(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art is the third collection of essays by Guy Davenport, whose literary scholarship, fiction, translations, poetry and drawing have enriched American culture for more than four decades. Few of his essays, in the present volume or the two preceding—The Geography of the Imagination (1981) and Every Force Evolves a Form (1987)—require the reader to absorb as pedestrian an opening line as the one above.

Davenport’s rich mind, attention to imagination’s power, vast learning, and attractive style have combined with his dread of boredom to generate pieces a reader cannot stop reading. Open to almost any essay, lecture, or journal entry in The Hunter Gracchus and the first sentence engages the mind—and the second, and the third. “The Comic Muse,” a review of The Oxford Book of Comic Verse (1994), begins: “We trust seriousness to be the firm ground beneath our feet while knowing full well that it is ultimately dull and probably inhuman.” This statement works on a reader like a fast-acting drug. It says something one feels or wants to say but does not quite have the vision or courage to formulate. Vistas of experience, personal and social, open in sharp focus.

Many of the pieces are book reviews. Studded with arresting perceptions, a Davenport book review can make the book seem almost irrelevant. Typically, the title is not presented until well into the review. A subject sets Davenport’s mind working, his sentences flowing, and a reader eagerly reading. Here is another sentence early in a review of a scholarly book on American Indians, collected in the first book of essays,The Geography of the Imagination:

Custer, who had watched Lee hand his sword to Grant at Appomattox, must have known that his opponent on this occasion, a sachem of sachems who seemed to be a cross between a Roman senator and an owl with all its feathers blown backward, would merely grunt with disgust if he offered him his sword, and get on with the ticklish business of scalping so bald a man as George Armstrong Custer.

The writer Davenport is more palpable than the reviewer Davenport. For him, book reviews are occasions for long rich sentences combining cultural commentary and humor and anything else driven by a fact-based flow of imaginative (not fantastical) dramatic projection. No wonder Professor Zolla, author of the book being reviewed, seems a trifle pale when his name arises a few paragraphs later.

The subjects in The Hunter Gracchus, whether books or people or observations from Davenport’s journal, can include anything from the great writer Franz Kafka, author of the short story “The Hunter Gracchus,” to the drunk redneck, detailed in a section of the “Micrographs” piece, who Davenport witnessed being tossed off a bus when the hillbilly would not stop messing around with a woman passenger’s hair. Open to another piece at random, this one titled “On Reading.” A sentence, near the end of the essay, proclaims “The mind is a self-consuming organ and preys on itself.” One can read the paragraph before it to establish context, or simply quiver under the statement’s implications without reading further. This is the domain of utterance common to Heraclitus, Jesus, Samuel Johnson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lucretius, where common things are illuminated out of their ordinariness. Reading on in “On Reading,” one discovers the theme of conventions tipped over (seriousness is “ultimately dull and inhuman”) again being played: “We do not read enough to have seen that literature itself is not interested in the transcendental role society has assumed for it. The pleasure of reading has turned out not to be what our culture calls pleasure at all.” Reading is not to inform, to keep people “up” on things or didactically inform them on how the American president makes his congressional appointments (what reading does in school) but to develop the imagination, the essential human organ. Davenport tells of meeting an illiterate man:

The horror of his predicament struck me first of all because it prevents his getting a job, and secondly because of the blindness it imposes on his imagination. I also realized more fully than ever before what a text is and how it can only be realized in the imagination, how mere words used over and over for other purposes and in other contexts, can be so ordered by, say, Jules Verne, as to be deciphered as a narrative of intricate texture and splendid color, of precise meanings and values.

The mind, “that self-consuming organ” is freed from itself by reading.

In The Hunter Gracchus, the developed, curious, open eye which Davenport acknowledges reading fostered in him, from Tarzan in childhood to years of reading and rereading Finnegan’s Wake, searches the works of...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)