Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction

That Man Across the Street

by Jim Gourley

What destroyed downtown Lexington is of course the automobile, which had no place to park itself.
      —Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport died in Lexington, KY, on the evening of January 4, 2005. He was seventy-seven years old and a smoker. His lungs had finally had enough. I happen to know the date because I arrived in Lexington that evening for the first time in nearly a decade. On the morning of the fifth, the friends with whom I was staying received a phone call reporting his death. They'd known he'd been sick, but I'd been a long time out of the local loop, and the news cocked my brow a notch. Over the following two days we read favorite Davenport pieces and laughed as we had so often before when we'd read his works aloud to each other.

Davenport lived in Lexington for more than forty years, never had a driver's license, and walked or took busses everywhere. He composed many of his lectures on his thirty minute walks to class. "Every Force Evolves a Form," from his collection of the same title, is a sketch of his class notes, full of Wordsworth's robin, Poe's raven, Hopkins' windover, Whitman's osprey, bringing them all together as he walked to the university where he taught for 28 years. Whichever route he chose to walk wound beneath large city trees—lindens, oaks, sycamores—which, for a good part of each year, were full of birds.

Despite having published close to fifty books, he remained nearly unknown to most of the people he shared a city with. A few days after his death, I went to a large local bookstore not five miles from his home and was unable to find a single volume of his works. After searching the database the woman at the information desk admitted she had no idea who he was.

In his essay "Making It Uglier to the Airport" he recounts an interaction he had at the Lexington post office, which had once been located in the downtown district, within an easy walk of Davenport's home. It had since been moved to make way for downtown development, which he interpreted succinctly as parking. He lamented that the PO was "...technically in the next county, and is near no habitation of any citizen." When he needed to have his passport renewed, a task handled by the post office, it took him an hour to get there, I imagine by bus. Once there, he was told that he couldn't get it renewed, since he didn't have a driver's license:

I will not spin out the Gogolian scene that ensued, though it featured me being told that I didn't deserve to live in this country, my pointing out that I could scarcely leave it without a passport, and on around in circles that left the art of Gogol for that of Ionesco, until I got the State Department on the phone, and had my new passport, together with an apology, in three days.

As a citizen, Davenport demanded a country that functioned in behalf of all, even those without official certificates to operate motor vehicles. I too lived in Lexington during this era, and, like Davenport, had, by personal choice, no license. I navigated the expanding burg afoot and by bike, finally buckling at twenty-nine and learning to drive in order to flee.

When Kentucky writers are mentioned, Davenport is never included in the list: Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Baker Hall, Gurney Norman, Ed McClanahan, and the next generation, which features three recent winners of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, including the fine poet Maurice Manning. But not Guy Davenport. He was born in South Carolina, and though one is tempted to say that forty years in Kentucky isn't long enough to be considered a member of the Bluegrass flock, the fact is that Davenport was not a writer associated with a particular place. That said, his writings are full of Kentucky characters and settings, which included the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, the Shaker village at Pleasant Hill, and on and on. And this from a piece entitled "Hobbitry":

Practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: "I hear tell," "right agin," "so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way," "this very month as is." These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.

This was written after a "casual conversation on a snowy day" with a Shelbyville, Kentucky history teacher named Allen Barnett, who had been a classmate of Tolkien's at Oxford. Mr. Barnett had neither read nor heard of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and had no idea that Tolkien had become a writer of considerable note. Barnett's response was, "Imagine that! You know he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that."

A recent remembrance in The New Criterion mentions that "Guy was a gentle, accommodating soul..." He may have been that to some, but when viewed from a bit of a distance he could be unapproachably odd. Over the years I spent in Lexington I had many occasions to see him, hear him read, and once, in the hall outside his office as I waited to see another teacher whose office was close by, he gave me a very peculiar stare as he slowly closed his office door—he on the inside, me on the out—and in my memory the last thing that disappeared was his right eye, a jittery, peculiar flicker from the shadows. I think I smiled, and I think he didn't. I never spoke to him, though we passed on the street more than several times. We'd both nod, and that was enough for me. I've never been one who has wanted to engage those whose art I intensely and almost fearfully admire, the exception being Wendell Berry, or, as Davenport called him, "that thoughtful man." But Guy Davenport was one whose borders I did not care to cross. I regret not having sent him a letter telling him how much joy his writing had given me, how much he made me laugh, how much I loved his powerfully lean use of language. He was a master storyteller, whose stories demand undivided attention. Anything short of that and you are lost. And sometimes undivided attention is still not enough.

Often when I ride the train from Tianjin to Beijing I'll grab one of his books from the shelf on the way out the door, though, more often than not, I reach for The Hunter Gracchus, where I have learned that Davenport was considered to be retarded as a child, that he had once been a paratrooper, that Thomas Merton's outhouse at his hermitage at Gethsemani was home to a black snake and Merton's advice to any visitor who might use it was to first "kick the door and shout, 'Get out, you bastard,'" that both Samuels Johnson and Beckett spelled potato "potatoe," long before Dan Quayle did so as the cameras rolled, and that "...there are more illiterates in Kentucky than anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Philippines and Haiti." His comfort with and use of the comic muse was all the license he needed, and that freedom of imagination has set me to laughing loudly more than a few times as I've sped across the North China Plain.

A good friend who was in a Davenport graduate seminar on Joyce in the 70's told me how a particular student often asked Davenport if the tales he spun of the wonders of the world and the marvelous people in it were true. In his memory he said that Davenport never actually answered the question. Our conclusion was that, true or not, it didn't really matter. He also privately shared with that same friend how years before he had purchased a Picasso sketch and then water-colored it, making it completely worthless as a Picasso, though what he did do was make it a Davenport, something he did with everyone and everything he ever wrote about. He took "Make it new!" as a mandate.

In the mid-80's I lived on the same street as Davenport, a wonderful little nook w/park in downtown Lexington. One late afternoon I was walking with my daughter, who at the time was two years old. Davenport walked toward us on the other side of the street, and I stopped, picked her up and said, "Do you see that man across the street? Well, he's a famous writer. I hope someday you remember this." I just phoned her in Beijing and asked if she did, fearing that she had been too young to have filed that one yet. She said, "Sorry, I don't. I can remember something, but nothing specific." What I believe she sketchily remembers is the story of it, the one I've told to her over the years, of lifting her up and speaking the words and helping her build an image, so that when she is older she can say, "When I was a little girl in Lexington..." because when she is an older woman I trust that Guy Davenport will still be read, for his ideas and imagination, his way of seeing this world, will still be new.

One of the last projects he was involved with was the selection of more than 400 prints from the Ralph Eugene Meatyard estate collection and the holdings of the University of Kentucky's Art Museum that became the exhibition Ralph Eugene Meatyard at the International Center of Photography in New York City, a homage to his good friend, another transplanted Lexington artist.

I have heard that every year Davenport nominated Eudora Welty for the Nobel Prize for Literature, something I imagine he continued doing even after her death, because that's the kind of man I imagine he was. I may be wrong, but that really doesn't matter.


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