In 1882, the year Virginia Woolf and William Carlos Williams were born, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter, a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball. It wasn’t as good as a Remington but it was cheaper. Nietzsche was losing his eyesight, probably as a result of syphilis, and hoped the Writing Ball would help. But first he had to master touch-typing. He soon gave up on the experiment. But he noticed that when he wrote down his thoughts on the Malling-Hansen his writing style changed. It became tighter, more telegraphic and aphoristic. ‘Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,’ a friend said to him. ‘You are right,’ Nietzsche answered. ‘Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.’
This wouldn’t have come as news to Marshall McLuhan, Hugh Kenner’s mentor at the University of Toronto in the mid-1940s who in 1967 published The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. McLuhan once got Kenner to drive him (he didn’t drive) to visit Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC, where he’d been incarcerated in 1945, having pleaded insanity to avoid a treason charge for the seditious radio talks he delivered in Italy during the war. He remained at St Elizabeth’s for 12 years. The old man McLuhan and Kenner saw there wasn’t insane. He was the same brilliant, manipulative, unrepentant fascist and antisemite he had always been and remained until his death, despite occasional public disavowals (‘My worst mistake was that stupid, suburban prejudice of antisemitism,’ he said to Allen Ginsberg, although it’s a better description of T.S. Eliot’s brand of antisemitism than his own). Kenner was bewitched by the ‘emphatic, aphoristic quality’ of Pound’s speech, which was ‘of a piece with the working of one of the most active minds I had ever experienced’. Kenner put some of the qualities he saw in Pound – clarity, compression, boldness, swiftness of juxtaposition – at the heart of his account of literary modernism in place of the then fashionable New Critical concentration on tension, irony and paradox. ‘Half of my subsequent life was derived from that visit,’ Kenner wrote after McLuhan died.
Around the same time, Guy Davenport, a young Rhodes Scholar, was spending the summer tramping around France and Italy with a recently made friend, Christopher Middleton. They had only two books with them, a collection of Donne’s poems and Pound’s Cantos. ‘Neither of us, I think, had much notion as to what the long poem was about,’ Davenport remembered, ‘except that it had strangeness and beauty in great measure. It, like Donne, was always something to read, passing magic … Thank God the universities let contemporary literature alone in those days!’
Questioning Minds, a massive, two-volume collection of the letters Kenner and Davenport sent each other over the course of 44 years, copiously annotated by Edward Burns and cross-referenced at the end of each year, begins, politely and a bit tentatively, in March 1958: ‘Dear Guy, I hope subsequent activities haven’t yet sufficed to obliterate our Boston dinner last fall from your memory.’ The two had crossed paths five years earlier, when they both gave papers on Pound at Columbia, and met again for dinner in 1957.
Kenner was writing from Peterborough, Ontario, where he had been brought up, although he was teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His chief motive in choosing Santa Barbara was to put some distance between himself and McLuhan. ‘I had the advantage of being exposed to Marshall when he was at his most creative,’ Kenner said later, ‘and then of getting to the far edge of the continent shortly afterwards, when he couldn’t get me on the phone all the time. He could be awfully controlling.’ By this time Kenner had published four scholarly books: on Chesterton, Pound, Wyndham Lewis and Joyce. Dublin’s Joyce was a version of his PhD dissertation: McLuhan had dragged Kenner to Yale after the St Elizabeth’s visit and told Cleanth Brooks to take him on.
When Davenport received Kenner’s letter he was at his parents’ house in Anderson, South Carolina, in the foothills of the Appalachians. He was the son of a Railway Express agent and a Baptist housewife, neither of them bookish or ambitious. He left high school in the tenth grade, when he was 16, to enrol at Duke University as a ‘desperately poor’ undergraduate, ‘romantically and self-indulgently lonely’. He graduated at the top of his class and went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, graduating with a B.Litt, after writing the university’s first thesis on Joyce. When Kenner wrote to him in 1958 he was finishing a Harvard PhD on Pound’s Cantos. When he answered Kenner’s letter he complained to him about ‘the dread [Harry] Levin’, his supervisor, who seemed unimpressed by his choice of subject and methodology. ‘Damn Levin,’ Kenner wrote to Davenport in April 1961, annoyed that Levin’s behaviour might block Davenport’s PhD, which would mean he couldn’t recruit Davenport to Santa Barbara, where he was head of the English Department. Davenport was keen on the idea but the then governor of California, Pat Brown, Jerry’s father, cut the university’s funding, putting paid to the possibility of new appointments. Davenport ended up teaching at Haverford College in Pennsylvania for two years and then took a job at the University of Kentucky, ‘the remotest offer with the most pay’. He taught there for 27 years; in 1973 Kenner moved on to Johns Hopkins for 17 years, and finally, in 1990, to the University of Georgia for a decade. By 1977, the exchange of letters, which had been frequent and intense, begins to trail off. From 1989 to 2002 they communicated only 11 times in all. Kenner died in 2003; Davenport in 2005. In his excellent introduction, Burns writes that Kenner seems to have become uncomfortable with Davenport’s homosexuality (he was, in fact, bisexual) and the unmistakable homoerotic content in his stories and drawings.
Born a Protestant, Kenner converted to Catholicism in 1964, as McLuhan had in 1937. He had long been under the sway of Catholicism before his conversion, but he scorned the ‘middle-brow Catholic intellectuals’ of the 20th century who ‘found a facile role in condemning modernity’. In A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers (1988) he lamented that ‘alienation from the whole century could be made to seem a Catholic English layman’s moral duty,’ but his swipe wasn’t so much intended at Rome as at London, which he saw as a backwater of modernism. Kenner believed that his own version of Catholicism, like Pound’s poetry, was an exciting fusion of ritual enactment and new knowledge.
Kenner became aligned with a politically conservative brand of American Catholicism. He was great friends with William F. Buckley Jr, founder and editor of the National Review, who was best man at his second wedding in 1965. He wrote reviews and critical articles for the magazine and served as its poetry editor in the early 1960s. It must have seemed strange to read the poetry of Pound, Williams, Robert Duncan, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Robert Creeley and Louis Zukofsky in a right-wing political journal. ‘Don’t worry about the Birch boys,’ Kenner wrote to Davenport in 1961, trying to persuade him to contribute to the magazine, ‘Buckley some time ago issued a policy declining to print any writers who also wrote for the Am. Mercury (to avoid NR getting tainted with Am. Mercury’s antisemitism) … Bill is determined, in short, to keep the magazine clear of crankery.’
Davenport doesn’t seem to have been much interested in politics, and he wasn’t an antisemite. In an essay in The Geography of the Imagination (1981) he wrote of his own visit to Pound in St Elizabeth’s: ‘And it was from Pound himself that I first saw how whacky the antisemitism was. It made no sense that I could see. I had paid attention to the war, I knew refugees, I understood Treblinka and Buchenwald, I had seen Europe in ruins.’ Kenner doesn’t seem to have had a problem with it; many Pound scholars and enthusiasts don’t and become very cross if you bring it up. It’s all part of the package, along with Pound’s support of Major Douglas’s social credit scheme, and the other cranky detours that blight the Cantos, all mixed in with the gems that make the poem a sprawling, messy marvel.
I was already in touch with Davenport when I visited Basil Bunting at his house near Newcastle in 1978. Bunting knew Kenner and admired his writings on poetry: he was one of only two critics Bunting thought any use, the other being Kenneth Cox. Bunting thought I should be in touch with Kenner. ‘But bear in mind, August, he’s an antisemite and quite deaf, but not so deaf now with his second wife as he was with his first.’ I never got any response from Kenner when I sent him this book or that over the years.
Davenport and I corresponded infrequently for 25 years. His letters were always memorable, encouraging, full of observations and enthusiasms, and sometimes included small drawings of tiny, almost hieroglyphic figures. I honestly believe I might well not have had the courage to persist during those lean early years were it not for his letters. The letters here are not masterpieces in themselves, like those of Virginia Woolf, say, or Hart Crane, but cumulatively they contain a staggering intellectual energy and erudition. In fact, the Davenport-Kenner letters most resemble Pound’s letters, with a similar telegraphic energy, erudition and bite. They even emulate his mock peremptory tone, his playfulness with orthography, ampersands, contractions and low speech. Although this should not be a surprise, given the position he occupied in their intellectual universe and their fascination with the way his mind worked.
The epistolary relationship intensifies in 1962, when the two wrote to each other almost every day, sometimes twice a day. This intellectual love affair continued for a decade and more, before slowing down. ‘Hugh me boy,’ ‘Caro duce:--’ Davenport began his letters. ‘Cher delineateur,’ Kenner replied. During this period Kenner published two books on T.S. Eliot, a critical study of Samuel Beckett and The Pound Era, his masterwork (to which Davenport provided considerable input, including the gnomic final sentence: ‘Thought is a labyrinth’), along with several other books, including The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy which had delightful illustrations by Davenport of Buster Keaton, W.B. Yeats, Abraham Cowley, a ‘Franco-Cantabrian Muralist’, Andy Warhol and Charles Babbage, among others. Davenport published his first book of short fiction (or ‘assemblages’ as he called it), Tatlin! Six Stories, as well as translations of the fragments of Archilochos (the first work by Davenport I encountered and was gripped by), Sappho, and his own masterpiece, A Geography of the Imagination.
The letters display an intellectual exhilaration about academic discoveries and connections across genre, across eras: the melding of the present with the past is critical to both. The two men occupy a cerebral, rarefied universe. There’s a dearth of the personal in the letters, save logistics, descriptions of visits to celebrated figures like Williams, Pound, Marianne Moore, Eliot, Stan Brakhage, Eudora Welty, grousing about teaching, scutwork (a term I learned from Davenport ), recalcitrant colleagues or dim reviewers. Modernism is resistant to the personal. It can seem a rather chilly realm, off-putting to writers like Larkin, with his woeful trinity: ‘3 P’s: Pound, Picasso and Parker.’ Parker would have meant next to nothing to Davenport and Kenner, though they were infatuated with the idea of modernism. Kenner described what he called the ‘Pound Era’ as ‘an X-ray moving picture of how our epoch was extricated from the fin de siècle’.
The choice of image was fitting: modernism was born of urbanisation and technology – steam power, photography, air travel, industrial warfare, cinema, the X-ray machine, the internal combustion engine, radio, et al. ‘A roaring car that seems to be driving under shrapnel is more beautiful than The Victory of Samothrace,’ Marinetti wrote in the ‘Futurist Manifesto’. As well as speed, compression and juxtaposition, modernists were interested in simultaneity, resistance to closure, the flattening of time and space, dissonance, obliquity, transformation, plasticity, the illusions of accident, spontaneity and freedom. It makes use of devices like fragmentation, collage, surprising and abrupt transitions, the reduction of entire blocks of description, narrative and emotion to the telling detail. Davenport and Kenner’s letters (Kenner’s much less than Davenport’s) incorporate a number of these devices.
The most touching moment in the correspondence is also one of the most surprising. It comes in 1964 when one of these two fervent advocates of modernism goes off-piste into the personal:
I’ve been down here – home – all week. Daddy died Wednesday; funeral this morning, Friday … We were always on good terms in a quiet sort of way; I never ‘rebelled’ and he never coerced. He was always proud of my drawing and my education, and I reciprocated by taking seriously his hobbies – an impressive collection of Indian weaponry and utensils, trees and flowers, fervent expeditions to visit everything historical and antiquarian. I chose 1 John 4:7-21 for his eulogy – the minister thought a scholarly son ought to set the tone for the sermon.
There is no better way to say certain things.