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Guy Davenport Jr., 77; Eclectic, Erudite Writer of Essays, Fiction and Poems

Times Staff Writer

Guy Mattison Davenport Jr., a writer known for erudite, highly original essays and short stories that he once described as “assemblages of history and necessary fiction” and whose unusual literary achievements earned him a MacArthur award, died Tuesday of cancer in Lexington, Ky. He was 77.

The longtime University of Kentucky professor possessed a diverse mind that was evident in his eclectic pursuits: He was, in addition to essayist and fiction writer, a respected translator of Greek texts, a painter and an illustrator, and a poet. He wrote or contributed to more than 40 books, including “The Geography of the Imagination,” a 1981 collection of essays.

Despite his prolific output and critical acclaim, Davenport was not widely known. His prose demanded much of readers, as it was often peppered with foreign phrases and steeped in historical and literary allusions.

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Some of his collections did not separate his essays from his fiction, a deliberate mixing in keeping with his overall aesthetic of finding resonances between the imagined and the real.

Figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Richard M. Nixon and Franz Kafka coexisted with entirely invented characters in Davenport’s universe.

“There is no way to prepare yourself for reading Guy Davenport,” Karl Keller wrote in a 1981 Los Angeles Times review. “You stand in awe before his knowledge of the archaic (the cave paintings of Lascaux, Heraclitus, Diogenes, Homer) and his knowledge of the modern (Joyce, Pound, Mahler, Gaudier-Brzeska, Marianne Moore). Even more, you stand in awe of the connections he can make between the archaic and the modern; he makes the remote familiar and the familiar fundamental.”

Hilton Kramer wrote in the New York Times Book Review that a Davenport story has “some of the intellectual density of the learned essay, some of the lyric concision of the modern poem -- some of its difficulty too -- and a structure that often resembles a film documentary. The result is a tour de force that adds something new to the art of fiction.”

Born in Anderson, S.C., Davenport, by his own account, gave little notice of his gifts as a child.

“I was thought to be retarded as a child, and all the evidence indicates that I was,” he wrote in “The Hunter Gracchus,” a 1996 collection of essays on literature and art. “I have no memory of the first grade, to which I was not admitted until I was 7, except that of peeing my pants and having to be sent home whenever I was spoken to by our hapless teacher.... I managed to control my bladder by the third grade.... “

Having exasperated most of his teachers, he dropped out of school in the ninth grade, yet he impressed Duke University officials enough to be admitted there at 16 and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1948.

For the next two years, he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he wrote the first thesis on James Joyce to be accepted by that university.

During the early to mid-1950s he taught English at Washington University in St. Louis and served in the Army XVIII Airborne Corps before entering Harvard University. There he earned a doctorate in 1961 with a dissertation on Ezra Pound, the poet and modernist icon whom Davenport regarded as a mentor.

Soon after joining the University of Kentucky in 1963, he began to publish -- first, poetry and translations, and later stories. The first of a dozen short story collections, “Tatlin!”, was published in 1974.

His stories distilled years of personal investigation. For instance, to write the story “Robot,” about a dog named Robot who discovered Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, France, in 1941, Davenport read 40 books about prehistory, visited Lascaux and gathered firsthand accounts of refugees fleeing the Germans in that region of France.

Other esoterica collected over the years -- a Pound anecdote about how William Butler Yeats’ body was lost at sea by drunken sailors, or about how Nietzsche signed the guest book at an inn with the warning to “Beware the beefsteak” -- surface in other stories.

Kramer, writing in the New York Times in 1981, said Davenport “created a mode of fiction that ... was highly original -- stories constructed along the lines of a pictorial collage that are part historical fable, part learned essay, part lyric idyll.”

Not all critics were so taken with his work. Some found his erudition too showy.

Others were discomfited by several stories that describe pederastic sex play.

“People who desire an easy method of learning the anatomy of the genitalia may find these stories valuable,” a critic for the New York Review of Books wrote dismissively in 1975.

Davenport’s interest in nontraditional sexual relations was attributed to the influence of Charles Fourier, the 19th century French thinker whose utopian visions included a form of free love.

Davenport was a legendary professor at the University of Kentucky, where he taught classes on Pound, Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust. He did not own a car and never learned to drive. He did not have a touch-tone phone until days before his death.

He spoke with Shakespearean diction and mesmerized students with his digressions.

A former student, Paul Prather, recalled in a column in the Lexington Herald-Leader this week that if a student mentioned buying a bar of soap in an essay, “Davenport would stop in mid-sentence and launch into a 10-minute soliloquy on the significance of soap: its origins in the ancient world, how rarely various kings and queens of English history bathed, when the habit of daily baths caught on, the changes in soap’s ingredients over the centuries. Then, seamlessly, he’d resume reading.”

In 1990 he won a $365,000 prize from the MacArthur Foundation, which annually honors creative talent in a wide range of disciplines, based on secret nominations by an anonymous committee.

Davenport, who had turned down grants from other organizations before, was “very pleasantly surprised,” said Bonnie Jean Cox, his companion of 40 years.

He retired from the University of Kentucky the next year because, Cox said, he “honestly felt it would be like double-dipping” to receive a salary on top of the generous award.

In addition to Cox, he is survived by a sister, two nieces and a nephew.


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