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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:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”