Reviews — From the April 2004 issue

There Must I Begin to Be

Guy Davenport’s heretical fictions

Discussed in this essay:

The Death of Picasso: New & Selected Writing, by Guy Davenport. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003. 380 pages. $26.

One consistent feature of truly innovative writing has been how it lays claim to a previously overlooked milieu, turning what once was tedium or even taboo into appropriate material for fiction. Flaubert made art out of the shallowness of the bourgeoisie; Joyce allowed the drama of one’s own bodily functions to play a prominent role in the proceedings; Barth made the process and principles of storytelling into viable literature. For the young writer, then, in addition to learning the craft upon which all quality depends, much of the drama of the early years involves finding, or failing to discover, his subject.

The early work of American writer Guy Davenport offers an illustration of this proposition. Author of forty-seven books of commentary, poetry, translations, and fiction, and winner of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, Davenport published his first writings in a Duke University literary magazine in the 1940s. So regular a contributor to The Archive did he become that the magazine’s young editor in chief, R. D. Loomis (who went on to be executive editor of Random House), offered an apologia for the suspicious abundance of Davenport’s contributions: “To some it might seem that he has an ‘in.’ The truth is that Guy simply writes more and better than the other contributors.” Readers acquainted with Davenport’s later essays would find themselves on familiar ground in the May 1948 issue of The Archive. There is Davenport’s book review of The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913, in which the college senior writes, “Many of Kafka’s earlier stories appear here in fragmentary form….This book will, in time, become the finest index to Kafka’s work and life.” Or his essay, entitled “Jackson Marshall: American Primitive,” wherein the young critic makes a case for a St. Louis writer no one had heard of: “There’s a writer whom few people will probably get a chance, at present, to read….Jackson Marshall, 34, is a primitive writer, just as Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin, and Henri Rousseau are primitive painters.” Or his profile of illustrator and engraver Claire Leighton, in which Davenport freezes the image, and idea, of the demanding artist engaged in tireless enterprise: “She taught art at Duke for two years, but quit abruptly when she realized that the co-eds she was working with were not near as zealous and serious about their drawing as they should be.” These early texts provide a jolt of recognition: their authoritative manner and absence of jargon are perfectly congruent with Davenport’s six decades of subsequent literary and art criticism. How surprising, then, to come upon the many short stories Davenport contributed to The Archive and see that they resemble none of the fiction Davenport has written since. Take “That Lonesome Road to Macon,” in which a young black man named Foster dreams of leaving his small, white, racist town for a better life elsewhere:

Every house had its light. They were flimsy, unpainted, weathered clapboard houses. Their insides smelled of tallow and kerosene and human flesh. Every house had its black washpot in the backyard and its flowerpots of geraniums and ferns on the front porch. A V-8 Ford jangled its fenders as it cut into the rough surface rut of a road that went through St. Paul’s Alley with its length of dust and clay. Foster’s hands curled up into fists and he breathed with deep inhaling because he liked to feel himself breathe. God! Why can’t a fellow pick up and pull out of this? What the hell makes it so hard? It’s yours and it’s not yours. You grew up into it (rolling hoops and teasing girls and putting pins on the railroad track for Number Ten to flatten out). You got your first job at the fishmarket and rode your bicycle through St. Paul’s on your first delivery with all the pride a boy can have.

These vivid, tactile details (“putting pins on the railroad track for Number Ten to flatten out”; “A V-8 Ford jangled its fenders”; a road is a “length of dust and clay”) evoke a childhood spent in a southern country town-such as Anderson, South Carolina, where Davenport was born in 1927. Another story from The Archive, “A Visit from Marie,” features a young, newly married black woman who entrusts her life savings to a white woman she knows only slightly, uncertain that it would be safe around her new husband. And in “Three Dead Flies in a Goblet of Wine,” a well-to-do white girl’s long wait for a young man whom she fancies to call is played out against conversations with her florid old uncle and a downtrodden black maid. In tone and language, subject and theme, all of Davenport’s early stories were Southern Stories. And yet, during the two decades that followed Duke, while Davenport wrote hundreds of articles that appeared in organs both obscure (Curled Wire Chronicle, Arion) and mainstream (Life, National Review), not another jot of published fiction arrived. When, twenty-two years later, Davenport began publishing short stories again, they were unrecognizable beside their antecedents. The eight volumes of stories Davenport has published since 1974–totaling more than 1,600 pages–feature only one story, two pages long, set in the South.

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’s last review for Harper’s Magazine, “The Critic as Artist,” appeared in the July 2003 issue. He is currently a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

More from Wyatt Mason:

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

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