NOVEMBER 21, 2018
READING A WRITER’S LETTERS to a beloved friend is the best way to get into that author’s head. Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport were soulmates, deeply devoted to modern art and literature. They were poet-critics — a term Marjorie Perloff fastened to Kenner — “whose books and essays place [them] among writers rather than academic commentators.” (As Davenport described his method: “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.”) The bulk of the letters collected in these two compelling volumes are from 1961–’71 — almost two-thirds of the 2,000 pages — with 1961–’66 taking up half. Editor Edward M. Burns has done a monumental job assiduously annotating this vast correspondence.
The crux of their mutual bewitchment occurs in 1963, just as the major American Modernists they revered — Williams, Eliot, Moore, and Pound — start to die off. Though there are glancing references in the letters to contemporary persons and events, such as Vietnam and Nixon, both writers were much more interested in issues of art and poetry — the source of the term “wine-dark” in Pound’s “Canto II” or the films of Stan Brakhage. Pound’s work was a particular obsession (“He was a renaissance,” Davenport stated simply). Independent of each other, both men visited the aging poet in St. Elizabeths Hospital during his 12-year incarceration there and, later, in Italy during his self-imposed exile.
For both Davenport and Kenner, modern painting had fundamentally changed writing itself. They were particularly interested in the discovery of prehistoric cave drawings in Europe, which so deeply influenced Picasso. Davenport, himself a draughtsman, had an ingrained respect for visual art, but Kenner came to this view in his own way. Kenner believed the drawings Davenport did for Kenner’s Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians (1962) and The Counterfeiters (1967) were as important as the texts; he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Davenport 50 percent of the royalties for the first book.
Kenner (born in 1923, four years before Davenport) studied under Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto before going to Yale, where at the age of 26 he wrote The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951) over the course of a summer break. This book was central to Davenport’s own thesis at Harvard on the first 30 Cantos, delivered in 1961 and published in 1983 as Cities on Hills. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Davenport came from South Carolina, “having been born into the black Depression and raised in picturesque poverty, homely morals, and love.” The two men met in 1953 but didn’t start seriously communicating until 1961. They visited each other only around a dozen times; in one early meeting, they conversed avidly for 30 hours. Kenner tried to arrange for Davenport to join him at UC Santa Barbara, where he had a teaching position, but the younger writer landed a job at the University of Kentucky, near his family, where he remained for three decades. Already an established writer, Kenner helped secure a reviewing gig for Davenport with the National Review; later they would occasionally review each other’s works. Of Davenport’s 1981 book The Geography of the Imagination, Kenner said: “If having known a man for twenty-five years is to disqualify one from talking about his work, then our literary culture will have to be left to hermits.”
The frenetic pace of their letter writing is astounding, with sometimes two or three letters piling up in a few days before the answers to the originals were written. Some of the letters are long, some stark and confessional, yet all display good humor as well as a unique patois — “Tennyrate” for “at any rate,” “Hahvud” for “Harvard,” “nuvvle” for “novel.” Occasionally one will poach the other’s words, as when Kenner used Davenport’s comment that “[t]hought is a labyrinth” as the final sentence of The Pound Era (1971). Kenner also frequently asks the classically trained Davenport — who brilliantly translated numerous works of ancient poetry — about Greek and Latin meanings. For his part, Davenport usually defers to his more prolific friend, claiming he could hardly call himself a writer compared to someone who averaged a book every two years over a three-decade stretch.
There is the usual grousing about the literary world, especially critics who couldn’t stomach Pound or who couldn’t see the importance of Beckett. They complain about reviewers who attacked them based on all sorts of wrongheaded ideas (e.g., accusing Davenport of being a “cryptoconservative” when he claimed to always vote Democratic). Neither man suffered fools gladly, but they also yearned for recognition. Kenner received the brunt of bad press, including scorn for his supposedly mannered “style,” in which he deliberately aped the style of his subjects. Davenport, more combative but also more sickly (various maladies are bemoaned), struggled to see his fiction (mostly short stories — Kenner dubbed them “assemblages”) skewered by the major critics of the day.
The volumes are filled with little gems of observation, as when Kenner writes that the “whole point of a book is what happens in the five minutes after one has finished reading it.” Secrets are disclosed, as when Davenport tells of how his father died in the hospital and of his admiration for him, despite their differences (“I never ‘rebelled’ and he never coerced”). Kenner responds with mystic wisdom: “To have done his part in making you what you are, and to have so much grown beyond the natural concerns of his generation as to take an understanding satisfaction in contemplating your place in yours, these are two substantial moral achievements for which his memory should be honored.” Later, he thanks Davenport for caring for his five children after his first wife died of cancer, helping him “to realize what an achievement family is: and it is her achievement. They are, singly and collectively, her memorial. Everything perhaps perishes but tradition.”
These letters are also an elegy for a world not dominated by technology, where one had to physically track things down — as in their quest for the copy of Eliot’s The Waste Land that Pound sedulously edited, which occupied them in the early years (it was discovered at the New York Public Library in 1968), or the details Kenner sought from Davenport when the latter retraced Pound’s visit to his childhood home (“What part of town could Pound see from the porch?”). Such dogged modes of research are now in eclipse in our digital world. We can thus be grateful for an editor like Burns, whose scholarship here includes tracing the lost history of Lester Littlefield, a hanger-on of Pound and Marianne Moore, who sent the former books at St. Elizabeths and rented the house in Venice once occupied by Olga Rudge (Pound’s late companion). Littlefield badgered Kenner and Davenport with critical and raving letters, sometimes 40 pages long. Google him and there is barely anything, a stray sentence in a book result or two, but Burns gives him an almost three-page footnote — an internet-resistant epitaph, at least until these volumes are digitized.
From 1979 until Kenner’s death in 2003, there is a large drop-off in the friends’ correspondence — a great mystery, yet the greatest of life: friends growing apart. According to Burns, people who knew both men believe that Davenport’s homoerotic fictions put Kenner off, though as early as 1961, Davenport shared details of his seeking out young men on various trips. He referred to them as “Erewhonians,” from Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon, about a utopia where people fear that machines will develop consciousness. Also, Davenport grew more hermetic as he aged, responding to Kenner’s query if he would do a lecture with a steely “Tell your students I do not travel.” Certainly they spoke on the phone, but in those last 25 years, it is almost always Kenner writing to draw his friend out, and often Davenport doesn’t respond — their revels had ended. Did Davenport feel rejected? In the last letter, Kenner writes: “We have been apart too long.” He died 14 months later.
Over the course of their long careers, Davenport and Kenner helped to shape the best ways of reading difficult works of modernist poetry and prose — not only Pound but also Joyce, Eliot, Beckett, and many others. Kindred spirits reminiscent of Emerson and Thoreau, these “questioning minds” were two of the most refined artistic sensibilities this continent has ever produced. Readers can be grateful that their complex friendship has been so beautifully enshrined in Burns’s scrupulous volumes.