Moved to read Guy Davenport’s essays by something I had written, Bill Sigler writes:
“This is the first extended reading I've done of Davenport. Besides seeing a little of where you get your sensibility and a lot of how ignorant I am, I see that familiar and particular kind of Southern outcast, the gentleman who likes books. In a society where all manner of mental ailments are considered adorable and normal, this eccentricity is considered suspicious if not downright treasonous, so the road out of it is a combination of graciousness, tall tales, gossip, an obsessive unwillingness not to waste the listener’s time, erudition always served up with a warm snifter of things were better back in the old days, and the certainty of a preacher that he has seen great miracles.”
I spent one morning in Davenport’s company, exchanged letters with him and consider myself an insignificant satellite on the margins of his solar system, though I’ve been reading his work for more than 30 years. Bill’s conclusions, based on a single core sample of Davenport’s words, are shrewd. When I met the essayist in 1990 at his home in Lexington, Ky., I was naively surprised by his Southernness. Not just his drawl, which I had already heard on the telephone several times, but his manners (courtly, but not ostentatiously so, unlike another Southern type), hospitality, humor, devotion to the past (his own, the nation’s, the world’s) and gift for graceful storytelling. I was nervously in awe of him. Here was a writer whose work had helped forge the way I look at the world and who had given me new worlds to look at. It seems appropriate that I write these words on Thanksgiving Day. Bill continues:
“They are very lonely people, this type, which is probably why most of the great American writers (and musicians) come from the deepest, darkest South. He reminds me of no one so much as Poe. Like Poe (or Pound) he has found a generation's worth of windmills to tilt at. But unlike them, he's so gosh-darned funny you scarcely realize you are being indoctrinated to insanity.”
About this I’m less certain. I haven’t been able to stomach Poe since hitting puberty. “Most of the great American writers?” Thoreau? Melville? Whitman? James? Cather? Bellow? And about Pound my thoughts are more conflicted than they are about any other writer. Yes, Davenport is indelibly Southern but also American and cosmopolitan. His tastes and adopted traditions are nobly eclectic. In “Ernst Machs Max Ernst” (collected in The Geography of the Imagination), Davenport writes:
“If I have a sensibility distinct from that of my neighbors, it is simply a taste, wholly artificial and imaginary, for distant plangencies and different harmonies in which I can recognize as a stranger a sympathy I could not appreciate at my elbow: songs of the Fulani, a ntumpan, male and female, of ceremonial elephant drums of the Asantehene, dressed in silk, under a more generous sun and crowding closer upon the symbolled and archaic embroidery of the skirts of God, the conversations of Ernst Mach and William James, Basho on the road to the red forests of the North, Sir Walter Scott at dinner with Mr. Hinze, his cat, sitting by his plate.”
Nothing human was alien to Guy Davenport but meanness and vulgarity.