On Guy Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus

by Guy Davenport.
Counterpoint Press, $25.


Sentence by sentence, Guy Davenport’s essays remind us of what matters.  Whether his subject is Saint Paul or Charles Darwin, Louis Armstrong or Walt Whitman, Pentecostalist snake handlers or the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, his constant purpose is to celebrate those who have illuminated truth, done good, and created beauty – and to remind us that the true, the good, and the beautiful are not divergent goals, but paths to the same end.  In his new collection, The Hunter Gracchus, Davenport writes of Thoreau: “his descriptions are beautiful not because he is out to write poetic prose but because they are accurate and meticulously responsible as to information.”  Beauty is truth, truth beauty.  Davenport reminds us that one element of bad writing is inexactitude, which is a kind of untruth, and that this failing has a moral significance; like Shaker furniture (which demonstrates, he says, that “beauty and usefulness are the same thing”), his own writing is clean, balanced, and precise, and thus has about it a quality of not only comeliness but virtue.

            Davenport never considers anything in isolation: for him, everything is part of a larger picture.  (“We must ask about the family,” he states, “to know the individual.”)  Indifferent to established categories and canons – he ranks O. Henry above Hemingway – and to all ideologies, he routinely points out illuminating parallels and lines of influence across boundaries of time, culture, and discipline.  Constable, he claims, “showed me South Carolina woods and fields” when he began painting landscapes in his boyhood; in the same way, the poet Lenard Moore learned to see “North Carolina tobacco country…through the eyes of the medieval Japanese poet Basho.”

            Davenport’s seeming contradictions are manifold.  He is a paragon of intellectual and moral seriousness, and yet he condemns seriousness as “ultimately dull and probably inhuman.”  Perhaps the most mature writer in North America, he is also our most convincing observer and audacious celebrator of youth.  He is at once a passionate conservative, who makes it his business to help preserve the best that has been thought and written, and a liberal who recognizes that the job of a civilized mind is to continually re-examine old ideas and artifacts in the light of fresh experience.  Though many would consider him an extreme liberal on sexual issues, he writes that “modern liberals miss the whole Greek point” about same-sex sex; “they want to legalize (in the name of freedom) what the Greeks thought slightly absurd” – namely, sexual relationships between adult men – “and to repress wholly (in the name of psychology) the Greek erotic game of loving children.”

            Even as he claims that “religion has yet to put down even a tentative root in my soul,” Davenport writes admiringly about Thomas Merton and the Shakers, describes the heroes of several of his own short stories as “spiritual forgers,” and routinely characterizes artistic creation in religious terms, referring (admiringly) to David Jones’ struggle to become “one of those who depict the spirit in its search for form, order, truth, God.”  Regarding the apparent contradiction between his enthusiasm for the Shakers, who renounced sex entirely, and his admiration for the philosopher Charles Fourier, who argued that the key to utopia lay in total sexual freedom, Davenport notes that “there is a strange sense in which the Shakers’ total abstinence from the flesh and Fourier’s total indulgence serve the same purpose.  Each creates a psychological medium in which frictionless cooperation reaches a maximum possibility.  It is also wonderfully telling that the modern world has no place for either.”

            Indeed, Davenport, the ultimate modernist, has little good to say about the modern world.  Radical in his enthusiasm for new ways of envisioning reality (“Make it new!” is his cry, as it was his hero Ezra Pound’s), he is nonetheless a Luddite of the first water when it comes to telephones, automobiles, and technology generally.  In his view, “the most evil perversion of humanity since chivalry” has been the replacement of the human body by the automobile (a complaint registered several times in this book), and the 20th century’s “great event has been the destruction of the city, and therefore of public life, by the automobile.”  (Coming in second is “the obliteration of the family by television.”)

            Davenport also deplores modern buildings.  How, he asks in an essay addressed to architects, have so many of us ended up working in unlivable, inhuman office towers?  “What was there in modernity that it went so wrong?  Why did our dream of great mobility turn into a nightmare of paralysis?  Could you not work around the bankers and their greed?”  Yet Davenport says nothing of architects and their hubris.  How many designers of office towers, one wonders, truly see beauty and usefulness as synonyms?  Davenport reveres Pound, but slights the role of Pound-style elitism in the unlivability of many contemporary structures.

            Davenport’s earlier essay collections, The Geography of the Imagination (1981) and Every Force Evolves a Form (1987), were marked by Apollonian equipoise; in The Hunter Gracchus (the title is borrowed from a Kafka story) he more freely bares his rage and despair over the junkiness of American culture.  Among the subjects of his journal entries (one wishes that he would publish a whole book of them) is his esteem for the Danes, who deplore violence, read a lot, and embrace both Christianity and the pleasures of the flesh.  In a haunting passage, he describes a beautiful apple and pear tree near his house in Lexington, Kentucky, “that had grown around each other in a double spiral,” but that were cut down by a developer, the whining growl of whose power saw “is surely the language of devils at their business.”  For Davenport (author of a short-story collection entitled Apples and Pears), that act of destruction is the ultimate symbol of modern America’s crisis of values.  Another mark of that crisis, certainly, is the relative obscurity of Guy Davenport.  In the English language, there is no living writer of non-fiction prose who is more diverse in his interests, more consistent in his rigor, or, sentence by sentence, more engaging both as a thinker and as an artist.