Monday, July 30, 2007

Going up?

All I wanted to do was to find a quote, but I soon found myself stuck on an imaginary elevator going up and down through a world of ideas.

I was looking for the passage in The Geography of the Imagination in which Guy Davenport deconstructs Grant Wood's American Gothic, a remarkable tour de force of in-depth analysis. I hadn't looked at that book for a few years, but no sooner did I open it and dip into a few passages than I was hooked--I had to read the whole thing. Again. I don't know what it is about Davenport: I don't care for his fiction and I don't even like some of the authors he writes about (Louis Zukovsky, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson), but his analyses are so original and his prose so interesting that I just can't stop reading.

He's dead now, of course, but I spent some time in elevators with Guy Davenport when I was a Master's student at the University of Kentucky. The English department there and the teaching assistants' cubicles are way up around the 15th floor of an office tower, so we spent a lot of time stuck in elevators with our professors. Now there were two types of professors at UK back then: those who treated graduate students like human beings and those who refused to acknowledge their existence. Guy Davenport was the first kind. I learned so much during those brief moments in elevators that I should have been required to pay tuition.

I never managed to have a class with Guy Davenport and after I finished the M.A. I spent some time on the Earth Mother track (growing cabbages, having babies, reading a lot of things I should have read in grad school), and then seven years later when I began my Ph.D. program at a different university in a different state, the very first textbook on the syllabus was The Geography of the Imagination by Guy Davenport. It felt like a homecoming--when I opened the book, the elevator doors opened and I stepped in.

Truth be told, it's a peculiar book: a collection of essays on topics as disparate as Joyce Kilmer's "Trees," table manners, and Tolkien. "You don't read Ulysses," writes Davenport. "You watch the words." It's always enlightening to watch the words in Guy Davenport's essays. Here, for instance, is a bit on Whitman:

And at the center of Whitman's poetry there is movement. His age walked with a sprier step than ours; it bounced in buckboard and carriage; a man on a horse has his blood shaken and his muscles pulled. A man in an automobile is as active as a sloth; an airplane ride offers no activity more strenuous than turning the pages of a magazine. Dullness, constant numbing dullness, was the last thing Whitman would have thought of America, but that is what has happened.

Davenport himself did not drive, but he managed to know every author worth knowing during his lifetime, from Tolkien to Pound to Jonathan Williams. In the essay "Seeing Shelley Plain," he recalls when he and a friend "assisted in extinguishing Jean-Paul Sartre when he was on fire" in a Paris restaurant:

Pete is a more forward person than I, and it was he who went over, begged the pardon of Sartre, and told him that his jacket pocket was on fire. Nothing happened. The conversation raged on, arms flailing, Existentialism as thick in the air as the smoke from Sartre's confection. Sartre did not deign to notice Pete, though Pete ventured a polite tug at his sleeve. Nor did Monsieur Camus or Monsieur Richard Wright give the least heed. Whereupon I offered Pete our carafe of water, and this he poured into the philosopher's pocket, which hissed.

Davenport's other encounters with literary greatness are perhaps more interesting to the serious scholar of literature. Several essays approach Ezra Pound and James Joyce from different directions, each strikingly original and thought-provoking. "Joyce's Forest of Symbols," for instance, makes a fascinating connection between the 18 chapters in Ulysses and the 18 letters of the Irish alphabet, each corresponding in antiquity to a particular tree with magical properties.

My favorite essay, though (aside from the title essay with its remarkable analysis of American Gothic) is more personal: "Finding" is an evocative memoir of Davenport's childhood excursions to search for Indian arrowheads: "I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons," he writes. "It took a while for me to realize that people can grow up without being taught to see, to search surfaces for all the details, to check out a whole landscape for what it has to offer."

This was precisely Guy Davenport's strength as an author: he surveyed a wide landscape of literature and culture, searched surfaces and depths for details and correspondences, and mapped them out in a delightful and sophisticated manner. I close the book, the elevator doors open, and I enter the world of ideas with new eyes.


Joy said...

I miss you!

JM said...

I ordered the Davenport book after reading this post. It is now at the top of the stack of "fun" things to read.

I was in the PhD program at UK for exactly six weeks before I withdrew (in 1992). I couldn't deal with the elevator to the top of the tower. (I kid. That's not why I withdrew. But that tower was some kind of tall!)