantial evidence, “as when we find a trout in the milk.”
In 1991, Guy reviewed a biography of Charles Darwin for us. The book was by a doctor called John Bowlby. Darwin suffered terribly from various ailments throughout his life. “Despite his genius,” Guy noted, Darwin “was a sufferer of neuroses, constant illnesses (he vomited every afternoon at four), a kind of hysteria that took the form of gasping and palpitations, and seizures of depression in which he uncontrollably wept.” Bowlby attempted a diagnosis and came up with Chagas Disease—plausible enough, since Darwin himself records being stung by an insect that could have carried the disease. The problem, Guy observes, is that Darwin’s symptoms began six months earlier.

Bowlby’s book sounds plenty interesting. But as usual, Guy brings an eye attuned to the extravagant implausibilities of the everyday. Darwin’s sailing on The Beagle, he tells us, “was a stroke of fate.”

The Beagle had a naturalist (he abandoned ship in a snit at the first opportunity). Darwin was along for the very British reason that the captain was a gentleman who could only associate with other gentlemen, and on a four-year scientific journey one wants company. Captain FitzRoy (Bowlby spells him correctly, and is practically alone in so doing) might have been invented by Dickens. His mind was narrow, he had not a scrap of imagination, and he was a pompous ass. Though he rose to admiral and governed New Zealand and sat on many naval boards, he was driven mad by knowing that he had harbored and dined with an atheist. While Bishop Wilberforce debated Huxley at Oxford, FitzRoy paced with a Bible before the crowd outside, shouting “The Book! The Book!” He later slit his own throat.

Guy couldn’t take up a subject without leaving it richer. He deposited his learning with casual profligacy. There is always a name, a poem, a fact, an anecdote you did not know but wish you did (are glad, now, you do). He also also had something valuable to say about the subject he was discussing. (Again, this is not as common as you might think.) Reviewing The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, for example, Guy offers plenty of comic verses for our delectation that are not found in the anthology. But he also has some astute things to say about the task, the job of comedy. Satire is like a wasp. It causes, and is meant to cause, pain as well as elicit laughter. So it is not surprising that satire has often found itself on the wrong side of the law. “The Romans outlawed it,” Guy notes,

and several talented satirists found themselves living beyond the Oxus. But satire’s little sister, Comedy, was civilized quite early and given the run of the house. Our understanding is that satire is sneaky, unfair, and takes no prisoners. He knows right from wrong, he has stern morals, and leaves bruises. Comedy is a free spirit, full of fun, and has no intention of explaining herself. In fact, much of her charm is in her mystery, in eluding the serious as successfully as a kitten who doesn’t wish to be caught.
And how’s this as a summary of Gertrude Stein’s oeuvre? “It is the very literate equivalent of children playing in a sandbox. They are happy, busy, purposeful in their own way, but only angels know what they think they’re doing.” Guy’s piece on la Stein also contains this splendid bit of sociological research:
A few months ago [this was in 1993] Gertrude Stein was at a Lexington, Kentucky, bookstore, promoting her latest. I learned this by overhearing one sorority sweetheart shouting to another on campus: “It was fab seeing her in person! I mean, you know, Gertrude Stein!”

It was Gloria Steinem at the bookstore, but what other American writer, forty-seven years dead, can claim a place in the sparse learning of the intrepidly illiterate?

Guy’s last piece for us appeared in January 2004. It was an affectionate remembrance of his friend Hugh Kenner, the polymathic literary critic who had died a couple months before. Kenner’s articulateness was proverbial, as was his garrulousness. Guy recalls his friend visiting once and “talking for three days.”

We suspect Hugh Kenner was a very different sort of personality from Guy Davenport. But there were some amusing congruencies. In the 1970s, Guy recalls, Marshall McLuhan had written that maps came in at “such-and-such a date in the Renaissance, before which we had no geographical sense. I watched Hugh type a postcard to McLuhan: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Yours, Hugh.” That’s a postcard Guy could have written and probably wished he had. But the real congruence between the two is summed up in Guy’s commendation of his friend’s literary style.

Hugh’s prose remains the envy of everybody who has ever tried to write. It is elegant in its hard simplicity, in its diction, and in its adherence to tradition. It modulated from book to book… . I have a feeling that most of Hugh’s prose is on two levels. The upper one is as clear and forthright as Hazlitt; the second one is Hugh talking to himself more intelligently than he is willing to share with a half-literate public.
How clever (and how characteristic) of Guy to embed that bit of autobiography in his encomium for a departed friend.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 1
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now