Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845

Guy Mattison Davenport, Jr., is accomplished as a short-story writer, essayist, and translator and is successful and appreciated as a critic, lecturer, editor, poet, and scholar. He also qualifies as an illustrator and draftsman and has written libretti. He was born to Guy Mattison Davenport, an express agent, and his wife, Marie Fant Davenport. As a youth, he was studious and interested in classical literature. After completing a B.A. at Duke University in 1948, he was a Rhodes Scholar and earned a B.Litt. at the University of Oxford in 1950; he then served in the U.S. Army for two years, after which he taught English at Washington University in St. Louis. He received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1961 and began a long teaching career at the University of Kentucky in 1963.

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That Davenport has never owned or driven an automobile suggests his independence from prevailing norms—a quality that is evident in his writing as well. His most significant contribution to the arts is assuredly his short fiction. Despite the variegated nature of Davenport’s fiction, his stories share certain common features: They are experimental, modernist, and learned. Davenport’s stories dispense with much of the machinery of the traditional short story; often as not, the reader cannot initially discern who the speaker is, and there is little in the sense of action, character, or development that can be read as plot. A typical Davenport story might juxtapose narratives set in different centuries, with no explicit connection, asking the reader to intuit the relation between them. Such devices clearly identify Davenport as a modernist. At the same time, he fills his works with allusions—particularly classical ones—from history, religion, art, and science, such that his scholarship is a bedrock of the fiction. Some reviewers have found fault with the conspicuous erudition of Davenport’s stories, but this conclusion is presumptuous and lazy, for the very learnedness of his stories provides the foundation that sustains them.

Davenport himself has described his stories as “assemblages.” What he means by this term, adapted from modern art, is readily apparent: He assembles into a coherent whole a combination of story, essay, anecdote, and lecture (but mostly “story,” though there are no plots); he assembles a number of characters from various backgrounds, eras, and professions; and he assembles various comments about life, morality, and human nature. Virtually any of Davenport’s stories can be used to demonstrate these assertions. In “The Richard Nixon Freischutz Rag,” Nixon visits China and converses with Mao Tse-tung; Leonardo da Vinci is seen working in his shop; finally, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas make social comments while visiting Assisi. In “The Wooden Tower of Archytas,” Archytas makes and flies a wooden dove powered by steam; in the same story, Native Americans in a South Carolina slave dormitory sing for the soul of a dove.

Without question, Davenport’s essays are more accessible than his stories. To begin with, he does focus on a single point, demonstrating it in a forthright manner, becoming a first-quality essayist in the traditional sense of that word. Like his fiction, his essays are always learned and filled with allusions from history, science, and the arts; yet it is possible to determine his point quickly. He successfully blends personal anecdote, historical events, social commentary, and artistic criticism in a highly distinctive manner. One of his best-known essays is “Making It Uglier to the Airport,” the opening of which illustrates his characteristic tone. This essay is typical of both his stories and essays. In it, Davenport proceeds to support his assertions that the buildings of the United States are ugly, with specifics from Chicago, New York, and eventually his own Lexington, Kentucky, making a very persuasive case. The essay is sprinkled with information from and about the writings of Michelangelo; Ada Louise Huxtable, a journalist who writes about architecture; Manfredo a Tafuri, an architect and writer; and Daniel Defoe—all within the first two pages. Davenport then shifts to a personal anecdote about being denied a passport at the Lexington post office because he does not have a driver’s license; next he shows how everything he has said applies to some dozen or so cities across the nation. By the time the reader reaches the conclusion, there is no escape from his claim that “the automobile and airplane have made us nomads again.”

Davenport’s career is not characterized by progression, growth, and development in the sense that these terms would be applied to most authors. He was forty-three years old before he published his first story, and his maturity as a scholar and writer was already established in other ways. He has produced translations, essays, stories, and some poetry in a prolific way throughout his adult life. There is no change in the substance of his work, thinking, and productivity; rather, there is to be found only elaboration upon ideas formed from the outset. In the course of exploring those insights, Davenport has produced one of the most significant bodies of work in contemporary American literature.

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Critical Essays