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Photograph Guy Davenport Jonathan Williams
Portrait photograph of Guy Davenport, taken by Jonathan Williams and appearing in Williams's work A Palpable Elysium, New York : Dim Gray Bar Press, 1997. https://lccn.loc.gov/2021660326

Guy Davenport: An Appalachian Polymath

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Guy Davenport (1926-2005) was a writer, illustrator, translator, teacher, and scholar. A regular polymath in his adult life, his early relationship to formal education was not easy or instinctive, and his story is a reminder that everyone learns at their own pace. He was born in the foothills of Appalachia and—by his own account—did not begin to read until the age of ten. Davenport claims that he was thought to be learning disabled as a child: “all the evidence indicates that I was. I have no memory of the first grade, to which I was not admitted until I was 7, except that of peeing my pants and having to be sent home whenever I was spoken to by our hapless teacher.”

When he broke his leg at the age of 13 and was “laid up for a wearisome while,” his interest in reading—presumably for lack of better things to do—broadened and intensified. He quickly overtook his peers in school but dropped out in the ninth grade. By the time he was seventeen, he enrolled at Duke University, where he studied art and graduated with a degree in classics and English literature. From 1948 to 1950, he was a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford where he studied Old English under J. R. R. Tolkien and wrote Oxford’s first thesis on James Joyce

After returning to the United States and serving in the military for two years, he took a teaching position at Washington University in St. Louis and then began earning a doctorate at Harvard. He eventually took a teaching position at the University of Kentucky, where he remained until his retirement in 1990.

Pen and ink self-portrait by Guy Davenport.
Pen and ink self-portrait by Guy Davenport.
ACQ17-085, no. 54.

Davenport started publishing his poetry and translations soon after arriving at the University of Kentucky. His first book of short stories, Tatlin!, appeared in print in 1974 and, over his lifetime, he would continue to publish more than 40 books. These included a novel, collections of short stories, poetry, translations, critiques, and meditations on art.

Guy Davenport Tatlin! title-page
Title-page of Guy Davenport’s first book of short stories, Tatlin! New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, [1974].
https://lccn.loc.gov/73019359
Guy Davenport’s Tatlin! with Inscription on half-title page to Jonathan Williams.
Guy Davenport’s Tatlin! with Inscription on half-title page to Jonathan Williams.
https://lccn.loc.gov/73019359

Davenport’s translations of Greek poetry are well regarded, and his translation of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was selected by printer and book artist Peter Rutledge Koch for his 1990 Herakleitos. “There is no way to prepare yourself for reading Guy Davenport,” Karl Keller wrote in a 1981 Los Angeles Times book review of Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination. “You stand in awe before his knowledge of the archaic (the cave paintings of Lascaux, Heraclitus, Diogenes, Homer) and his knowledge of the modern (Joyce, Pound, Mahler, Gaudier-Brzeska, Marianne Moore). Even more, you stand in awe of the connections he can make between the archaic and the modern; he makes the remote familiar and the familiar fundamental.”

Guy Davenport's translation of Sappho's poems and fragments
Guy Davenport’s translation of Sappho’s poems and fragments.
Poems and Fragments: translated with an introduction by Guy Davenport. Ann Arbor : The University of Michigan Press, [1965].
https://lccn.loc.gov/65020350
In 2018, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division acquired a small Guy Davenport collection, which includes many of his first editions. Most of the materials were owned by the American poet Jonathan Williams (1929 – 2008), Davenport’s friend and occasional publisher (Jargon Society of Nantahala, North Carolina), and many of the collection items are signed or inscribed presentation copies.

inscription to Jonathan Williams and Thomas Meyer, Williams's longtime partner, from Guy Davenport on fly-leaf of Jonah: A Story
An inscription to Jonathan Williams and Thomas Meyer, Williams’s longtime partner, from Guy Davenport on fly-leaf of Jonah: A Story, New York : Nadja, 1986.
https://lccn.loc.gov/87133633

In 2019, the division acquired the Dim Gray Bar Press archive, which includes several Davenport publications and correspondence between Davenport and Dr. Barry Magid, the founder of the press. A large portion of Davenport’s papers are stored at the Henry Ransom Center at the University of Texas and include his voluminous correspondence with other authors in addition to his early academic work.

Davenport’s book The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays, first published in San Francisco in 1981 by North Point Press, was just republished in January of this year. In the title essay, Davenport wrote, “Language itself is continuously an imaginative act.” Perhaps this idea is what allowed Davenport to connect seemingly incongruous genres and authors in his own writing. The observant curiosity and playfulness that infused Davenport’s works in all of their various forms was possibly a product of his childhood, about which he wrote the following in his essay “Finding”:

People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing. My family, praises be unto the gods, never inspected anything that we enjoyed doing; criticism was strictly for adversities, and not very much for them. Consequently I spent my childhood drawing, building things, writing, reading, playing, dreaming out loud, without the least comment from anybody. I learned later that I was thought not quite bright, for the patterns I discovered for myself were not things with nearby models. When I went off to college it was with no purpose whatsoever: no calling in view, no profession, no ambition.

Following his interests lead Davenport to a MacArthur Fellowship, an O. Henry Award, and a Morton Dauwen Zabel award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. For more information about the Guy Davenport collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, send us a query through Ask-A-Librarian.

 

SOURCES

Davenport, Guy.  A Garden Carried in a Pocket : Letters 1964-1968 / Guy Davenport, Jonathan Williams ; edited by Thomas Meyer.  Haverford : Green Shade, 2004. Rare Book Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/2021659655.

Davenport, Guy. The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays by Guy Davenport. San Francisco : North Point Press, 1981. https://lccn.loc.gov/80023870

Wikipedia page on Guy Davenport: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Davenport

 

RESOURCES

7 Greeks: Translations by Guy Davenport. New York : New Directions, 1995. https://lccn.loc.gov/95004227

Crane, Joan St. C., compiler. Guy Davenport : a Descriptive Bibliography 1947-1995. Compiled by Joan Crane with the assistance of Richard Noble ; introduction by Hugh Kenner. Haverford, PA : Green Shade, 1996. https://lccn.loc.gov/96076154

Guy Davenport: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center. The Guy Davenport Papers consist of artwork, certificates, clippings, coins, correspondence, currency, diplomas, galleys, index cards, journals, manuscripts, microfilm, notebooks, objects, page proofs, photographs, printed works, scrapbooks, sheet music, sound recordings, and stamp albums. The archive offers an extremely full and detailed view of Davenport’s personal life and professional career from his childhood until his death. https://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/fasearch/findingAid.cfm?eadid=01111

Guy Davenport papers, 1960-1990 at Duke University. Collection includes letters from Davenport to Abbot Tom Gleason (1960-1966), and to Duke University secretary Dorothy E. Roberts (1970-1990). Early letters discuss Davenport’s attraction to Gleason, as well as daily life, contemporaries, and other intellectual subjects like art or literature. There are clippings regarding his his career and family, along with book reviews written by him or about his work. Also includes collected contributions to a symposium (1974) on Davenport’s work printed in the serial Margins. Included are the author’s short stories “A Gingham Dress,” “Belinda’s World Tour,” and “Juno of the Veii,” as well as his article “The Symbol of the Archiaic.” https://archives.lib.duke.edu/catalog/davenportguy

 

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Comments

  1. Working with Guy on his translation of Herakleitos was a giant step forward for my nascent project of a “Total Book” conceived as a Gesamptkunstwerk…. A typographic and structural challenge well met by my collaborators Shelley Hoyt and Mark Livingston.

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