Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue

The Exhilarating Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner

Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, volumes 1 and 2, edited by Edward M. Burns (Counterpoint, 2,016 pp., $95)

Last fall, when The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner first appeared, the reviewer for the Washington Post impetuously cast all critical caution to the wind and described this correspondence between two dead literary polymaths as “the most intellectually exhilarating work published in 2018 . . . a lasting treasure.” As it happens, I didn’t exaggerate a bit.

At the time, though, I derived that bold estimate from just the first 750 pages of volume 1 — my editors needed my copy and, as Guy Davenport once said of himself, “I’m an every-word reader. . . . And slow.” Having since then finished the entire book, including Edward M. Burns’s invaluable, not-to-be-missed explanatory notes, I can now refine my wordy initial judgment and go with a simple “Wow.”

For 30 years — between roughly 1960 and 1990 — two of the best-read people of the past century regularly exchanged ideas, gossip, drafts of work in progress, commentary on the books they liked and the people they disliked, scholarly discoveries, complaints about publishers, and charming verbal snapshots of their private lives. These 1,800 pages may well represent the last brilliant flowering of paper-based epistolary culture, what early-modern historians punningly refer to as the “republic of letters.” 

Of these two learned whizbangs, Davenport is now probably the better known, having been the more “creative.” His plummy, fact-rich essays — on prehistoric art, the great writers of the past, contemporary painters and poets — are collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves a Form, and The Hunter Gracchus. In all of them Davenport addresses people “who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Yet these three books represent only one aspect of his MacArthur-honored genius. During his lifetime Davenport frequently reviewed new fiction (he was an early champion of Cormac McCarthy, who became a friend), produced study guides to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, introduced Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote and O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings, and published reflections on subjects as varied as the “intelligence” of 19th-century naturalist Louis Agassiz and the sexualized art of both Balthus (pubescent girls) and Paul Cadmus (well-muscled young men). A paperback collection titled “7 Greeks” conveniently gathers Davenport’s versions of Herakleitos’s philosophical fragments, the lyrics of Archilochos and Sappho, and the mimes of Herondas, as well as his translations of Anacreon, Alkman, and Diogenes. In the breviary-like Logia of Yeshua, Davenport and his coauthor, Benjamin Urrutia, assembled everything reportedly spoken by Jesus. 

As if this weren’t enough, Davenport also wrote highly original semi-historical fictions. In “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” he imagined an encounter between Kafka and Wittgenstein at a 1909 airshow; in “Robot,” he fleshed out how some French boys and their dog (whose name was Robot) discovered the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux. Describing these learned jeux d’esprit, Davenport declared, “Who says tones and fancies aren’t a part of the materials of scholarship?”

Collected in Tatlin!, Da Vinci’s Bicycle, and several other volumes, Davenport’s “scholarly reconstructions” typically juxtapose and interconnect historical personages, arcane factoids, and the author’s own drawings, which regularly “quote” from earlier works of art (Greek vase paintings, Picasso, Mondrian). As time went by, however, Davenport’s fiction began to explore the ideas of utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Most notoriously he did this by mixing philosophical conversations and casual polyamory among a harmonious cadre of adolescents, all of it set down in the cool, matter-of-fact tone of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Though many people consequently assumed that Davenport was bisexual, he strongly resented linking his work with his private life, much of which he shared with the woman who became his executor, Bonnie Jean Cox. In one of the letters to Kenner, he usefully stresses that “the older I get, the more I seem to live almost wholly in the imagination.” 

But what about Kenner? Alas, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, a literary critic’s lot is not a happy one. I once mentioned William Empson to a college class and quickly realized that today’s English majors have never heard of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Academic criticism, no matter how brilliant, seldom gets read for more than a generation or two. Still, one can hope that at least a few college students continue to learn from Kenner’s symphonic magnum opus, The Pound Era, and his pioneering studies of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, or simply pick up for pleasure The Counterfeiters, his ingenious reflections on forgery and fakery in art. This last, like the similarly zingy essays contained in The Stoic Comedians, is illustrated by Davenport with comic pictures, reminiscent of Max Beerbohm caricatures but without even a tinge of malice: Alan Turing on a bicycle, Flaubert’s Bouvard reading to Pécuchet, an encounter between Karl Marx and Charles Babbage (with Sherlock Holmes lurking in the background). Regrettably, Davenport never worked up a drawing — of Ezra Pound pounding at a typewriter while clutching a bewildered T. S. Eliot — for which Kenner himself provided the future caption: “Mr. Pound transmits to Miss Harriet Monroe of Chicago yet another sudden incomprehensible enthusiasm.” 

As older readers of National Review will remember, both Kenner and Davenport were frequent contributors to the magazine during the 1960s. Kenner was also a close friend of its editor, vacationing with William Buckley on the ski slopes of Switzerland and sailing with him in New England waters and the Caribbean. When, in 1971, Kenner brought out The Pound Era, Buckley ordered 48 copies for Christmas gifts, demonstrating both his friendship and considerable faith in a book that was initially ignored by reviewers or lambasted as mannered and overwrought. A decade later, Kenner acquired a measure of tweedy celebrity when he appeared on television with Buckley to parse the latest developments in Granada’s eleven-part production of Brideshead Revisited

A lifelong Canadian who never applied for U.S. citizenship, Kenner (1923–2003) grew up in Peterborough, Ontario. To my surprise, none of his letters mentions the great novelist Robertson Davies, who, in the 1940s and ’50s, was the editor of the local newspaper, the Peterborough Examiner. Kenner first studied with Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto and then went to Yale, where in 1950 he earned a Ph.D. in English with a dissertation on James Joyce. But in 1948 he had already traveled to Washington, D.C., where he and McLuhan spent two hours with Ezra Pound, then incarcerated in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the insane. “Il miglior fabbro,” as T. S. Eliot dubbed him in the dedication to The Waste Land, told the young Canadian: “You have an ob-li-ga-tion to visit the great men of your time.” Kenner took this advice to heart. As a result, his correspondence with Davenport, like much of his published work, crackles with anecdotes, bons mots, and personal memories of Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Pound himself, as well as sometimes acid portraits of their wives, friends, and hangers-on.

By contrast, Davenport (1927–2005) hailed from Anderson, S.C., as part of a poor, relatively uneducated working-class family. He first developed a love for reading when a neighbor lent him a Tarzan novel. In due course, this southern hick would graduate from Duke, win a Rhodes Scholarship, write the first thesis on James Joyce accepted at Oxford, earn a Ph.D. at Harvard with a dissertation on Pound’s Cantos, and learn Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French, as well as a smattering of other languages. While he received some lessons from graphic artist Claire Leighton, he mainly acquired his impressive art skills through patient copying and practice, regarding Jean Cocteau as his true “drawing master.” In fact, despite four degrees, Davenport usually considered himself an autodidact. In a letter he wrote to me, he said, “I could make a good case for having learned practically nothing at Oxford and Harvard. My deplorable education would have been a waste of time except that universities have libraries and university towns have good bookstores.”

While Davenport and Kenner share many of the same interests, their correspondence gradually reveals wildly different personalities. Except for his family (seven children by two wives), Kenner largely spends his time with fellow academics at the University of California, Santa Barbara (later at Johns Hopkins), or hobnobbing with world-famous figures in art and literature. By contrast, Davenport — who always lived alone — much preferred the company of outsider artists and bohemian avant-gardistes. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, itinerant man of letters Jonathan Williams, poet Louis Zukofsky — these are the people he talks about in his letters and invites to the University of Kentucky, where he teaches, often using his own money to help underwrite their visits. I suspect that Davenport saw himself as like them — idiosyncratic and original, with only a tiny audience. Not that he looked for more. As he once wrote, “The great fallacy of the artistic temperament is precisely the expectation of recognition and understanding, which of course is to be longed for, but which the history of art proves over and over again is unlikely.”

To be only a little fanciful, these two friends might serve as emblems of the active and the contemplative intellectual life. Kenner travels constantly and obviously relishes giving talks, contributing to widely different magazines such as Art & Antiques and Byte, speaking to NPR, and taking potshots at his archenemy, Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann. By contrast, Davenport — mildly hypochondriacal and prey to colds and occasional depression — hates to go anywhere, often suffering intense anxiety at the very prospect of a trip. Gradually, he settles into being the self-appointed hermit of Lexington — “I dream of having a lighthouse to keep” — and wants only to paint, write, and potter among his books (8,000 of them), build model biplanes, listen to Mozart and Rossini (Semiramide was a favorite opera), and walk to his classes, where he would discourse on Pound and Joyce, the theory of Realism, iconography, or the Dogon culture of Africa.

GD and HK — as Burns dubs them in his notes — are nonetheless linked by their jackdaw curiosity and a passion for information. Like Sherlock Holmes, they recognize the importance of trifles and could rightly adopt the great detective’s mantra: “It is my business to know what other people do not know.” Just one example: Davenport notes that the orphaned Paul Gauguin first learned to paint from his guardian Gustave Arosa, who often gave art lessons to “waifs and strays.” One of Gustave’s pupils was almost certainly his brother Achille Arosa’s godson, the future composer Claude Debussy. That Gauguin and Debussy might have “plied the brush” together as little boys is just the sort of historical tidbit that both GD and HK love to discover. Frequently bewailing the know-nothingness of the age, Davenport grouses that real scholarship has disappeared because of the vogue for critical approaches and appreciations. 

Are there any criticks after Pound who KNOW anything, but are simply skilled rather in one dialectic or another? 

Not for Hugh and Guy, then, the airy theorizing of the period’s Parisian structuralists and deconstructionists — as Kenner’s colleague Marvin Mudrick disdainfully concluded, “when the French get heavy, they make the Germans look like ballerinas.” What matters most to both these fiercely independent critics are the interconnections, the strands of affiliation, that run through the history of art and literature. “Agassiz taught William James taught Gertrude Stein. Things can be traced,” says Davenport. “Invention,” he adds, “is always incubated in emulation.” Kenner duly points out that “a translation is a mimetic homage” and shrewdly categorizes King Kong as “the final remake of Paradise Lost.” Having studied mathematics, he can also immediately identify the strange markings on Fourier’s tomb, which had mystified Davenport, as “a complete set of Conic Sections.” 

Near the end of this enthralling correspondence, Kenner emerges as a major computer geek, at one point showing off by generating 119 grammatically correct permutations of the 14 words used in the two lines of Pound’s Imagist classic “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Yet even before he brought out guides to “geodesic math” and basic computing, the technologically minded Kenner was sending detailed advice to Davenport about camera equipment, home Xerox machines, and the foreign-language typing balls available for IBM’s Selectric typewriter. Stumped in locating some literary tidbit, he presciently foresees that “someday they will computerize the world’s literature and we shall be able to find these things instantly.”

The two friends don’t always agree. “Craftsmanship is all, when you get right down to it,” observes Davenport. To which Kenner replies, “Craftsmanship is not all. Having something to say is prior. . . . But when you have projects worth consummating, then naturally they deserve the utmost finish.” They argue, too, about the merits of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: Davenport pronounces it a masterpiece, with “a quality I don’t think one can claim for a work of art since well before Don Quijote: majesty.” He should have stopped there, but later gushes that the trilogy exhibits “the power of Wagner, the eye of Disney, the inventiveness of Shakespeare.” Kenner writes back, pointing out Tolkien’s awkwardness in describing characters, “which he rarely attempts; one hasn’t (I haven’t) a clear image of Gollum,” adding, “and dialog largely stylized. . . . I find Sam and Frodo a bit embarrassing when they small-talk or in-danger-talk.” Still, he says, “those proper names are amazing. It makes sense to know that the book grew . . . out of invented words. Mordor, murder, mort d’or, Lorien, lore, lorn, loth, lost.” 

Given the sheer massiveness of The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, it’s easy to think these two friends did nothing but write to each other. Not so: Each had other pen pals. Kenner’s exchanges with Joyce scholar Adaline Glasheen alone run to nearly 500 printed pages. According to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses Davenport’s archives, the hermit of Lexington kept files of mail from 2,300 correspondents. 

I was one of those 2,300, and all because of a table. In a 1968 letter Kenner mentions that Ezra Pound had designed a sturdy table consisting of a dozen pieces of lumber nailed together. A sheet of plywood served as the writing surface. Davenport, who is handy with tools, immediately replies, requesting more details. Before long, he builds one Poundian table, then others. A couple of decades later, my younger self noticed that in one of Davenport’s dustjacket photographs the unsmiling author was standing behind a Shaker-simple but elegant worktable. Since Davenport occasionally reviewed for The Washington Post Book World, where I worked as an assistant editor, I brazenly wrote to him about the table’s construction. How could I go about building one? A letter soon came back, telling me exactly what lumber to buy and the cuts to make, while also providing a schematic diagram and directing me to further information in The Pound Era. The overall point is this: Every day Davenport would courteously type answers to mail like mine,  while also carrying on numerous long-term postal conversations with old friends, publishers, and other writers.

Still, he seems particularly at his ease with Kenner. Both writers readily employ slangy, phonetic spellings: “Yurrup” for “Europe,” “Hoggsford” for “Oxford.” Like other members of what they facetiously call the “Ezratic cenacle,” they learned this mix of the highfalutin and the hillbilly from Pound, whose letters are often scribbled in a folksy patois. Davenport especially enjoys talking like a pirate: “I must lay me plans very carefully,” he writes. At the same time, though, when he compares the modern world to Ulro, he doesn’t need to explain that this is William Blake’s term for the realm of pure materialism and delusion.

The generous Davenport never wavers in his almost fanboy admiration for Kenner: “You are the one writer alive of expository prose who has never written an uninteresting sentence, nor an uninformative one, nor an ungraceful one.” In the letters, though, Kenner finally comes across as affectionate but obsessively focused on professional concerns — cruxes in The Cantos, details of translation, academic appointments, the obtuseness of The New York Times Book Review (which commissioned but never ran his review of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Moreover, Kenner regularly complains, like an academic Rodney Dangerfield, that he gets no respect. In 1968 he tells Davenport, “I have some 250 separate appearances in print, stretching back over 21 years, and the net benefit is that a new book of mine is not even reviewed. Anywhere.” He blames this on the narrow-mindedness of the literary establishment coupled with the Ivy League’s snotty disparagement of his acrobatic, highly individual approach to criticism.

To my mind, Davenport’s letters far outshine Kenner’s, primarily in their warmth and the abundance of personalia. Davenport, we learn, uses a facsimile edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary and can write his name in Linear B. Dürer’s Melencolia is his favorite engraving, and his favorite book from antiquity is Plutarch’s Lives. He reads seemingly everything, from the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris and Charles M. Doughty’s epic poem The Dawn in Britain to Perry Mason mysteries and 19th-century manufacturing catalogues. And could you have  guessed that he once contracted to write a study of Arthur Conan Doyle? I’ve been told that when Davenport was dying of lung cancer he passed his final days touching up his paintings — there are nearly 400 in his archives at the Ransom Center — and rereading the gently satirical conversation novels of Thomas Love Peacock. 

The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner ends not with a bang but a simple tapering off in the 1980s. Some have thought that Kenner, an observant Catholic, found Davenport’s later drawings of boys in jockey underwear or his more Fourierist fictions unpalatable. Yet I suspect another explanation is just as likely: After so much intense shop talk about Pound and modernism, the two men simply moved off in different directions — Kenner into becoming an intellectual-about-town and Davenport growing more reclusive and focused on his almost solipsistic philosophical fantasies. Still, their correspondence remains, as that Washington Post reviewer said, “a lasting treasure” and, let me add now, a reader’s delight. 

Editor’s Note: This piece originally misstated the number of children that Hugh Kenner had. It has been corrected.

This article appears as “A Well-Lettered Friendship” in the August 12, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Michael Dirda — Mr. Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book columnist for the Washington Post and the author of several collections of essays, most recently Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.  

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