“75 at 75: Writers on Recordings,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary and beyond, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Lydia Davis reflects on John Dos Passos’s reading from January 18, 1965, which was introduced by her father, Robert Gorham Davis, Columbia English professor and literary critic.
Offered the rich array of events recorded in the decades-spanning Unterberg Poetry Center archive, I was immediately drawn to comment upon John Dos Passos reading at the 92nd Street Y, before knowing what he had read or how interesting the evening was or wasn’t. I was drawn to it because the one who introduced him that evening—January 18, 1965—was my father, Robert Gorham Davis, then a literary critic and professor at Columbia. I had another strong reason to want to revisit Dos Passos, and it was that one of his books, most likely Manhattan Transfer or part of the U.S.A. trilogy, was the first book that appealed to me, at age twelve or fourteen, purely for the quality of the writing. I have tried and tried, without success, to find what I remember as those limpid, incantatory opening paragraphs. It was perhaps my first “grown-up” book (if I don’t count Mazo de la Roche’s rather steamy Jalna series). To be intrigued by more than plot and character, by the language of the writing itself, was the beginning of my slow awakening to the power of writing. And, of course, it changed the way I read a book—no longer mainly for the story, for an escape into another world, but now also for the way the sentences were formed, the kind of language that was used. Read More