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This week, I’ve posted around the uncontroversial contention that literary criticism is nothing if it isn’t reading closely, quoting abundantly, and parsing carefully. In the course of commenting on such concerns, one reader wrote to say he thought I was suggesting that Guy Davenport wasn’t a good literary critic. Although I still find myself unconvinced that I made any such suggestion, if even one reader could suppose such a thing, I feel I’m duty bound to make the following statement: Find me a better literary critic than Davenport in the past 50 years and I’ll buy you a pony.
The confusion, I suppose, comes from Davenport’s multiple capacities. He was a painter, an illustrator, a draftsman, a carpenter; a poet, a translator, a fiction writer, an essayist; and, too, he was a literary critic. But the fortune-cookie wisdom of “jack of all trades, master of none,” surely does not apply in Davenport’s case. He was simply deeply able at most of the activities to which his attention turned. He was capacious, capable de tout.
One piece of criticism (of many) of Davenport’s to which I return every year is “Another Odyssey,” a 1967 review of Richard Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey that first appeared in Arion and was later collected in Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination: 40 Essays on Literature and Art. As much as the essay is a showcase for Davenport’s gifts as a reader and a writer, it’s also an object lesson in active reading and clear writing thereabout.
In Davenport, you get an eye and ear tuned this sharp and fine:
More from Wyatt Mason:
Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:
A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.
Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”