After leaving high school in tenth grade for Duke, studying at Oxford (where Tolkien’s tutoring bored him to death), and finishing a Ph.D. at Harvard on the incarcerated Ezra Pound, Guy Davenport took a job in Kentucky in 1961, far away from much of the culture he would go on to write about. Years later, when asked why he chose Kentucky, Davenport famously said: The farthest away and the highest pay.
From his remote seat in Lexington, Davenport produced some of the most astonishing prose ever written by an American: Hobbits, Picasso, the history of the Mediterranean, spy novels, John Ruskin’s life, and Wittgenstein’s last words all fall under his purview. As with so many of the greatest essayists (Montaigne their progenitor) the anecdotal, historical, factual, and mundane mix easily, lightly even, to reveal the depth of his insight.
Davenport’s best-known essay, “The Geography of the Imagination,” introduces us to such a rich and diverse imagination that we are forced to expand the limits of our maps. New countries emerge, spanning centuries and disparate continents. As he puts it at the very beginning of the essay:
The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.