Guy Davenport: the writer as cartoonist

(Guy Davenport drawing, from his book Tatlin!) 

Note: This essay is slightly revised from the original version which ran in The Comics Journal #278 (October 2006).

Guy Davenport, cartoonist. Perhaps this is too confident a statement and needs a more tentative punctuation. “Guy Davenport: cartoonist?” After all, Davenport wasn’t mainly known as a cartoonist, and the world of comics has only a peripheral awareness of his existence. Aside from comic book artist Gil Kane’s stated fondness for Davenport’s essay collection The Geography of the Imagination (1981) and a stray allusion that Carter Scholz once made in The Comics Journal, Davenport’s name is rarely bandied about in cartooning circles.

When Davenport died in early 2005, many obituaries and memorial notices paid tribute to him as a man of letters of intimidating range and versatility. Aside from penning many brilliant short stories, Davenport was a premier translator of many ancient writers and sages (Sappho, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Jesus), an immensely erudite literary critic who could expertly explicate difficult modernists like Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, and a pioneering iconologist who illuminated the symbolic vocabulary of painters like Grant Wood and Balthus. Lost among all the eulogies for Davenport the writer were his achievements as a visual artist: Tucked away in a busy lifetime was an almost secret career as a painter, illustrator, and, yes, cartoonist.

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Hawthorne: Demon or Big-Headed Genius?

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Long dead and safely buried, Nathaniel Hawthorne is now securely ensconced as a benign classic. The Scarlet Letter and Hawthorne’s short stories are often taught to high school students. But in his own lifetime and for years after his demise, Hawthorne was a divisive figure in American letters, widely reviled for his satire on the transcendentalists writers, his richly rewarded bootlicking on behalf of the Democratic president Franklin Pierce, and his sympathetic handling of the theme of adultery.

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McCarthy and his Friends

Joseph McCarthy.

On his blog, David Frum  enthuses over Bruce Bartlett’s just released book Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past:

The enjoyable theme is Bartlett’s gleeful partisan slagging of the horrible racial history of the Democratic party from ancient times to modern. Specialists in American history may know much of this story, but probably the typical reader does not. From Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace, the Democratic party was the party that defended slavery, Jim Crow, Ku Kluxery, and “massive resistance.” As Bartlett searchingly asks at one point: If the Republican party is to bear responsibility for Joe McCarthy through all time, why doesn’t the Democratic party have to bear responsibility for Theodore Bilbo?

I admire Frum’s ability to pack an amazing amount of silliness into 94 words. Let’s take this step by step, shall we?

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Blogging, Books, and the Future of Prose


Sarah Boxer’s new book. 

Last fall while visiting Boston, I met up with my friend Sarah Boxer, an excellent cultural journalist and cartoonist. Over an appropriately American lunch of hamburgers and coke we chatted a bit about her upcoming book Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, an anthology of strong blog writing. The problem with such a book, I thought, was the question of whether blog postings could work on the printed page. Sarah was very conscious of this difficulty and seemed to have worked hard to winnow her selection down to the best postings out there without doing violence to the free-for-all spirit of the web.

I’m looking foward to seeing Sarah’s book (which is now out) but our talk got me thinking about how blogging might be changing the nature of prose.

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Fear of a Canadian Planet

The great pianist Oscar Peterson.

According the Graeme Hamilton,  writing in the National Post, the word “Canadian” is now used as a coded ethnic slur in the American south to refer to blacks:

The bigger mystery is how “Canadian” came to be code for black. An online directory of racial slurs defines Canadian as a “masked replacement” for black.

Last August, a blogger in Cincinnati going by the name CincyBlurg reported that a black friend from the southeastern U.S. had recently discovered that she was being called a Canadian. “She told me a story of when she was working in a shop in the South and she overheard some of her customers complaining that they were always waited on by a Canadian at that place. She didn’t understand what they were talking about and assumed they must be talking about someone else,” the blogger wrote.

“After this happened several times with different patrons, she mentioned it to one of her co-workers. He told her that ‘Canadian’ was the new derogatory term that racist Southerners were using to describe persons they would have previously referred to [with the N-word.]”

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Roth’s Exit Ghost: Reviewing the Reviewers

Those who care about criticism, admittedly a rarefied concern, find it useful sometimes to review the reviewers. For movies, it’s an easy enough game: just watch a flick and then go to Rotten Tomatoes and find out what the peanut gallery is up to. If you do this a few times, you’ll discover that there’s a fairly consistent pattern whereby certain critics (like J. Hoberman of the Village Voice) are almost unfailingly thoughtful while the general ruck of newspaper mediocrities rely on a fairly narrow set of ideas and expectations. A quick Rotten Tomatoes tour is an easy way to get a snapshot of the cultural consensus at any given moment.

Reviewing the reviewers is a bit harder to do with literature because many of the most interesting writers get little critical attention. K.D. Miller, for example, is one of the best short story writers around but you’d have to some diligent library excavation to find even brief and causal notices of her work.

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McLuhan in the Classroom

Marshall McLuhan was a bizarre figure: a conservative Catholic who became the hero of the 1960s counterculture and a brilliant analyst of print culture who had trouble writing clear prose. In the Literary Review of Canada, Bob Rodgers writes an essay worth looking up which splendidly captures McLuhan and his times:

McLuhan, a stringy but handsome man at six foot two, with a literary moustache, could also have passed for a movie cowboy. He invited us to introduce ourselves. Anthropologist Ted Carpenter, notorious advocate of deinstitutionalized education and a long time cohort of McLuhan, muttered his name and gave a folksy wave. Three beatniks made no response. A sallow young man wearing a guitar gave a drowsy nod. A man in long short pants with knee socks who looked like an Eagle Scout, gave a perky salute and announced he was seeking transformation. Wilfred Watson, the poet and academic, was there, and his wife, Sheila Watson, author of The Double Hook. A dapper little man from an advertising firm reported he had come because he was looking for a fresh idea. A well-known announcer, Stanley Burke, who read the TV news on CBC, was there; also a professional magician wearing a cape, a dark-haired, bespangled fortune teller, an Inuit carver from Igloolik and a popular wrestler called Whipper Billy Watson.

Jesus and Recycling

Marc Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning.  

Jesus thought a great deal about garbage. He had been raised in a tradition that made a fundamental distinction between purity and impurity, kosher and treif, the sacred and the profane. These seem like very strict and absolute binary divisions but Hebrew scripture also contained an ambiguity. The sacred texts abound in narratives that contradict the absolute division between the clean and the dirty by celebrating people who were closest to the grimy ground, the rejected and the dejected. Prototypically, there were slaves of Egypt who became the chosen people (slaves being those who do the dirty work of society); there is also Ruth gathering gleanings (i.e. picking up food not worth the farmer’s time); and also the many unkempt prophets who were closer to God than all the Rabbis. Consider Jonah: a man of God swallowed by a whale and then extruded, the prophet as vomit or excrement, yet fulfilling his divine mission even in his humiliation. (The story of Jonah is one that seems to have been particularly dear to Jesus). 

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Derrida on the Campaign Trail

A headline from today’s Washington Post:

 The Other Clinton Is an Absent Presence

That headline was about 40 years in the making. Derrida developed his ideas about absence/presence in the mid-1960s. It takes about 5-10 years for a major work of continental philosophy to get translated into English. Another 10 years for North American professors and graduate students to assimilate new ideas; another 10 years for the ideas to percolate through the undergraduate classrooms; another 10 years for students of English and philosophy to get jobs at newspapers and start writing articles and headlines. Voilà: from concept to cliché in four decades.

The death of the author can be seen in this headline. It was probably coined by one person but it wasn’t written by that person. The true author of the headline is an entire change in language and mentalité, a change that had many fathers and many mothers. We’re never alone when we write, but always using words others have given us. Every writer contains a multitude; the greatest writers are the ones who have the most voices speaking through them.

Charles Murray and “Liberal Fascism”

Sans Everything is a blog that supports animal rights. So it seems amiss for me to keep beating the same poor broken-down horse, whether it’s dead or alive. Still, there is one last comment to make about Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. The book has been enthusiastically endorsed by Charles Murray, a blurb that’s included on the book’s website. “Liberal Fascism is nothing less than a portrait of 20th-century political history as seen through a new prism. It will affect the way I think about that history-and about the trajectory of today’s politics-forever after,” Murray says.

What credibility does Murray have as a critic of fascism? As I noted in two earlier postings, Murray is most famous as the co-author, along with Richard Herrnstein, of The Bell Curve, a book tainted by its reliance on extreme racialists. The writers Muray drew on for his book are not the made-up “liberal fascists” of Goldberg’s imagination (Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Hilary Clinton). Rather, Murray built his case by relying on men who had genuine connections with dictatorial, racialist regimes. One of them was Nathaniel Weyl, a strong supporter of the apartheid-era South Africa.

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