Scholars and storytellers


(J. R. R. Tolkien: Reuters via The Guardian)

The incomparable Guy Davenport was born on 23 November 1927 (he died in 2005). I remember making some notes about him in connection with J. R. R. Tolkien some years back, when the company I worked for represented Cornell University Press. In 2013 the press reissued a book first published in 1979, six years after Tolkien’s death, a collection of pieces entitled J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam. It included contributions from a wide range of friends, colleagues and former students. The first part contains the Times obituary; Tolkien’s 1959 ‘Valedictory Address’ to the University of Oxford; and a personal remembrance by a friend of forty years’ standing. The second part consists of critical essays concerned with the literatures of Old Norse, Old English and Middle English, Tolkien’s own main scholarly interests. The last part comprises three pieces on Tolkien’s famous fictions and concludes with a bibliography of his writings, compiled by Humphrey Carpenter (Tolkien’s biographer).[1]

‘The first professor to harrow me with the syntax and morphology of Old English,’ Davenport writes, ‘had a speech impediment, wandered in his remarks, and seemed to think that we, his baffled scholars, were well up in Gothic, Erse, and Welsh, the grammar of which he freely alluded to. How was I to know that he had one day written on the back of one of our examination papers, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”?’[2]


(One genius by another; or, Jonathan Williams’ photograph of Guy Davenport – ‘in Quakerish garb’ – Lexington, 1964: Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979).

After graduating from Duke University, Davenport was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and studied at Merton College, Oxford, from 1948 to 1950. His thesis on James Joyce was directed by J. I. M. Stewart; his examiner was David Cecil. Davenport was drafted into the army on his return to the United States and served two years before taking a job at Washington University, St Louis. At Harvard, he worked as graduate assistant to Archibald MacLeish and wrote his dissertation, Cities on Hills, on the first thirty of Pound’s Cantos, under Harry Levin’s direction. It was published a little over twenty years later.

Davenport finished reading Lord of the Rings in March 1963, writing to Hugh Kenner that it was ‘a major work’. He went on: ‘What imagination! Never does his invention run out, on and on. I have a feeling that he has summed up 500 years of literature from the Mabinogion through Von Essenbach to the High Victorians. He has done well in prose what Spenser probably could not have finished in verse. It makes the “realistic” novel look like a skinned knee criss-crossed with band-aids.’[3]

In October 1963, Kenner was two-thirds of the way through the trilogy, remarking of the plans to reissue the work in paperback, ‘It could not fail to do good to anyone who read it through! one of the few books for which there is point in winning a larger public’ (I, 427). Davenport responded three days later: ‘I glow that you like Tolkien. He provides a vocabulary, both of phrases and imagery. Gandalf began life, in The Hobbit, as Sherlock [Holmes] in an astrologer’s gown. Frank Meyer [book review and cultural editor of National Review],[4] who is not uninfluenced in his fight with the Bolsheviki by Gandalf’s war upon the Orcs, got me onto Tolkien. [Stan] Brakhage heavily influenced by Tolkien, his other influence being Pound’ (I, 430)


In ‘Hobbitry’, Davenport noted that he’d talked to Tolkien’s son, Christopher—under whose steady hand the published Tolkien canon has expanded significantly—as well as to his friend ‘Hugo’ Dyson, who said of Tolkien, ‘His was not a true imagination, you know. He made it all up.’ ‘I have tried for fifteen years’, Davenport comments, ‘to figure out what Dyson meant by that remark.’ And he talked to a history teacher, Allen Barnett, who had been a classmate of Tolkien’s and remembered how he ‘could never get enough of my names of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.’

Ah.

Tolkien’s readers run into millions, of course, the viewers of the films based on his books surely running into tens of millions by now. An intriguing if unanswerable question is what proportion of those readers and viewers have a sense of the main focus of his scholarly work.

 ‘Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book’, Davenport writes, ‘and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville.’ He concludes: ‘I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien’s imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don’t know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.’


Notes

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam, edited by Mary Salu and Robert T. Farrell (Cornell University Press, 9780801478871, 325pp, paperback).

[2] ‘Hobbitry’, in The Guy Davenport Reader, edited by Erik Reese (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 273.

[3] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 287. I’ve lifted several details of Davenport’s biography from this superb edition.

[4] As Erik Reece, who knew Davenport well and is his literary executor, wrote, ‘And though he reviewed books for right-wing National Review, he did so simply because Hugh Kenner got him the job, not because he felt any allegiance to William F. Buckley or the conservative movement’: ‘Afterword, Remembering Guy Davenport’,  Reader, 440.

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