Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, Volumes I and II, edited by Edward Burns. Counterpoint Press. 2,016 pp., $95.00
Early in this roughly 1,000-letter collection, Hugh Kenner (1923-2003) makes a flat declaration to his new friend, Guy Davenport (1927-2005), about why Kenner would be unacceptable to specific academic institutions: “And one of the Facts of Life is that Hahyud & Yale wouldn’t, I imagine, touch me with an 11-foot pole. I have been too impolitic for too long. One doesn’t pan [Richard] Ellmann and boycott the MLA and quarrel with [Allen] Tate and write for National Review and express public doubts about [John Crowe] Ransom and [Robert Penn] Warren and praise Wyndham Lewis and get away with it; one or two of them, yes, but not all of them.” These two sentences set out, at the beginning of a long correspondence (1958-2002), what will be one of the major characteristics of their friendship: the waywardness of each writer from received taste and from what’s expected. They remain firm friends and advocates of Ezra Pound—who influenced how they riff on the correct spelling of places and people and, more importantly, on how they judged poetry and other poets—and wonder about his health, if he’ll answer their letters, if they should visit him in Italy, and how to present him to the world (which Kenner did in The Pound Era ). Along with Lewis and Pound, there are many references to, among others, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Marshall McLuhan, H.D., Cormac McCarthy, Gustave Flaubert, and many editors, publishers, colleagues and enemies from their separate circles that occasionally overlapped. Each correspondent moves easily and swiftly from John Keats and Homer to Upton Sinclair and Flann O’Brien. Their allusions and touchstones, like their intrigues and personal lives, require strenuous annotating, as seen in the above quotation, when figures that were once prominent either are now forgotten or are eclipsed for a time. Exhibiting patience and thoroughness, Edward Burns has done a heroic task in hunting down details on major and minor figures, as well as topics, and explaining them in endnotes that appear after each year.
It might be asked why a publisher would go to the expense and trouble of bringing out these letters, presented in a handsome double hardcover with box, when readers make less time for reading and when much of what is discussed comes from an age that feels so distant. (The Great Recession, and its lingering after-effects, makes the economic stability of the 1950s through the early 1970s less recognizable and immediate than the 1930s). There isn’t one overarching answer to that question, but there are several that, to my mind, justify the labor behind Questioning Minds and explain why it’s an important collection.
In recent years there have appeared the four hefty volumes of Beckett’s letters primarily devoted to his plays and novels, a one-volume collection of Lev and Sophia Tolstoy’s emotion-drenched letters, the eye-dropper-paced release of the idiosyncratic and ever delightful correspondence of John Cowper Powys (to such figures as Dorothy Richardson, Emma Goldman, and Henry Miller), and the newly released volumes of Plath letters (covering 1940-1963). We can be high-minded and think that such emphasis on the part of multiple presses indicates that the profile of letter-writing is high at this time, and to a degree that may be true, but it’s not the sole truth. We live in a time when anyone can share his or her thoughts and actions electronically (and potentially lose their livelihoods, their friends, and all respect), so reading what artists and academics privately thought, but didn’t say except to a chosen few, combines the allure of scholarship with the tang of gossip. (It helps that over time death disposes of potential litigators and tight-fisted holders of literary estates.) There is the ever-present keen desire to part the veil of well-crafted prose or poetry to see the raw matter that makes up this or that writer’s life, and to experience voyeuristically the struggles that writers endure. As Burns puts it in his informative introduction, such letters “…satisfy our hunger for the secret lives of others.”
In a TLS review of four books about letter-writing, Nancy Campbell reminds us that “[e]ach new mode of message delivery, from the penny post to the telegram, has been seen to threaten the art of correspondence”—it’s certainly an open question if lengthy emails will exist longer and with greater security than perishable paper—and states that “the current nostalgia for letters has given rise to a number of books on the subject, both popular and academic.” The epistolary form often calls attention to itself, especially with pens, ribbons, and carbon paper involved, when a scrawled note on the back of an envelope concludes a thought or where a date stamp on the front provides missing data, and also to the postal system relied on to deliver mail promptly and efficiently. In an age of Snapchat, where a thought is meant to have its small moment and then vanish, personal letters in one’s mailbox almost appear luxurious, as if someone had given us the gift of time (theirs and ours). Professional writers know (and at times fear) their gift giving will live on between boards. Davenport lightly alludes to a “researcher into our correspondence…” but, as Campbell asks, “If poets’ letters are a literary product, can they be trusted?”* On that point Burns states: “These letters form one part of each writer’s autobiography; they record faithfully, and with candor, the urgency each brought to his intellectual and creative pursuits.” It’s every reader’s opportunity to test that assumption.
Questioning Minds deserves an audience because it allows readers the privilege of immersion in examinations of Modernist writing, in witnessing earnest and, at times, witty or humorous exchanges, and in seeing how academic (Kenner) and creative (Davenport) projects arise from chance remarks, are worked out (or abandoned), and, now and then, collaborated on, as with Kenner’s book on Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett, The Stoic Comedians (1962), that features Davenport’s illustrations. Both writers urge or hector the other to read, or write, this or that article or book. Kenner encourages Davenport to do extensive translations of the poetry of a particular Greek lyric poet, and this later became Carmina Archilochi: The Fragments of Archilochos (1964). Both interceded to help the other give paid talks or find university positions.
The bulk of the letters were written in the 1960s and early 1970s. Kenner lived in California, Davenport in Pennsylvania (eventually both moved to other states), and they wrote each other several times a week, sometimes twice on the same day. An important joint meeting place, of a sort, proved to be William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative-libertarian publication National Review, a home for Kenner’s writing since 1957. Burns provides a short list of poets Kenner brought to its pages—Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Donald Hall, among others—and in 1961 successfully recommended Davenport to the book review editor. It proved a good environment for Davenport, but he was, of course, aware of its political stance. However, for most writers, money is money, a publishing credit is one potential way to get money, and everyone wants an audience. He refers to the magazine in October of that year as “the Nazi Review,” which doesn’t provoke a response from Kenner. (Nor does the repetition of the remark the next February.) There are other publications of a more artistic nature that they appeared in together. The decades are filled with their boosting of each other and the testing out of ideas almost in the moment of conception.
Here is Kenner, writing with excitement in October 1965 (endnotes removed, errant typing retained):
Gulliver IV = Plato’s Republic. Sudden illumination in class today. Plato is the West’s Old Man of the Sea. A sound singing within me speaks and sings and tells that the missing member of the trio, Buster, Counterfeiters, ??, is the long-deferred look at Gulliver, freeing mad Swift like mad Ez from the hook where generations of schokarship have delighted to hang him. This work too should have 10 illustrations by G.D., but who will publish it? Assuredly not Beacon [Press], if they can read any omens in the sales of the Stoicals.
In 1971 Davenport refers to a reference by Kenner to something present in the Cantos. After addressing the two-word query he makes his usual leap (spelling and such kept intact, endnote removed):
CHE FUNGE: I think it simply means, “which works,” i.e., serves the purpose intended. “Gets the job done,” in Poundese. Because it’s in Italian, it is either Rapallo phrasing (something the plumber or mayorial candidate says), OR literature. It’s not in Dante or Cavalcanti (I looked), and my guess is Mussolini. I even spent an hour or so glancing through the Duce’s speeches, with no luck. They make you sad, these speeches, with their quotations from Aristotle and Shakespeare, Dante and Washington, with their eulogies to da Vinci and Goethe. When Nixon retires, will he, like Benito, translate Faust? Anyway, my hunch (worthless to scholarship) is that Musso was given to Pounding the table and demanding that something funge.
In addition to the play of ideas, there are occasional lines that capture their individual humor, as when Davenport trashes a particular academic—“[Harry] Levin, for instance, has read neither Lewis or Beckett (last conversation I had with him) and will oilily (smoothing his waxed, Lisbon gigolo’s moustache) opine that they are ‘not worth considering.’”—or when, in his position as director of graduate studies at John Hopkins, Kenner must listen to “sobbing Italian parents whose son in whom they invested ALL did not achieve admission, nor to Harvard, nor Yale nor Princeton, and what were his Weak Spots and what did they Do Wrong? Nothing nothing, he is a supremely competent undistinguished lad. Alas my Lords and yet Alas again.” These bursts of wholly human snarkiness and stereotyping leaven the conversation, and provide additional insight into their natures.
Not every decade is as rich in letters as others, and the drop-off becomes noticeable in the 1970s. Burns offers a reason for a cooling of their friendship in the 1990s: “Several people who knew both Kenner and Davenport suggested to me the reason for this break may have been Kenner’s growing discomfort with Davenport’s homoerotic fictions and drawings.” Yet despite the long silences the interest in the other’s doings and work persists, and their letters serve to illuminate, especially in their most fecund period, how Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport thought their way through issues, at times learning from each other from their mutual engagement on the page. This extensive exchange of views is not capable of being summarized, but that’s unsurprising, and indeed, antithetical to their free-flowing discourse that took in topics high, middle, and low, briefly or in sustained fashion. Any reader could profitably trace personages thanks to the index created by Steven Moore, which is thorough and reliable, and discover connections and insights on this or that artist that show the deep and broad learning these two friends had and enjoyed seeing in the other. “We turn to the letters of great artists, critics, and writers to surprise, to inspire, and to teach us,” Edward Burns says, and Questioning Minds offers these things and much more.
* “Dead Letter?”, Times Literary Supplement (No. 5939, January 27, 2017), p. 26.
Jeff Bursey is the author of two exploratory novels: Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), reissued in paperback by Verbivoracious Press (2017), and Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2016). Extracts from a lipogrammatic novel-in-progress appear in Verbivoracious Festschrift: Volume Six: The Oulipo (2017). His collection of literary criticism, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, came out from Zero Books in 2016.
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