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Guy Davenport Dies; Writer Had Distinct Voice

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page C07

Guy Davenport, 77, an erudite author, poet and critic whose subtle and demanding works won him a loyal literary following, died Jan. 4 of lung cancer at a hospital in Lexington, Ky., where he lived.

Mr. Davenport, who taught at the University of Kentucky for nearly three decades, was a man of wide learning who freely dropped references to ancient cave paintings, classical poetry and 18th-century French philosophy throughout his work. His essays and short stories were often written in a distinctive, original style.

Guy Davenport taught at the University of Kentucky. "A Davenport sentence or short paragraph," one critic noted, "is instantaneously recognizable." (Charles Bertram -- Lexington Herald-leader Via Los Angeles Time)

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"A Davenport sentence or short paragraph," critic George Steiner noted, "is instantaneously recognizable."

Mr. Davenport wrote or contributed to more than 40 books, but his best-known work may have been his 1981 essay collection, "The Geography of the Imagination." Besides his writing and teaching, he translated literature from Greek and other languages and sometimes illustrated his works with his own drawings and paintings. In 1990, he received a MacArthur Foundation grant of $365,000, commonly called a genius grant.

"To my mind," Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in 1996, "Guy Davenport is the best literary essayist since Randall Jarrell and Cyril Connolly; like them, he possesses an original critical intelligence, a sensibility appealingly out of step with our debased times and, most important of all, a distinctive and congenial voice, a unique sound."

Mr. Davenport wrote in an allusive, sometimes difficult prose style, yet he had a corps of devoted readers who hunted down everything he published, often in obscure journals. Though he wasn't writing about himself, Mr. Davenport expressed what many readers admired in his writing in a 1982 essay:

"Unless the work of art has wholly exhausted its maker's attention, it fails. This is why works of great significance are demanding and why they are infinitely rewarding."

Mr. Davenport's writings sometimes blended historical fact with fiction, as figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Gertrude Stein or Franz Kafka appeared alongside imaginary characters. He estimated that five to 10 years of research underlay each essay and story.

"Fiction's essential activity is to imagine how others feel, what a Saturday afternoon in an Italian town in the second century looked like," Mr. Davenport once wrote. "My ambition is solely to get some effect, as of light on stone in a forest on a September day. . . . "

Guy Mattison Davenport Jr. was born in Anderson, S.C. Even though he dropped out of school in the ninth grade, he was admitted to Duke University as an art student, graduating in 1948. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, from which he received a graduate degree in English. One of his professors at Oxford was J.R.R. Tolkien, author of "The Lord of the Rings," whom Mr. Davenport found "mumbling and pedantic."

After serving in an Army airborne unit in the early 1950s, Mr. Davenport received a doctorate in English from Harvard University in 1961. His dissertation was on Ezra Pound, whom he had met in 1952 when the poet was a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington.

Mr. Davenport taught at Washington University in St. Louis and at Haverford College in Pennsylvania before joining the University of Kentucky faculty in 1963. At Kentucky, where he was free to teach whatever he wanted, his classes were eagerly sought out.

"He was one of the great faculty members in this institution's history," University of Kentucky Provost Michael T. Nietzel said in a statement.

Because he never learned to drive, Mr. Davenport lived near the campus in Lexington and walked to his office. He once turned down an offer to teach at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore because he didn't think he could find a house within walking distance.

After retiring from teaching in 1991, Mr. Davenport published three volumes of short stories, three collections of essays, as well as other works about art and other subjects.

Survivors include Bonnie Jean Cox, his companion of 40 years.

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