Thursday, December 09, 2021

'What an Apollonian Feast We Would Have'

Publishers call them “ghosts” – books dreamed of, planned, even partially drafted but never published, often never written. One such is the anthology Hugh Kenner was assembling for Wiley in 1976. He first mentions it to Guy Davenport in a letter written Sept. 16, describing the projected volume as “the moddun [modern] vol. of a large anthol.” It was to be organized into “thematic and stylistic” categories, “not as in Norton or Oxford auctorial.” Kenner says he plans to “open the century” with a diptych of novels: complete versions of The Time Machine (1895) and Heart of Darkness (1899). He also wants to devote a section to translation, including possibly Davenport’s Sappho and Archilochus. Eight days later, Davenport responds: 

“What a beautiful perception about Wells and Conrad! If only more scholars worked with maps rather than the view from their foxholes, what an Apollonian feast we would have.”


The editor of the Davenport/Kenner letters, Edward M. Burns, includes in his notes a transcript of the anthology’s proposed contents. It’s ambitious and heavy on the High Modernists, as you would expect of Kenner. There are surprises – James Baldwin (“polemic excerpt”), John Betjeman, Sylvia Plath, The Whole Earth Catalogue (“excerpt on laying stones in a wall”). The last reflects Kenner’s interest in R. Buckminster Fuller, about whom he published a book, Bucky, in 1973.


On Nov. 6, Davenport replies with a list of possible additions. “These suggestions,” he writes, “are meant to be precisely that, and from a brain shaped by yours”: among other things, Henry James’ “In the Cage,” the first chapter of George Santayana’s The Realm of Essence, Edward Hoagland’s essay on hunting bears in The Courage of Turtles, Ronald Firbank, Charles Ives’ Essays Before a Sonata, David Jones’ In Parenthesis, Evelyn Waugh (“something with idiots and savages”), Mencken, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (“the description of the desert with memories of seeing Vesuvius”). All are excellent nominations. Davenport adds comments on some of Kenner’s suggestions.


About D.H. Lawrence: “I wd. reprint nothing of DH Lawrence except perhaps some pages of his Estruscan book [Etruscan Places, 1932]  in which he imagines their life pious and molto italiano under the antitubercular sun.” About which Kenner replies on November 9: “Excellent suggestion re Lawrence. One does resist his shrill fictiveness.” Davenport objects to the inclusion of “La Plath”: “(against whom I will admit to an irrational allergy—literature should give us the courage not to stick our heads in ovens).”


For reasons never stated in the letters or notes, the anthology project was scrapped. A shame. I owe much of my putative education to anthologies, beginning with Oscar Williams’ many poetry collections. If Davenport’s suggestions had been accepted by Kenner and his publisher, a well-thumbed copy would probably be sitting on my shelf, especially if they took one of my proposals and included generous excerpts from Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941).

[All letters quoted can be found in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (Counterpoint, 2018).]


Faze said...

"Literature should give us the courage not to stick our heads in ovens."

This is a large claim. I happen think it's true, Plath, Hemingway, Berryman, Levi, etc., notwithstanding.

Wurmbrand said...

Yes -- the books that never were. There are the ones that were mentioned and the ones that weren't even mentioned, that maybe even never crossed their creators' minds. Of the last-named, I sometimes think of Coleridge's great long poem about the humbling of Nebuchadnezzar, and Shakespeare's tragedy about the Croatoan colony.

Dale Nelson