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Reviewed by:
  • Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner ed. by Edward M. Burns
  • Tim Conley (bio)
QUESTIONING MINDS: THE LETTERS OF GUY DAVENPORT AND HUGH KENNER, edited by Edward M. Burns. Berkeley: Counterpoint Publishers, 2018. Vol. 1: xix + 868 pp., Vol 2: 1871 pp. $95.00 cloth.

The correspondence of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner is a feast, though anyone familiar with either or (magis etiam felix) both would guess as much and hardly need a reviewer to convince that person to seek it out. On the other hand, those who have not read The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays and The Pound Era should cease reading this review at once and proceed with all haste to a decent library.1 Having thus perhaps dispelled my entire audience, I will nonetheless proceed for the sake of curious lingerers, for curiosity is not just the abiding but the insatiable quality in these two fat volumes.

A scan of a random page of the index—which finds multiple references to Heinrich Schliemann, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Scott, Ronald Searle, the Second Vatican Council, Seneca the Younger, and Dr. Seuss—confirms that the reader will want to have a notebook at the ready (1:xciv, 2:lxvi). The correspondents' shared enthusiasms are, as this index sample might suggest, arrestingly diverse (for example, Marianne Moore, Charles Babbage, Edward Gorey, Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Sappho, Buster Keaton, Alan Turing, and Louis Zukofsky). Davenport and Kenner trade publishing news, academic and literary gossip, notes on Greek and Latin, diagrams and drawings, complaints about reviews, and various news items, from the hunt for the elusive Waste Land manuscript to the death of Marilyn Monroe (1:38, 1:478). Davenport exhorts Kenner to watch Stan Brakhage's films and read J. R. R. Tolkien; Kenner recommends Flann O'Brien and Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.2 Even long-time readers of these writers will find surprises, such as the fact that Tolkien so impressed Kenner that at one point he considered using a passage from the Lord of the Rings as an unattributed epigraph to The Pound Era (1: 428).3 (Upon reading this, my imagination, unbidden, cast Sir Ian McKellen in white robes declaiming: Usura, you shall not pass!)

There are more casually tossed-off insights and penetrating questions in a few given letters between them than are found in entire monographs. I submit as examples of such sparks Davenport's characterization of Sigmund Freud as "the Cotton Mather of psychology" (2:1531) and his musing about how it "would be interesting to know the first poet who wanted to be a bird" (followed by a tracing of [End Page 433] themes between Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Butler Yeats, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Archilochos (1:813, 813-14), and, from Kenner, this aphorism: "To translate is not different in principle from the imitation of human actions by playing upon the flute. The latter is, by equivalency theories, impossible, but Aristotle opens the Poetics by assuming it can be done" (1:693).

As a constant touchstone—or a lingua franca—Joyce is second here only to Ezra Pound, and those interested in the history of Joyce criticism will find many choice morsels. Of the 1971 Joyce Symposium in Trieste, Kenner reports that locals "were tolerant of the fact that many conferees seemed hooked on [Italo] Svevo's friend the visiting Irishman" (2:1356). His 1988 assessment of the Joyce Wars and attendant furors is as decisive as it is wry: John Kidd is "mad," full stop, and "the press always has the complaints [about the Hans Walter Gabler edition] coming from 'scholars,' leaving the naïve to suppose that the work was done by truck-drivers, the lot (1) German, (2) male, (3) using (shudder) computers" (2:1791). In the same letter, he doubts Stephen Joyce's assertion at the recent Venice Symposium that he had burned all letters between himself and Lucia: "It would be like shooting one's hostage" (2:1791). Kenner esteems Fritz Senn and Adaline Glasheen but calls A. Walton Litz "an honest kind of bungler" (1:93) and says...