April 9, 2019
f you could pick any two 20th Century literary critics or authors to sit down with for a bite and chat, you could do much worse than Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport. Kenner was a Canadian scholar born in Ontario to scholarly parents. He studied under Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto, then under Cleanth Brooks at Yale. In 1948 he made personal acquaintance with Ezra Pound while the poet was incarcerated at St. Elizabeths Hospital outside of Washington D.C. And, as the cartoon pig says, that’s all folks: it was Modernism for Kenner from there on out, both its advocacy and explication. Fellow-modernist Davenport was a polymathic fiction writer, scholar, painter, poet, etc. from South Carolina who, upon graduating from Duke University, studied under J.R.R. Tolkien as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Afterwards, he earned his PhD from Harvard. Davenport also visited Pound at St. Elizabeths. Davenport and Kenner met in 1953 delivering papers on Pound at a conference at Columbia University. From there began a conversation which included over a thousand letters and, though tapering in their final years, didn’t end until Kenner’s death in 2003 (Davenport died two years later, in 2005).
Counterpoint press’ collection of Kenner and Davenport’s correspondence—Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns—documents this decades-long conversation. The letters are frank, candid expressions of two creative geniuses, most dating from the apex of their powers (mid-50’s through the mid-70’s, roughly). The personal experiences of the two men weave themselves beautifully around intense and erudite cultural observations which it takes time and attention to fully appreciate. An initial chaos of associations, after careful reading and the development of perspective, reveals itself to be more of a tapestry, synthesizing the story of two unique personalities and their adventures through the rich landscape of Western culture.
Beautiful, moving, and lively as this collection is, it’s also a hefty tome, at roughly one thousand pages (and costing over $60). But the temporal and financial investment is well worth it. Modernism—as we find it in the works of Yeats, Pound, Joyce, and Eliot—is the last Western literary tradition to recognize itself as such. It’s also the last to coherently work within a larger Western cultural tradition. It might even have been the last literary movement to put American and World literature in vigorous conversation. As such, there’s something here for everyone. For the aesthete, master stylists. For the biographer, a wild garden of facts. For the casual reader, the glittering personalities. For the serious student of literature, wisdom.
Granular details, both personal and intellectual, combine to form impressive structures of cultural sensitivity. From Davenport’s 12 October, 1963 letter to Kenner relaying the news of the death of Cocteau:
Cocteau, my drawing master, est mort. The only genius of our time who never put over one foot into the world, and France’s only man of letters in their finest tradition: Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Rimbaud. With Picasso he held the citadel of the imagination against the gritty intellectuals; and unlike Pound he really was hard as youth sixty years. It looks as if he died of grief (like Lizzy Browning who could not face outliving Cavour and popped off accordingly) but it is easy to imagine his motorcyclist Eumenides coming for him, or one of the silent death ships out of Frobenius, Banama Tingang perhaps, piloted by the bird-headed Tempon Télon.
Mists gather around the giants.
Or take Kenner’s confusion over the genius of David Jones, expressed to Davenport on 22 July, 1958:
…and the David Jones I included in a catchall-job for POETRY, Feb. 1954. You’ll find misgivings. The footnotes interested me more than what was done with them up- stairs. I could detect no prosodic principle. ((My suspicion, re Wms Letters, is that Wms hadn’t himself really read the book—couldn’t quite remember author’s name—& was just answering a query of Ez’s about some bright young man or other Ez might have a look at. You know how Wms is about young men.)) I am on principle suspicious of pan-mythic opuses. What is in the author’s mind so seldom gets onto the page.
Documentation eagerly awaited, as also something suitably Spectral.
There’s much here to think about, both with and against (I strongly disagree with the lack of “prosodic principle” in Jones). And always, the prose races with a pulse similar to any top shelf prose written on the run. Marcus Aurelius wrote his meditations on horseback; Kenner and Davenport project their messages to one another from atop proverbial saddles as well. These words are still warm with life, having been written in the heat of it.
Davenport writes in his essay “Joyce the Reader” that
It is difficult to think of writers other than James Joyce the understanding of whose works is so dependent on knowing what they read. Once writers have achieved Joyce’s status, curiosity alone might lead us to look into their reading. What we discover is that literature is a complex dialogue of books talking to books. We see significances generated by affinites and associations of great imaginative intensities.
This collection underscores Davenport’s observation, and expands it to include the complex dialogue of critics talking about books talking to other books. It’s a palimpsest, or a Russian nesting doll of conversation. As Kenner and Davenport communicate to one another, the best that Western civilization has to offer speaks to us through them.
Hinted at in the deep echoes of their words is the current denouement of our own collective passion towards artistic and cultural origins. Without such creative caretakers, Pound’s “Make it new!”, first denuded of the tradition to which “it” referenced, then robbed of its “make” by now outmoded “death of the author” trends, left us only with the “new” part of the equation. Which, of course, doesn’t mean much without context other than a particularly banal sort of amnesia. Kenner and Davenport lived that context, and their epistolary dialogue breathes a bit of life back into a world still waiting for the Waste Land to transform back into our home.