Sentences — July 4, 2008, 8:37 am

Weekend Read: “A difference of imagination”

The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.

So begins one of the twentieth century’s most varied, diverting, probing and re-readable works of thought and prose, Guy Davenport‘s The Geography of the Imagation. First published in 1980 by Jack Shoemaker’s late great North Point Press, its forty essays on literature and art have provided a generation of writers and readers a continuing education on how to look, think, write, feel.

As Hugh Kenner wrote in the pages of this magazine, 28 years ago:

this review was scheduled when The Geography of the Imagination was announced, and it was not to be aborted by the discovery, when the review copy arrived, that the name on the book’s dedication page was my own. 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.

It is telling of a culture in which the best of what we have is often drowned beneath waves of things much worse that Guy Davenport’s friends have so often felt duty-bound to argue for his uncommon and commonly underknown virtues. Erik Reece, the poet, essayist, activist and, soon, memoirist, wrote the epic and all but unknown study of Davenport the all but unknown painter, in A Balance of Quinces (New Directions). John Jeremiah Sullivan, the critic, essayist and memoirist, conducted an unusually sensitive and probing Paris Review interview with Davenport, in 2001. And, in these pages, I wrote about the last book Davenport published before his death, in 2005. All three of us were fortunate to befriend and be befriended by Davenport in the last part of his life, and have, in our different ways, seen it not as an act of friendship to Davenport but to readers that we might try to see that his work continue to find them.

To that end, as a 4th of July Weekend Read, I propose a personal essay of Davenport’s called “Finding,” from The Geography of the Imagination. For those who believe that memoir, as a form, has become little better than a huckster’s paradise, see in “Finding,” that no form is exhausted when cunningly designed to hide its intentions—in this case a primer on the quality of attention required for critical enterprise to succeed (posing as personal history). And, anyway, “Finding” fulfills the ancient requirements for any piece of writing: that it move, that it teach, that it delight.

With thanks to David R. Godine publishers, for permission to reprint.

Finding

Every Sunday afternoon of my childhood, once the tediousness of Sunday school and the appalling boredom of church were over with, corrosions of the spirit easily salved by the roast beef, macaroni pie, and peach cobbler that followed them, my father loaded us all into the Essex, later the Packard, and headed out to look for Indian arrows. That was the phrase, “to look for Indian arrows.” Children detect nothing different in their own families: I can’t remember noticing anything extraordinary in our family being the only one I knew of that devoted every Sunday afternoon to amateur archaeology.

We took along, from time to time, those people who expressed an interest in finding Indian arrows. Most of them, I expect, wanted an excuse for an outing. We thought of all neighbors, friends, and business associates in terms of whether they were good company or utter nuisances on our expeditions. Surely all of my attitudes toward people were shaped here, all unknowing. I learned that there are people who see nothing, who would not have noticed the splendidest of tomahawks if they had stepped on it, who could not tell a worked stone from a shard of flint or quartz, people who did not feel the excitement of the whoop we all let out when we found an arrowhead or rim of pottery with painting or incised border on it, a pot leg, or those major discoveries which we remembered and could recite forever afterward, the finding of an intact pipe, perfect celt, or unbroken spearhead elegantly core-chipped, crenulated and notched as if finished yesterday. “I’ve found one!” the cry would go up from the slope of a knoll, from the reaches of a plowed field, a gully. One never ran over; that was bad form. One kept looking with feigned nonchalance, and if one’s search drew nigh the finder, it was permissible to ask to see. Daddy never looked at what other people found until we were back at the car. “Nice.” he would say, or “That’s really something.” Usually he grunted, for my sister and I would have a fistful of tacky quartz arrowheads, lumpish and halfheartedly worked. Or we would have a dubious pointed rock which we had made out to be an arrowhead and which Daddy would extract from our plunder and toss out the car window.

These excursions were around the upper Savannah valley, out from places like Heardmont, Georgia, a ghost town in the thirties; Ware Shoals, South Carolina; Coronaca (passing through which my grandmother Davenport always exclaimed, “Forty years come on Cornelia!” and to my knowledge no one ever asked her why, and now we shall never know), Calhoun Falls, Abbeville, and a network of crossroads (usually named for their cotton gins), pecan groves, and “wide places in the road” like Iva, Starr, and Good Hope Community. The best looking was in autumn, when crops were in and frost had splintered the fields. It was then that arrowheads sat up on tees of red earth, a present to us all. A stone that has worked its way to the surface will remain on a kind of pedestal, surrounding topsoil having been washed away. These finds were considered great good fortune. “Just sitting right up there!” was the phrase. But these were usually tiny bird arrowheads in blue flint. Things worth finding were embedded, a telltale serif only showing. It was Daddy who found these. My best find was a round stone the size of a quarter, thick as three quarters, with Brancusi-like depressions on each surface, as if for forefinger and thumb. I’d thought it was the stone on which Indians twirled a stick with a bowstring, to make fire, yet the depressions did not seem to have been designed for that, or caused by it.

Years later, at Harvard, I took the stone, at Daddy’s suggestion, around to an Indianologist at the Peabody Museum. He looked at it and laughed. Then he pulled open a drawer full of similar stones. What were they for? “We don’t know,” sighed the Indianologist. My father’s guess that they were counters for some gambling game was probably right. The Cherokee whose stone artifacts we collected from their hunting grounds and campsites were passionate gamblers, and would stake squaw and papoose on a throw of the dice if all else were lost.

These Sunday searches were things all to themselves, distinctly a ritual whose sacrum had tacit and inviolable boundaries. Other outings, long forays into the chinquapin and hickory forests of Abbeville County, were for the pleasure of the walk and the odd pineknot, rich in turpentine, that one might pick up for the fire. There were summer drives for finding hog plums, wild peaches, and blackberries on the most abandoned of back dirt roads, autumn drives in search of muscadines and scuppernongs, the finding of which, gnarled high in trees like lianas, wanted as sharp an eye as an arrowhead. We were a foraging family, completely unaware of our passion for getting at things hard to find. I collected stamps, buttons, the cards that came with chewing gum, and other detritus, but these were private affairs with nothing of the authority of looking for Indian arrowheads.

Childhood is spent without introspection, in unreflective innocence. Adolescence turns its back on childhood in contempt and sometimes shame. We find our childhood later, and what we find in it is full of–astounding surprises. As Proust has shown us, and Freud, its moments come back to us according to strange and inexplicable laws. If there is a penny on the sidewalk, I find it; I normally pick up seven or eight cents a week (I walk everywhere, rejecting the internal combustion engine as an effete surrender to laziness and the ignoble advantage of convenience), together with perfectly good pencils, firewood, and the rare dime. At Fiesole, when I should have been admiring the view, I unearthed with my toe a Mussolini nickel.

It is now shocking to me that I realized so few connections between things as a child. I vividly remember reading a book about Leonardo, and remember the important detail of his finding seashells in the mountains, but I thought that wonderful, wholly beyond my scope, failing to see any similarity between my amateur archaeology and Leonardo’s. What controlled this severe compartmentalization of ideas was my sense of place. Books were read by the fire or by the Franklin heater in the kitchen; in the summer, under the fig tree, and what one read in books remained in the place where one read them. It did not occur to me that any of my teachers at school had ever heard of Leonardo da Vinci any more than of Tarzan, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, or the Toonerville Trolley, all of which were lumped together in my head as privacies in which no one else could be in the least interested.

The schoolroom was its own place, our home another, the red fields of the Savannah valley another, the cow pasture another, uptown, the movies, other people’s houses: all were as distinct as continents in disparate geological epochs. The sociology of the South has something to do with this, I think. All occasions had their own style and prerogatives, and these were insisted upon with savage authority. At Grannyport’s (thus her accepted name after its invention by us children) one never mentioned the moving pictures that played so great a part in my life, for Grannyport denied that pictures could move. It was, she said, patently illogical (she was absolutely right, of course, but I didn’t know it at the time), and no dime could ever be begged of her for admission to the Strand (Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers) or the Criterion (Flash Gordon, Tarzan) for these places were humbug, and people who went to them under the pitiful delusion that pictures can move were certainly not to be financed by a grandmother who knew her own mind.

Nor could the movies be mentioned at Grandmother Fant’s, for attending them meant going into public, a low thing that the Fants have never done. The Fants were French Huguenots, from Bordeaux. They were a kind of Greek tragedy in the third of a great trilogy. Once they were rich with two ships that bore South Carolina cotton from Charleston to France. The United States Navy sank them both in the time of the War–there was a tale we heard over and over of Grandfather Sassard going down with the Edisto, standing impassively on her bridge, a New Testament clutched to his breast, his right arm saluting the colors of the Confederacy, which were soon to follow him beneath the waves of the Atlantic. His brother wore a friendship ring given him by Fitzhugh Lee, and this sacred ornament would be got out of a kind of jewel casket and shown to us. I don’t think I ever dared touch it.

After the War my grandmother, born and raised in Charleston (she never said “the Yankees,” but “the stinking Yankees,” the one unladylike locution she ever allowed herself), married a Fant, who took her to Florida to homestead. There my uncles Paul and Silas were born with teeth, it was always pointed out, two tiny pink teeth each, for this was the signum of their fate. As they lay in their cradle a catamount sprang through the window and ate them. Sometimes it was an alligator that crawled into the house and ate them. As Granny Fant reached a matriarchal age, her stories began to develop structural variants. She used to ask me never to forget that we are descended from Sir Isaac Davis though I have never been able to discover who Sir Isaac Davis was. Through him we were related to Queen Anne. And the stinking Yankees stole her wedding ring and gave it to the Holmans’ cook, who wore it a day of glory and then returned it to Miss Essy.

Nor could I sing “The Birmingham Jail” at Granny Fant’s, as Uncle Jamie had once spent a night in that place. Nor could we (later on, in adolescence) mention new births in Uncle Jamie’s presence, for at forty he still did not know the facts of life, and Granny fant was determined to keep up the illusion that humanity is restocked by the stork. She was, as my father and I discovered to our amazement, wrong. It turned out that Jamie thought pregnancy came about by the passage of a testicle into some unthinkable orifice of the female. He remarked reflectively that if he’d married he could only have had two children. “And I don’t think I could have stood the pain.”

Nor could we mention looking for arrowheads–the thought that her daughter, son-in-law, and their children walked all over fields and meadows in public would have sent Granny Fant to her bed with a vinegar rag across her forehead. My point is that throughout my childhood place determined mood and tone. My schoolteachers knew nothing of our archaeology. Certainly the Misses Anna and Lillie Brown would somehow disapprove; they were genteel. I cannot remember any mention whatever of history in grammar school. All we learned of the Civil War is that our principal, Miss May Russell, was taken from her bed and kissed as an infant by the notorious renegade Manse Jolly, who had, to Miss May’s great satisfaction, galloped his horse down the length of a banquet table at which Union officers were dining, collapsing it as he progressed, emptying two sixshooters into the Yankees and yodeling, “Root hog or die!” This was the rebel yell that Douglas Southall Freeman gave for a recording and dropped dead at the end of. This grotesque fact would not have fazed Miss May Russell; what finer way would a gentleman wish to die? We all had to learn it: the root is pitched on a drunken high note in the flattest of whining cotton-planter’s pronunciation, the hawg is screamed in an awful way, and the aw dah is an hysterical crescendo recalling Herod’s soldiery at work on male infants. We loved squawling it, and were told to remember how the day was saved at Bull Run, when Beauregard and Johnson were in a sweat until the Sixth South Carolina Volunteers under Wade Hampton rode up on the left flank (they had assembled, in red shirts, around our own court house and marched away to Virginia to “The Palmyra Schottische”).

But school was school, as church was church and houses were houses. What went on in one never overflowed into any other. I was perfectly capable in Sunday school of believing all the vicious bilge they wallowed in, and at home studying with glee the murders in the old Sunday American, and then spending the afternoon hunting arrowheads. After which came Jack Benny, and a chapter or two of Sir Walter Scott. To have mentioned religion while hunting Indian arrows would have been a breach of manners beyond conception or belief, insanity itself.

The rule was: everything in its place. To this day I paint in one part of my bouse, write in another, read in another; read, in fact, in two others: frivolous and delicious reading such as Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner in one room, scholarship in another. And when I am away from home, I am somebody else. This may seem suspicious to the simple mind of a psychiatrist, but it seems natural enough. My cat does not know me when we meet a block away from home, and I gather from his expression that I’m not supposed to know him, either.

Shaw has Joan of Arc say that if everybody stayed at home, they would be good people. It is being in France that makes the English soldiers such devils. She and Shaw have a real point. A dog is a Turk only in his own yard. I am a professor only when I arrive in the classroom; I can feel the Jekyll–Hyde syndrome flick into operation. I have suffered the damnation of a heretic in rooms uncongenial and threatening. It takes a while to make a place for oneself in unfamiliar surroundings. It can be done; man can do anything. I have read Mann’s Joseph novels beside the world’s loudest jukebox in the recreation room of the XVIII Airborne Corps. A colleague remembers reading Tolstoy behind the field guns on Guadalcanal; another finished reading all of Shakespeare at the Battle of Kohima. Scholars took their work with them to the trenches in the First World War; Apollinaire was reading a critical journal when the shrapnel sprayed into his head. He saw the page all red before he felt the wound. Napoleon took a carriage of books with him to Waterloo. Sir Walter Scott, out hunting and with some good lines suddenly in his head, brought down a crow, whittled a pen from a feather, and wrote the poem on his jacket in crow’s blood.

How capable we are off our turf (“far afield,” “lost,” “no place for me,” the phrases run) may be one of the real tests of our acumen. I am a bad traveller. Even away from home with my family I could suffer acute nostalgia as a child. I know of no desolation like that of being in an uncongenial place, and I associate all travel with the possibility of uncongeniality—the Greyhound bus terminal in Knoxville with its toilets awash with urine and vomit, its abominable food and worst coffee in the universe (and their rule is that the more unpalatable the food, the higher the price), its moronic dispatchers, and the hordes of vandals in tight pink trousers and sleeveless T-shirts who patrol the place with vicious aimlessness; all airports; all meetings of any sort without exception; cocktail parties; lawn parties; dinner parties; speeches.

Some slackness of ritual, we are told, that hurt the feelings of the dii montes, the gnomes of the hills, allowed Rome to fall to the barbarians. These gods of place were genii, spirits of a place. All folklore knows them, and when a hero died who had wound his fate with that of a place, he joined its genii and thereafter partook of its life. Our word “congeniality” means kinship with the soul of a place, and places have souls in a way very like creatures.

In hunting Indian arrowheads we were always, it seemed, on congenial territory, though we were usually on somebody’s land. We could trust them to know we were there; country people have suspicious eyes. My father was raised in the country and knew what to do and what not to do. Rarely would a farmer stroll out, in the way of peering at the weather or the road, and find out what we were up to. Likely as not, he would have some arrowheads back at the house and would give them to us. Never sell, give. He would be poorer than poor, but he would not sell a piece of rock.

Here at these unpainted clapboard sharecropper houses we would be invited to have a dipper of water from the well, cold, clean and toothsome. Sometimes a sweet-potato biscuit would be served by the lady of the house, a tall woman in an apron and with the manners of an English lady from the counties. We children would ask to see the pigs. Country people were a different nation, both black and white, and they exhibited mores long remembered. There was once an elder daughter who retired to a corner and tied herself into a knot of anguish. We assumed idiocy, as country people do not send their demented off to an asylum. But the mother explained, with simplicity, “She has been lewd, and she thinks you can see it in her.”

And once we found a black family with our name, and traded family histories, blacks being as talkative and open as poor whites are silent and reticent, until we discovered that their folk had belonged to ours. Whereupon we were treated as visiting royalty; a veritable party was made of it, and when we were leaving, an ancient black Davenport embraced my father with tears in his eyes. “O Lord, Marse Guy,” he said, “don’t you wish it was the good old slavery times again!”

What lives brightest in the memory of these outings is a Thoreauvian feeling of looking at things—earth, plants, rocks, textures, animal tracks, all the secret places of the out-of-doors that seem not ever to have been looked at before, a hidden patch of moss with a Dutchman’s Breeches stoudy in its midst, aromatic stands of rabbit tobacco, beggar’s lice, lizards, the inevitable mute snake, always just leaving as you come upon him, hawks, buzzards, abandoned orchards rich in apples, peaches or plums.

Thoreauvian, because these outings, I was to discover, were very like his daily walks, with a purpose that covered the whole enterprise but was not serious enough to make the walk a chore or a duty. Thoreau, too, was an Indian-arrowhead collector, if collector is the word. Once we had found our Indian things, we put them in a big box and rarely looked at them. Some men came from the Smithsonian and were given what they chose, and sometimes a scout troop borrowed some for a display at the county fair. Our understanding was that the search was the thing, the pleasure of looking.

When, in later years, I saw real archaeologists at work, I felt perfectly at home among them: diggers at Mycenae and at Lascaux, where I was shown a tray of hyena coprolites and wondered which my father would have kept and which thrown away, for petrified droppings from the Ice Age must have their range from good to bad, like arrowheads and stone axes.

And I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. 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.

Ambition was scorned by the Fants and unknown to the Davenports. That my father worked with trains was a glory that I considered a windfall, for other fathers sold things or processed things. If I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures), I am even more grateful, in an inconsequential way, for my father’s most astounding gift of all: being put at the throttle of a locomotive one night and allowed to drive it down the track for a whole five minutes. I loved trains, and grew up with them. I had drawn locomotives with the passion of Hokusai drawing Fujiyama. My wagon had been an imaginary locomotive more than it had been a rocket ship or buckboard. And here we were meeting the Blue Ridge one summer evening, and my father must have seen the look in my eyes as I peered into the cab of the engine. Suddenly I was lifted onto the step, and helped by the engineer—I believe his name was Singbell—into the ineffably important seat. The engine was merely switching cars in the yard, but it was my ten-year-old hand on the throttle that shoved the drivers and turned the wheels and sent plumes of steam hissing outward. Life has been downhill ever since.

But this is not the meaning of looking for Indian arrowheads. That will, I hope, elude me forever. Its importance has, in maturity, become more and more apparent—an education that shaped me with a surer and finer hand than any classroom, an experience that gave me a sense of the earth, of autumn afternoons, of all the seasons, a connoisseur’s sense of things for their own sake. I was with grown-ups, so it wasn’t play. There was no lecture, so it wasn’t school. All effort was willing, so it wasn’t work. No ideal compelled us, so it wasn’t idealism or worship or philosophy.

Yet it was the seeding of all sorts of things, of scholarship, of a stoic sense of pleasure (I think we were all bored and ill at ease when we went on official vacations to the mountains or the shore, whereas out arrowhead-looking we were content and easy), and most of all of foraging, that prehistoric urge still not bred out of man. There was also the sense of going out together but with each of us acting alone. You never look for Indian arrows in pairs. You fan out. But you shout discoveries and comments (“No Indian was ever around here!”) across fields. It was, come to think of it, a humanistic kind of hunt. My father never hunted animals, and I don’t think he ever killed anything in his life. All his brothers were keen huntsmen; I don’t know why he wasn’t. And, conversely, none of my uncles would have been caught dead doing anything so silly as looking for hours and hours for an incised rim of pottery or a Cherokee pipe.

I know that my sense of place, of occasion, even of doing anything at all, was shaped by those afternoons. 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. My father became so good at spotting arrowheads that on roads with likely gullies he would find them from the car. Or give a commentary on what we might pick up were we to stop: “A nice spearhead back there by a maypop, but with the tip broken off.”

And it is all folded away in an irrevocable past. Most of our fields are now the bottom of a vast lake. Farmers now post their land and fence it with barbed wire. Arrowhead collecting has become something of a minor hobby, and shops for the tourist trade make them in a back room and sell them to people from New Jersey. Everything is like that nowadays. I cherish those afternoons, knowing that I will never understand all that they taught me. As we grew up, we began not to go on the expeditions. Not the last, but one of the last, afternoons found us toward sunset, findings in hand, ending up for the day with one of our rituals, a Coca-Cola from the icebox of a crossroads store. “They tell over the radio,” the proprietor said, “that a bunch of Japanese airplanes have blowed up the whole island of Hawaii.”

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More from Wyatt Mason:

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The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

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