Underrated: Journeys without maps: The case for Guy Davenport

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In the early months of 1983, I was living in a city in the American South, short on money, long on boredom, and in urgent need of some juicy reading matter to distract me from these dismaying facts. Browsing one evening in a local bookshop - the kind of place where greeting cards, Garfield mugs and bumper stickers effortlessly outnumbered the hardbacks - I chanced across a thickish volume that had somehow slipped through the owner's commercial radar system, otherwise wholly successful in weeding out any publication with the smallest hint of idiosyncrasy.

The book's title was mildly promising, if oblique: The Geography of the Imagination. The author's name, Guy Davenport, was unfamiliar, and all that I could readily gather from the back cover was that he taught English at the University of Kentucky, that he had a fistful of higher degrees from the likes of Oxford and Duke, that (unlike most academics in the South) he spurned the wearing of ties, and that there was something about his slight build, unsmiling face and rigid posture that was distantly reminiscent of Norman Bates from Psycho.

The book cost dollars 10, a sizeable chunk of my rapidly diminishing bank account, but, noting that there was quite a bit in its pages about Ezra Pound, Wittgenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Max Ernst and many other old favourites, I took a risk and bought it. Several hours later, just before dawn, the book was almost finished and I was a convert, if not quite a fanatic.

Who was, who is this man? Evidently a white Southerner, who knows that his family once owned slaves, yet does not seem queasy at the knowledge ('. . . an ancient black Davenport embraced my father with tears in his eyes. 'O Lord, Marse Guy,' he said, 'don't you wish it was the good old slavery times again]' ' Oh dear). A career academic, who writes in a style sometimes Victorian in its expansiveness, salted and peppered with campy mandarin sniffs, sly bragging, silly jokes and trenchant maxims - a style, that is, light years away from the sort of stuff that gets you tenure in colleges. A novelist, short-story writer, poet, draughtsman and painter. A high modernist, fascinated by machinery, who has never learnt to drive a car; a Des Esseintes- like connoisseur of rare facts and recherche prose, who claims to live almost wholly on candy bars and processed meat . . .

In a word, an original. Perhaps a crank (if you dislike his views), perhaps a visionary (if you warm to them), but indisputably an original. After dipping into Geography of the Imagination countless times over the past decade, and chasing up its various companion volumes, I continue to be braced, amused, beguiled and downright irritated by Davenport's range, enthusiasm and spirited bile.

In a lazy time when so much literary taste is swayed by herd instincts, Davenport stubbornly insists that we cannot even begin to think ourselves literate if we don't have first-hand knowledge of, say, Louis Agassiz and Louis Zukovsky. Rightly or wrongly - who knows? - he gripes that the academy's continuing neglect of Charles Doughty's epic poem The Dawn in Britain is 'a state of affairs roughly analogous to a department of physics sublimely ignorant of Proteus Steinmetz.' (And if you said 'Who?', you have just taken his little bait.)

Davenport writes quirkily and compellingly about - well, about more or less anything that comes to his enviably well- stocked mind, really. About the art of cavemen and the early history of manned flight; about translation and table manners (including his own experience of eating river mud as a boy); about the relationship between the Irish alphabet and trees; about artists as famous as Homer and as obscure as Ralph Eugene Meatyard; about the blind wickedness of America's town planners, about the unimaginable horrors inflicted by Stalin.

Davenport can be prissy and smug and maddening, but he seems incapable of writing a boring paragraph. You can hear his cussedly honourable tones sounding loud and clear in the sentence with which he concludes his typically polymathic, polymorphous ramble around the achievement of one of his better-known heroes, Walt Whitman: 'I like to think that eventually he will shame us into becoming Americans again.' As with Walt, so with Guy: he is one of the unsung heroes of the Republic, and of the Republic

of Letters.