“Guy Davenport was, I would argue, the finest prose stylist and most protean craftsman of his generation. He drew at once upon the most archaic and the most modern of influences to create lush experiments that often defy classification. And woven throughout that body of work is a radical and coherent philosophy of desire, design, and human happiness.”
That final sentence is a bit much but the judgment is mostly sound. If you “get” Davenport, if you accede to his artistic and human pull as I first did some thirty-five years ago, the experience changes your life, and not merely as a reader or writer. Davenport’s ultimate lesson, I think, is to always pay attention to creation, never grow lazy, indifferent or sufficiently sophisticated to start thinking you already know everything worth knowing. If you’re new to his work, don’t be put off by Reece’s high claims. “Finest prose stylist,” to an uninitiated reader, may suggest pretty words and noble sentiments. Reece clarifies his meaning in the afterword:
“In an age of minimalists, Guy was a maximalist. His writing was a high wire act in every sense. The sound, the balance, the color of a sentence mattered. Guy was, I have come to believe, the greatest prose stylist of his generation.”
“Maximalist” is misleading if it implies an undiscerning gush of words or flamboyantly empty verbal gestures. Davenport’s deployment of language is always artfully disciplined, and became more so with time. His sentences never show off but are densely packed with information, energy and meaning. Reece’s “sound,” “balance” and “color” are qualities well chosen. Peppered with nuggets of aphorism (betraying their origin in Davenport’s journals), the essays are eminently quotable. Choosing representative passages from the stories can be more difficult. Out of context, slices from the fiction often read essayistically (as with Borges, a Davenport favorite). In a Downbeat-style blindfold test, “The Concord Sonata” (named after a Charles Ives piano suite) could pass for a story or an essay, fiction or non-fiction. It appeared originally in A Table of Green Fields (1993) and Reece includes it among the stories. This is from a passage narrated by Thoreau in which he visits a previously undiscovered blueberry swamp:
“It was dotted with islands of blueberry bushes and surrounded by a dense hedge of them, mingled with the pannicled andromeda, high chokeberry, wild holly with its beautiful crimson berries, and so on, these being the front rank to a higher wood. Greta blueberries, as big as old-fashioned bullets, alternated, or were closely intermingled, with the crimson hollyberries and black chokeberries, in singular contrast yet harmony, and you hardly knew why you selected those only to eat, leaving the others to the birds.”
As prose ventriloquism, this is hommage. Davenport, a writer much influenced by Thoreau’s style and thought, channels Thoreau in an uncanny merger of voices. Read the entire passage with one writer in mind, and then the other. Then try to keep both in focus on yet another reading. Davenport gets the finicky reporting and pedantic naming (“pannicled andromeda”) just right. But there’s another game afoot. The passage, reproduced without quotation marks, is lifted straight from Thoreau’s posthumously published Faith in a Seed (1993), a book of speculative ecology Davenport reviewed for The New Criterion (it’s collected in The Hunter Gracchus, 1996).
The failings of Reece’s Reader are bothersome though hardly fatal, beginning with the photograph on the front cover. Taken by his friend Jonathan Williams, it shows Davenport wearing a t-shirt with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s picture on the front. He’s flanked by shelved art books and what appears to be one of Davenport’s paintings of a young man. Davenport looks like a professor trying to look at home in a mosh pit. Also troubling are the numerous typos, marring the work of a notably punctilious writer. Reece’s selection is good. Most of the best of the essays are here, including “Finding” and “On Reading.” The editor includes fifteen stories spanning Davenport’s career. I wish he could have found room for “On Some Lines of Virgil” (Eclogues, 1981) and “Fifty-Seven Views of Fujiyama” (Apples and Pears and Other Stories, 1984) – sentimental favorites, perhaps.
I’m sorry to quibble. Any effort to perpetuate Davenport’s memory and keep his work in print is commendable. But I would have liked to see some previously uncollected work, perhaps from the dozens of book reviews Davenport wrote for the National Review at the beginning of his writing career or for Harper’s near the end, or from the tens of thousands of letters he wrote, or from whatever unpublished work was left at the time of his death in January 2005. In his afterword, subtitled “Remembering Guy Davenport,” Reece notes his own “raw sadness” for his friend’s isolation. He says Davenport “secretly wanted to be a joiner.” “Friendship is really the dominant theme winding throughout his fiction. Heraclitus [translated by Davenport] said that a friend is another self, and I think Guy was always looking for that elusive true friend, that other self.” This confirms by own impression of Guy, based on our correspondence, my one meeting with him and years of devoted reading. In one of the last things he ever wrote, the introduction to Burton Raffel’s Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments (Modern Library, 2004), Guy writes:
“Human nature is of a wholeness. We are animals who can talk. We aren’t as sane as we might be. Our distinction is that we changed from being wild to being (as Aristotle said) companionable, social, and civilized.”