In April 1992 I interviewed the fiction writer Robert Coover in his motel room in Albany, N.Y. He was in town to present an award to a writing student and to read from his work. We talked for several hours, mostly about contemporary writers, and with few exceptions our tastes were incompatible. He admired the work of Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, Donald Barthelme, Joseph McElroy and the usual postmodern suspects. When I asked what he thought of Guy Davenport, Coover said, “The essay guy? He doesn’t really interest me.”
I was naively shocked. I still, at age 39, thought of writers as belonging to tribes. Davenport and Coover were members of the “experimental,” “postmodern” or “metafictional” tribe. By expressing dismissive indifference to Davenport, Coover was being disloyal. I took it personally because by that time I had been corresponding with Davenport, on and off, for almost four years. I had visited him at his house in Lexington, Ky., and, most importantly, read his work and incorporated it into how I perceived not just books but the world.
Today, my naiveté seems almost touching. Coover is still best known for his pornographic cartoon of a novel, The Public Burning (1977), in which Uncle Sam sodomizes Richard Nixon. In my company, Coover was courteous, witty and cordial. As a writer he is an intelligent, sophisticated, politicized barbarian. Davenport, in contrast, was a man of civilization. In his life and work he embodied civility. For him, art was attention paid to detail. His essay “Finding” begins as a remembrance of afternoons spent looking for arrowheads with his family in South Carolina and turns into a celebration of attentiveness, ritual, history, good humor and imagination – precisely the qualities that help constitute a civilized life.
Did Wyatt Mason purposely post his tribute to Davenport and The Geography of the Imagination in Harper’s on Independence Day? What better way to celebrate American culture? Mason even includes the entire text of “Finding,” though I also note a Coover story in the same issue. I bought The Geography of Imagination and Eclogues in New York City in 1981, soon after they were published by the late, lamented North Point Press, and read the essays during my flight back to Cleveland. Never has air travel passed so painlessly, and never have I so resented arrival. Most of the essays date from the nineteen-seventies and are studded with critical asides aimed at Nixon and his cronies – just in case anyone thinks I’m setting up a simple-minded liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican pissing match between Coover and Davenport. The latter played no favorites, remained independent in a very old-fashioned American way, blurred and ignored categories, and published in the National Review and the New York Times. Davenport had deeply felt and reasoned values, not politics. He learned from Ezra Pound’s example, and would have felt more at home with Thoreau and Whitman, I’m certain, than Robert Coover. Consider this seemingly thrown-away sentence from “Finding,” which might serve as the germ of a comprehensive aesthetic or ethics:
“Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.”
“Pleasure” is a critical word (in both senses) for Davenport. He is a writer who reliably gives pleasure, which may prove the reason for his eventual survival as a literary artist of the first rank. Artists, even the greatest, do not passively endure. Uncommon common readers, more than critics or academics, keep them alive and sustain their spirit in the culture by reading and rereading their work and talking about it – not proselytizing but sharing their pleasure. In an admirably generous gesture, Mason says he and other Davenport acquaintances have tried to spread the word “not as an act of friendship to Davenport but to readers that we might try to see that his work continue to find them.” The effort is not without precedent. In an essay in The Geography of the Imagination devoted to the neglected art of Charles Ives (whose Fourth Symphony I listened to, as usual, on the Fourth of July), Davenport writes:
“How long it took us to see Melville! We still have no notion of Poe’s greatness. Our Whitman and our Thoreau are not Whitman and Thoreau. We have a wrong, vague, and inadequate appreciation of Stephen Foster. And the great Formalist painter Grant Wood, who in Europe would have founded a school.”