Retired Professor Guy Davenport Dies

Contact: Ralph Derickson

Photo of Guy Davenport in class
(University Archives and Records Program, Special Collections and Digital Initiatives, University of Kentucky Libraries)
Guy Davenport in class

Photo of Guy Davenport
Guy Davenport

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He joined the University of Kentucky faculty in 1963. That same year he published a book on Harvard University’s natural philosopher Louis Agassiz, followed by several volumes of poetry, translations of works from classical Greek authors and essays on modernist poets. In 1974, Scribner’s published his first collection of short stories titled “Tatlin!” A second collection of short stories, “DaVinci’s Bicycle,” was published in 1979.

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 4, 2005) -- Author, poet, critic and artist Guy Mattison Davenport Jr., who retired in 1990 as a Distinguished Alumni Professor of English in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, died at 10:15 a.m. today at the UK Lucille Parker Markey Cancer Center.

Contributions to the Markey Cancer Center have been suggested to honor Davenport’s memory. A memorial service will be announced later.

Born Nov. 23, 1927, Davenport has been recognized nationally and internationally by many educational and professional institutions for his academic and intellectual achievements. Among the many awards and honors he received was a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1990, which carried a substantial financial prize.

UK Provost Michael T. Nietzel said Davenport was “one of the great faculty members in this institution’s history. I really think in many ways we didn't recognize him locally as well as we should have, given the stature he had internationally, among writers, among artists, among that broad sweep of humanists.”

Erik Reece, a current member of the English faculty and a close friend and former Davenport student, said Davenport “was the most intellectually alive person I've ever met.” Reece added, “He was an unqualified genius, so he talked over everybody’s head, but in a way that made you want to get to where he was.

“Davenport was always excited about the incredible possibilities for inventiveness in art, which is why he loved modernism. He lived by the poet William Carlos Williams’ quotation: ‘Invent!’”

“Guy Davenport was one of the most creative and original writers of the century. His presence in the UK English department was a miracle of good fortune,” added Ellen Rosenman, chair of the UK English department.

Davenport quit high school in Anderson, S.C., in 1944 to study art at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He majored in classics and English and was selected as a Rhodes Scholar in 1948. As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he was a member of Merton College, where he wrote the first thesis on James Joyce to be accepted by that university. He received a literature degree in 1950 and returned to the United States.

From 1950 through 1952, he served in the XVIII Airborne Corps and from 1952 through 1955, he taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. In 1952, he met the poet Ezra Pound, an event that cemented his already firm interest in modern literature.

In 1955, he began working on his doctorate at Harvard. His doctoral thesis was a pioneer study of Pound’s “Cantos.” From 1961 to 1963, he taught at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa.

He joined the University of Kentucky faculty in 1963. That same year he published a book on Harvard University’s natural philosopher Louis Agassiz, followed by several volumes of poetry, translations of works from classical Greek authors and essays on modernist poets. In 1974, Scribner’s published his first collection of short stories titled “Tatlin!” A second collection of short stories, “DaVinci’s Bicycle,” was published in 1979.

“Eclogues” appeared in 1981 as well as a collection of 40 essays, “Geography of the Imagination.” Other publications include: “Thasos and Ohio,” a volume of poems, in 1986; “The Jules Verne Steam Balloon” short story collection in 1987; “A Table of Green Fields“ in 1993; “The Cardiff Team” in 1996; and “A Balance of Quinces,” an edition of his paintings and drawings. In 1997 he published “The Hunter Gracchus,” a collection of essays on literature and art, and in 1998 “Objects on a Table,” an aesthetic meditation on the representation of objects in literature and still-life painting, was published.

In 1977, Davenport was one of the first four university professors to be named University Research Professors, which included extra financial compensation from UK and time off for study and research.

Along with his published works, Davenport’s other awards included a 1992 honorary doctorate from UK, the O. Henry Award for short stories, the 1981 Morton Douwen Zabel award for fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, translation awards from PEN and the Academy of American Poets, and the Leviton-Blumenthal Prize for poetry.

In 1998, he was elected a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass. The academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams.

Kentucky Libraries honored Davenport with its 2001 Medallion for Intellectual Achievement, recognizing his broad contributions to American literature. The medallion is awarded annually to recognize outstanding intellectual achievements by individuals who have worked in Kentucky or are native Kentuckians. The medallion encourages education and the free and creative use of the mind by citizens of Kentucky.

Davenport donated his remains to the Body Bequeathal Program in the UK College of Medicine for teaching and research.


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