Guy Mattison Davenport (November 23, 1927 – January 4, 2005) was an American writer, translator, illustrator, painter, intellectual, and teacher.
Guy Davenport was born in Anderson, South Carolina, in the foothills of Appalachia on November 23, 1927.
His father was an agent for the Railway Express Agency. Davenport said that he became a reader only at age ten, with a neighbor’s gift of one of the Tarzan series. At age eleven, he began a neighborhood newspaper, drawing all the illustrations and writing all the stories.
At age thirteen, he “broke [his] right leg (skating) and was laid up for a wearisome while”; it was then that he began “reading with real interest”, beginning with a biography of Leonardo.
He left high school early and enrolled at Duke University a few weeks after his seventeenth birthday. At Duke, he studied art(with Clare Leighton), graduating with a degree in classics and English literature.
Davenport was a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, from 1948 to 1950. He studied Old English under J. R. R. Tolkien and wrote Oxford’s first thesis on James Joyce.
In 1950, upon his return to the United States, Davenport was drafted into the US Army for two years, spending them at Fort Bragg in the 756th Field Artillery, then in the XVIII Airborne Corps. After the army, he taught at Washington University in St. Louis until 1955, when he began earning a PhD at Harvard, studying under Harry Levin and Archibald MacLeish.
Davenport befriended Ezra Pound during the poet’s incarceration in St. Elizabeths Hospital, visiting him annually from 1952 until Pound’s release in 1958, and later at his home in Rapallo, Italy. Davenport described one such visit, in 1963, in the story “Ithaka”. Davenport wrote his dissertation on Pound’s poetry, published as Cities on Hills in 1983.
After completing his Ph.D., he taught at Haverford College from 1961 to 1963 but soon took a position at the University of Kentucky, “the remotest offer with the most pay” (as he wrote to Jonathan Williams).
Davenport taught at Kentucky until he received a MacArthur Fellowship, which prompted his retirement at the end of 1990.
Davenport was married briefly in the early 1960s. He dedicated Eclogues, 1981, to “Bonnie Jean” (Cox), his companion from 1965 until his death.
Other Davenport volumes dedicated to Cox include Objects on a Table, 1998, and The Death of Picasso, 2004. Cox became Trustee for the Guy Davenport Estate.
In one of his essays, Davenport claimed to “live almost exclusively off fried baloney, Campbell’s soup, and Snickers bars”.
He died of lung cancer on January 4, 2005, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Davenport began publishing fiction in 1970 with “The Aeroplanes at Brescia,” which is based on Kafka’s visit to an air show in September 1909. His books include Tatlin!, Da Vinci’s Bicycle, Eclogues, Apples and Pears, The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers, A Table of Green Fields, The Cardiff Team, and Wo es war, soll ich werden.
His fiction uses three general modes of exposition: the fictionalizing of historical events and figures; the foregrounding of formal narrative experiments, especially with the use of collage; and the depicting of a Fourierist utopia, where small groups of men, women, and children have eliminated the separation between mind and body.
The first of more than four hundred Davenport essays, articles, introductions, and book reviews appeared while he was still an undergraduate; the last, just weeks before his death.
Davenport was a regular reviewer for National Review and The Hudson Review, and, late in his life, at the invitation of John Jeremiah Sullivan, he spent a year writing the “New Books” column for Harper’s Magazine.
His essays range from literary to social topics, from brief book reviews to lectures such as the title piece in his first collection of essays, The Geography of the Imagination.
His other collections of essays were Every Force Evolves a Form and The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art.
He also published two slim volumes on art: A Balthus Notebook and Objects on a Table. Although he wrote on many topics, Davenport, who never had a driver’s license, was especially passionate about the destruction of American cities by the automobile.
Davenport published a handful of poems. The longest are the book-length Flowers and Leaves, an intricate meditation on art and America, and “The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard” (borrowing the title from a painting by Stanley Spencer). A selection of his poems and translations was published as Thasos and Ohio.
Davenport translated ancient Greek texts, particularly from the archaic period. These were published in periodicals, then small volumes, and finally collected in 7 Greeks. He also translated the occasional other piece, including a few poems of Rilke’s, some ancient Egyptian texts [after Boris de Rachewiltz], and, with Benjamin Urrutia, the sayings of Jesus, published as The Logia of Yeshua.
With his childhood newspaper, Davenport launched both his literary and artistic vocations. The former remained dormant or sporadic for some time while the latter, “making drawings, watercolors, and gouaches,throughout school, the army, and his early years as a teacher.”
He drew or painted nearly every day of his life, and his notebooks contain drawings and pasted-in illustrations and photos cheek by jowl with his own observations and other writings and quotations from others.
From college forward, Davenport supplied cover art and decorations to literary periodicals. He also supplied illustrations for others’ books, notably two by Hugh Kenner: The Stoic Comedians (1962) and The Counterfeiters (1968).
As a visual artist (and childhood newspaper magnate) who also wrote, Davenport had a lifelong interest in printing and book design. His poems and fictions were often first published in limited editions by small press craftsmen.
In 1965 Davenport and Laurence Scott prepared and printed Pound’s Canto CX in an edition of 118 copies, 80 of which they presented to Pound for his 80th birthday.
The previous year they had produced Ezra’s Bowmen of Shu on the same press, a double broadside that published for the first time, with a brief introductory essay by Davenport, a drawing by sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and a letter of Gaudier’s from the trenches of World War I that cites Pound’s poem (translated from one in the Shi Jing) “The Song of the Bowmen of Shu”.
Many of Davenport’s earlier stories are combinations of pictures and text, especially Tatlin! and Apples and Pears (where some of the illustrations are of pages that resemble those of his own notebooks).
“It was my intention, when I began writing fiction several years ago, to construct texts that were both written and drawn…. I continued this method right through Apples and Pears… The designer [of A+P] understood [my] collages to be gratuitous illustrations having nothing to do with anything, reduced them all to burnt toast, framed them with nonsensical lines, and sabotaged my whole enterprise.
I took this as final defeat, and haven’t tried to combine drawing and writing in any later work of fiction.”