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.

I first encountered Davenport as a cartoonist before I became acquainted with his other accomplishments: He did the satirical illustrations that accompany two eccentric books of literary criticism that Hugh Kenner wrote in the 1960s. Charmed by these drawings, I looked up Davenport’s writings, but even as I grew to appreciate his literary achievement I never forgot that he drew. It was easy to keep this in mind, since the dust jackets of many of his books came from his hands, along with frequent illustration that accompanied his stories. More profoundly, Davenport was always a very visual writer, so much so that I think any just appreciation of his work has to appraise the tight bond between his words and picture.

To look at Davenport as a cartoonist is not to take a sidelong glance at the moonlighting a writer did at the fringes of his more important work. Rather, it brings us close to the heart of this fully rounded creator, a genuine exemplar of the Renaissance Man ideal.

Born to indulgent middle-class parents in Anderson, S.C. in 1927, Davenport drew and painted long before he started reading and writing. By his own account, his formal schooling was late blooming and less important than what he learned in playtime, cultivating his rich inner world during ample hours spent alone. At age 12, he started a neighborhood newspaper, recording family jaunts, local gossip, the comings and goings of cats and dogs. Davenport was both the chief reporter and staff cartoonist for this little journal. Only a few years later, the teenage Davenport was providing pen-and-ink sketches for the town newspaper.

Despite all his extracurricular activities and late literacy, Davenport also found he could glide through school with ease. He developed a lifelong habit of winning big academic prizes, which carried him from Duke University to Oxford to Harvard. He had the rare (perhaps unique) distinction of being a Rhodes Scholar as a young man and a MacArthur Fellow in his maturity.

The Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford in the late 1940s, where he wrote an early thesis on Joyce. Returning stateside, he served in the army during the Korean War and then did a Harvard thesis on Ezra Pound.

(Davenport’s cover for Clay Fisher’s The Crossing.)

All throughout these years of intense study, he never gave up on drawing and painting. Archive, an undergraduate journal at Duke University, is a rich storehouse of his early short stories, drawings and literary essays. In 1958, he painted the cover for Clay Fisher’s The Crossing, a Western set during Civil War. Eschewing the homey and rough-hewn conventions of Western art, Davenport’s cover is a stark and linear image of a horse-riding confederate soldier, the profile of his face facing sternly rightward, one hand keeping a tight leash on his horse while the other brandishes a rifle, displayed with the solemnity of a flag.

As with so many other Davenport paintings, this scene cunningly plays off representation and abstraction. In the foreground, the soldier is tense, intent, mindful of the present. But the background has a timeless, ornamental quality, almost like a Persian carpet. As we shift our focus away from the main figure, we realize that everything in the background is a variation on the triangle: four teepees, the angular landscape of the plains, even the accidental triangle created by the crook of the elbow on the rifle-bearing arm. While the solider is caught at the cusp of a moment of action, the West persists in its pastoral idyll. (The cover also contains a hint of male sexual beauty, a theme that Davenport would often return to in his fiction and drawings).

In its crisp sense of design, the cover is indebted to the vernacular modernism popularized by such 1950s clean-line masters as Gene Deitch, Jim Flora and Milton Glaser. The cover is all the more impressive since it was most likely done as a lark. The Crossing was published by Houghton Mifflin, whose offices were a stone’s throw away from Harvard, so Davenport probably executed the painting as a break from his graduate studies.

As a young English professor at Haverford College in the early 1960s, Davenport sat in on the life-studies classes of the painter Fritz Janschka. Deferring to the demure wishes of his students, Janschka allowed the model to wear a bathing suit while modeling. Davenport shocked the class when he brought in a model that was willing to pose au naturel. When he made the University of Kentucky his final academic home in 1963, he built a studio in his backyard. His neighbors called it Guy’s tree house.

Through his interest in Joyce, Pound and the other great modernists, Davenport developed a literary friendship in the late 1950s with Hugh Kenner, the Canadian-born scholar whose studies of 20th century literature were revolutionizing academia. The two men had much in common: They were both passionate partisans of Pound and other recondite poets, both prolific and vivid writers ill at ease with the pedantry of traditional scholarship, both public intellectuals who were as comfortable writing for National Review and Harper’s as for intellectual quarterlies.

Like Davenport, Kenner had an off-kilter sensibility, a restless desire to examine familiar subjects from a new angle. It was natural, therefore, that reading the manuscripts of two of Kenner’s books inspired some marvelous Davenport cartooning.

The Kenner books were The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett (1964) and The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy (1968). (Both these books have recently been re-issued by the Dalkey Archive Press.) As their titles indicate, comedy is the unifying theme, but it’s a quirky view of comedy. In a nutshell, Kenner argues that modern literature is deeply shaped by the rise of technology since the 17th century, but the upshot hasn’t been a deadening of feeling, but rather an efflorescence of satire. Mechanical culture can be seen not just in nuts and bolts but more subtly in language being reduced to uniform parts on the printed page, our erotic imagination fired by images of air-brushed and interchangeable models, our education expended on mastering standarized tests, our health reduced to actuarial statistics by insurance companies and doctors.

Some writers have reacted to the rise of the machines with prophetic rage: the response of William Blake, John Ruskin, D.H. Lawrence. But Kenner is more interested in the sly souls who in effect co-opted the machine: writing books that use the very properties of technological language to register the mechanization of humanity. This, Kenner, demonstrates, was the tactic of Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. They all belong to the tradition of the stoic comedian.

The thrust of Kenner’s argument can be gleaned from his discussion of Joyce. “Joyce chose to raise Flaubert to a higher power, generating a fictional machine of such echoing and reentrant complexity as Flaubert never dreamed up,” Kenner observes. “For he glimpsed the paradoxical possibility of the novel, as it grew more highly mechanized, growing gayer, not with the grim necessitarian futility of Flaubert’s irony, but with the comedy of utterly inevitable coincidence, as when the chair moves just as the fat man sits. Joyce’s is like the comedy of the silent films, in which the flicker of the medium itself reduces men to comically accelerated machines, contending with other machines — cars, revolving doors, ice cream dispensers; and we know that however often the film is shown it will always go the same way.”

Silent films were an important touchstone for Kenner. Buster Keaton, whose stone face remained unwavering even as out-of-whack machines put his body through the wringer, is surely the very physical embodiment of stoic comedy.

In illustrating Kenner’s two books on these themes, it was natural for Davenport to turn to the silent films as inspiration. The drawings in The Stoic Comedians are a bit stiff compared to Davenport’s best work, but they remain intensely funny because of how he exploited the Keatonian principle of showing men in ridiculous poses maintaining the gravity of classical statues. One drawing has Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses, furtively glancing into a porn novel while being studied by the cagey Joyce. Another drawing shows Flaubert pondering the mot juste, wielding a cigar in one hand with a top hat in the other, looking like a high bourgeois counterpart to Oliver Hardy.

In The Counterfeiters, Kenner returned to the themes of The Stoic Comedians but told the story in a much wilder tempo, like Scott Joplin doing a riff on a traditional melody. Bringing the full range of his astonishing learning to bear, Kenner linked modernism with such disparate phenomena as 18th century clockwork dolls, Charles Babbage’s Victorian-era attempts to build a calculating machine, Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, Andy Warhol’s pop art, and even the history of bad poetry. There is no other book of literary criticism that is quite like The Counterfeiters in bringing together an unlikely array of subjects and demonstrating that they are all interconnected. It is telling that the novelist William Gaddis had thought about doing a book on many of these same themes, but gave up when he realized that Kenner had beaten him to the punch.

(Davenport drawing from Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters.)

Perhaps liberated by the exuberant energy of Kenner’s text, Davenport did his best cartooning for The Counterfeiters. In one scene, Karl Marx and Charles Babbage cross paths in a red-brick London street, with Sherlock Holmes looking on. In another drawing Lemuel Gulliver is humbly talking to two noble horses, high-minded Houyhnhnms who are warily inspecting this unusual Yahoo. Meekly holding his three-corner hat, his feet demurely turned inward, his head pointed towards the ground with his eyes peering upward in supplication, Gulliver is clearly admitting the inferiority of irrational man to the rational horse.

In a 1976 essay in the literary journal Vort, Kenner noted that Davenport’s literary cartoons belong to the tradition of Max Beerbohm. Both Davenport and Beerbohm specialized in comic scenes of unlikely meetings and unusual juxtapositions. “There are Davenport drawings in that manner too, with a Cocteau base under the draughtsmanship,” Kenner noted. “Twenty of them finished like steel engravings, illustrate two published books of mine, and I cherish a folder of unpublished improvisations. (One caption: ‘Mr. Pound and Mr. T.E. Shaw of Arabia, in the latter’s rooms at All Souls College, Oxford, are interrupted in their discussion of Gunnar in the Pit of Vipers by the arrival of Mrs. Lindsay, on a trip around the world, and her son Vachel, the troubadour.’ The Vachel Lindsay figure is early George Price. Lawrence of Arabia looks like Stan Laurel.)”

Kenner rightly linked Davenport not just with Beerbohm but also Jean Cocteau. Davenport once quoted Cocteau as saying that his drawings were writing untied and “knotted up again in a different way.” Like the French master, Davenport’s best drawings have anatomical weight and solidity: his characters, no matter how absurd the scene, are drawn as if they have sturdy skeletons under their flesh.

George Herriman was another cartoonist Davenport frequently alluded to. In an essay on E.E. Cummings, Davenport noted that we can appreciate this poet by “remembering that at any moment in any of his poems he is likely to be ventriloquizing the elate Krazy.” In his utopian story “Apples and Pears,” Davenport imagined a colony of artists who had access to “all of Piet Mondriaan, all of George Herriman.” (In his recently published correspondence with James Laughlin, Davenport praised three cartoonists: Herriman, Fontaine Fox, and Bill Watterson).

Davenport stopped writing fiction when he was an undergraduate. In 1970, at age 43, he returned to imaginative writing and also in the process started a new phase of his career as a visual artist. Of his eight short-story collections, four are illustrated: Tatlin! (1974), Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979), Eclogues (1981), and Apples and Pears (1984). In Eclogues, the drawings are by the Roy R. Behrens; in the other three books, Davenport illustrated his own stories (except for two pages taken from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska).

(Davenport drawing from his Apples and Pears).

In all these books, the drawings are not mere ornamentation. Rather, they are tightly woven in with the texts, words and pictures providing mutual reinforcement. In a deep sense, the words and pictures come from the same hand working for the same purpose.

“The prime use of words is for imagery,” Davenport once told an interviewer. “My writing is drawing.” On another occasion he observed that “Writing and drawing, distinct as they are, must converge in their root-system in the brain.”

This can be seen clearly in Davenport’s early story, “Tatlin!” which is the opening and title story of his first collection, setting the stage for his career. The story is based on a historical figure: the Russian painter and designer, Vladimir Tatlin, who briefly flourished after the Bolshevik revolution in the great flowering of the 1920s before being crushed, spiritually and aesthetically, by Stalinism. Tatlin is paradigmatic of Russian art in the 20th century, both its great promise and long suffocation.

The story opens in 1932, with a Moscow showing of Tatlin’s newest invention, a glider. “Tatlin, the ironic Tatlin, is exhibiting Constructivist works at the People’s Museum of Decorative Arts. Lenin’s face from posters beside every entrance. Lenin’s face is among the exhibits inside.” This early stage setting announces the theme of art and politics. Because Lenin is first seen as a poster, we’re reminded that not only does politics dominate over art, sometimes politics becomes art.

Then we’re given an early glimpse of the Tatlin’s glider. “From the ceiling hangs a flying machine. It looks like nothing so much as the fossil skeleton of a pterodactyl. To those who have seen Leonardo’s sepia designs for a Tuscan ornithopter, that is what it looks like.” Although a piece of technology, the glider is made to seem welcoming and humane because it grows out of the biological universe. Early machines are often like that. We’re told about Clemont Ader’s Avion, which lifted “shaking like a dragonfly above a French meadow in the wild wet spring when Tatlin was twelve.” Equally organic is Tatlin’s design for the glider: “There are interesting drawings of sinuous parallel lines which part from each other around diagrams of the glider, like the grain of wood around a knot. These are air currents. There are arrows to indicate the direction of flow.”

We’re in the third page of the story now, and, if we’re at all attentive to language, we realize that Davenport has a rare gift of visual description: His words plant images in our mind. But on the opposite page of these word-pictures is an actual drawing: Tatlin sitting down with one of his constructivist assemblages behind him. Looking sharp and thoughtful, with high cheek-bones and deep-set eyes, Tatlin is an artist enjoying his show. There are 11 more pictures in the story, tied to other moments in time.

(Davenport drawing from Tatlin!)

The second picture, on page four, is a close up of Lenin, with a hammer and sickle in the background. On page 16, the same picture of Lenin. Then there is a series of close-ups of Tatlin’s art, mostly collages: These are on pages 20, 23, 25, 27, 29. Lenin returns on page 32. The last three pictures are identical images of Stalin: an agitprop image of the dictator facing leftward, peering into the future, wearing full military regalia. This images are on pages 39, 45, 50.

Both the content and sequence of these pictures repays close attention. In progression they tell the story of the move from Lenin to Stalin, from early revolutionary enthusiasm to the deadening hand of state propaganda. Whereas Lenin and Tatlin are both wearing suits, Stalin is in uniform.

With the symmetry that is everywhere present in his work, Davenport balanced six Tatlin images with six Lenin/Stalin ones. But the quality of the pictures is very different, as well. No two images of Tatlin’s are replicated, whereas Lenin and Stalin seem as mass-produced as Campbell’s soup cans. Moreover the political drawings are crisp, having the false clarity of ideology; the images of Tatlin’s art are more fragile and blurred.

As Davenport explained to an interviewer from The Paris Review, “With “Tatlin!” I had to reconstruct, from fuzzy Benday-dot photographs, actual works of art that had been destroyed. There were no sources for Vladimir Tatlin’s paintings or his constructs at that time, and I like the idea of working with something that almost isn’t there.”

Like “Tatlin!” all of Davenport’s illustrated stories are inventions. The pictures never serve simply to replicate what is in the words but rather add new information or a fresh perspective. These illustrated stories paralleled and anticipated some of the experiments of writers like Donald Barthelme and W.G. Sebald (kissing cousins in Davenport’s literary universe.)

“It was my intention, when I began writing fiction several years ago, to construct texts that were both written and drawn,” Davenport noted in the introduction to his 1996 book Fifty Drawings, a gathering of his fugitive pen-and-ink work. “In my first work of fiction, ‘Tatlin’ (1974) I drew careful replicas of works by Vladimir Tatlin that exist only as poor reproductions. These were meant to be as much a part of the story as my narrative and required more time to do than the writing. No critic has commented on them, as seeing and reading are now alienated.”

The alienation of reading and seeing eventually led Davenport to become disillusioned with this technique, largely because he felt that readers didn’t understand what he was up to. “I continued this method right through Apples and Pears, in which I constructed images that a Dutch philosopher had pasted in his ‘philosophical sketchbook.’ The designer understood these collages to be gratuitous illustrations having nothing to do with anything, reduced them all to burnt toast, framed them with nonsensical lines, and sabotaged my whole enterprise. I took this as a final defeat and have not tried combine drawing and writing in any later work of fiction.”

As a matter of fact, this is not exactly true, since Davenport did a few limited-edition books where the designers carefully integrated his text and drawings. Now fetching enormous prices on the rare-book market, titles like The Bowmen of Shu (1984) and August (1992) are perhaps the finest embodiment of Davenport’s fusion of drawing and writing.

Although he stopped illustrating his own stories, Davenport kept drawing and painting, largely for his private pleasure. Despite the fact that they were never offered for sale, his artwork acquired enough of a word-of-mouth reputation that they inspired a thoughtful and richly illustrated book, A Balance of Quinces: The Paintings and Drawings of Guy Davenport (1996) by Erik Anderson Reece. Full of smart observations about Davenport’s worldview and close examinations of his art, this book vindicates Davenport’s half-hidden career as a artist.

In reading Reece’s fine monograph and returning to Davenport’s books, I’m struck by how much an artist he remains even in his most prosaic moments. In his famous essay “The Geography of the Imagination” (found in the essay collection of the same name), Davenport invites us to take a closer look at a painting that might seem in no need of explication, since we’ve seen it reproduced and parodied so often: Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Although considered an American classic, Davenport wanted to trace the roots of Wood’s painting deep into the European and African past. “She is product of the ages, this modest Iowa farm wife: she has the hair-do of a medieval Madonna, a Reformation collar, a Greek cameo, a nineteenth century pinafore,” Davenport noted. “Martin Luther put her a step behind her husband; John Knox squared her shoulders; the stock-market crash of 1929 put that look in her eyes.”

The very pose of the couple has a history. “Grant Wood’s Iowans stand, as we might guess, in a posed dictated by the Brownie box camera, close together in front of their house, the farmer looking at the lens with solemn honesty, his wife with modestly averted eyes. But that will not account for the pitchfork held as assertively as a minuteman’s rifle. The pose is rather of the Egyptian prince Rahotep, holding the flail of Osiris, beside his wife Nufrit — strict with pious, rectitude, poised in absolute dignity, mediators between heaven and earth, givers of grain, obedient to the gods.”

In looking at American Gothic so closely, Davenport has virtually given us a new painting. His analysis is a magnificent piece of writing, but wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t have the eyes of an artist himself. As so often in his work, we find here that Davenport has perfectly integrated a painter’s skilled eye with high literacy.

Note: I want to thank David Eisenman, expert in all things Davenport, for the assistance he provided in writing this essay.

7 thoughts on “Guy Davenport: the writer as cartoonist

  1. A wonderful essay (again), Jeet. So pleasant to come across it while blogging around. Thanks! If only I had had the good sense to put this in front of my students in “Literature & the Visual Arts” last semester…

  2. Excellent article, which I have visited (albeit late) a la Silliman’s blog. I would add that not all cartoonists are unaware of Davenport. In Jaime Hernandez’s “Dicks and Deedees” (of the Love and Rockets series) one of the characters goes into a cave that features drawings on the wall. One of the drawings is a pair of briefs underwear, an irrefutable allusion to Davenport.

  3. All the frustration and rage boiling within her poured into the choking bodies around her. His hands came over her eyes, which wouldnt see then the black truly took over. Is the casting of this spell anything like the one that changes women to raedjour? He really was afraid. His hands were comforting weights on her shoulders, helping her to ground. His palm smoothed over her forehead, gently smoothing her hair back from her face. Hyles warm smile displayed his confidence. He pulled her from Gala into his own embrace. But thats not what she agreed with Radin. This felt right, and she was here cutting out her soul anyway. I love all three of you and probably always have. Brevin had stepped aside, a huge shadow beside Tykirs shoulder. She arched her back as best she could and screamed. No more prompting was necessary. When he slapped her again, she complied, twisting over. Yet more fingers stroked her clit while it dragged Brevins length. She considered lighting one or two of the lamps but discarded the idea. Sadness washed over his face, although a small smile remained. I would cherish any child you had by any man. My goddess has blessed me, he spoke into her mind.

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