If you ask me, the word “genius” gets bandied about all too often in the arts. And I should know. The areas of creative expertise advertised on my website and my business card happen to be, “Writer. Comedian. Bearded Genius.” Hubris? Sure. But nobody else was going to say it unless I did. Unless money entered into the equation, maybe. (It’s a lot easier to risk being caught in a lie than it is to dole out cash you’ve not got in the bank. Awkward embarrassment, I can afford.)
Writer, critic, translator, illustrator, painter and University of Kentucky professor Guy Davenport won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1990 — the one better known as “The Genius Grant.” So don’t expect me to vouch for his smarts to unnecessary lengths here. Davenport, who died in 2005, was a revered polymath even capable of frying up his favorite fried bologna sandwiches, then eating them standing over his kitchen sink. Entertaining only profound thoughts as he chewed, I hypothesize.
You don’t have to take my word for any of this. The Guy Davenport Reader includes the anecdote about fried bologna sandwiches, as well as generous selections of Davenport’s short stories, essays, poems, translations and journal entries. Several of the stories and essays here also appear in Davenport’s 2005 miscellany, The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing, but Reader editor Erik Reece (a former student of Davenport’s and his literary executor) has done a fine job honoring his mentor’s intellect and interests.
Davenport wrote the opposite of beach reading. He populated his fictions with familiar characters and unfamiliar ideas that demand (and reward) attention. He cast the likes of Thoreau, Kafka and Nixon in stories, but it was as much what their characters represented as the men acting as characters that interested him. “The Concord Sonata,” “Belinda’s World Tour” and “The Richard Nixon Freischutz Rag,” respectively, turn into intellectual writing exercises at times, while a simpler tale like “A Gingham Dress,” in the voice of a naive rural child, rings bells that echo longer.
A favorite of fabulist Donald Barthelme, Davenport lacks Barthelme’s easygoing humor and natural charm, though there’s no denying his erudition or the musicality of his writer’s ear.
Davenport’s essays are even more impressive than his stories. “The Geography of the Imagination” maps exactly that, considering Edgar Allen Poe, James Joyce and Grant Wood along the way. “Finding” and “On Reading” are personal narratives that reach beyond such marketing categories as Creative Nonfiction or Memoir. “The Symbol of the Archaic” and “The Hunter Gracchus” were too smart for me. But I tried. I found myself underlining entire paragraphs, as if I was going to be tested on the material later. I’m glad I’m not.
My favorite of the essays in the Reader is Davenport’s piece on visionary Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, which previously appeared as the introduction to Steidl’s 2005 Meatyard collaboration with the International Center of Photography. Davenport helped curate the Steidl/ICP collection, just as he helped Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society usher The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater into the world back in 1974. Davenport acknowledges Meatyard’s quirks at the same time he recounts his ordinariness and praises the boundlessness of his curiosities:
One could usually find the Meatyards up to something rich and strange: making violet jam (or some other sufficiently unlikely flavor), model ships, fanciful book covers; listening to a superb collection of antique jazz, or to recordings which Gene seemed to dream up and then command the existence of, like the Andrews sisters singing Poe’s “Raven” (“Ulalume” on the flip side, both in close harmony.)
Davenport’s passions are more academic, perhaps, but just as varied. His own verse, for sure, is more academic (read: less interesting) to me than his translations — which still didn’t engage this reader to the degree his journal entries did, because they revealed a brilliant mind at work and play: “There is no reversal possible of American mediocrity, which will worsen until we have total depravity of the idea of freedom. There is no American business: only diddling the consumer.” Davenport goes on to blame this deprivation on Congressional incompetence and irresponsibility.
Here’s a writer who was as brave as he was bright, who refused to shrink away from the good fight. In the vintage Polaroid that adorns the Reader’s front cover (snapped by Jonathan Williams sometime in the last century), a young Davenport appears to be daring the reader to challenge his ideas. Only a fool would take that dare.