Books: ‘The Geography of the Imagination’ by Guy Davenport

Guy Davenport (1927-2005)

Long before the advent of the Internet, Guy Davenport seemed to find hyperlinks in everything he read. His boundless curiosity enabled him to make connections between disparate ideas and far-flung subjects. He was, what we may call, a “one-man Renaissance” of the 20th century.

Davenport wrote mostly about the making and meaning of culture in his now classic book, The Geography of the Imagination (1981) which contains 40 essays touching upon all manner of cultural subjects that piqued Davenport’s curiosity. In one chapter, titled “Findings”, he recalls childhood outings with his father to look for Native American arrowheads in Georgia and South Carolina in the upper Savannah valley. On these excursions, Davenport writes, “I learned that there are people who see nothing, who would not have noticed the splendidest of tomahawks if they had stepped on it, who could not tell a worked stone from a shard of flint or quartz, people who did not feel the excitement of the whoop we all let out when we found an arrowhead.”

The remarkable thing about this book is that, despite the often knotty material he explores, it is filled with the alertness and excitement of a boy’s eyes alighting on treasure, and those “treasures” include the work of philosophers Spinoza and Wittgenstein, of modernist poets Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky, of American originals such as Walt Whitman, the composer Charles Ives, and photographer-cum-short story writer, Eudora Welty, of prehistoric cave artists, 19th-century naturalists and 20th-century surrealists, of Herman Melville and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Even when you are unfamiliar with the subject of Davenport’s focus, you’re likely to be enthralled by what Davenport sees, and how he follows his exploration of each topic with unerring steps, clearing paths for his readers. “The imagination,” he writes, “is like the drunk man who lost his watch, and must be drunk again to find it. It is as intimate as speech and custom, and to trace its ways, we need to reeducate our eyes.”

Reeducating our eyes, metaphorically speaking, is Davenport’s goal precisely, as he wends his graceful way through the ideas of writers, thinkers, the witty and the learned, and those (like him) who are rich with imaginations. The Geography of the Imagination has enough ideas per page to fill ours. It is our loss if we never get the chance to read it from cover to cover.

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