The Geography of the Imagination:

Forty Essays

Before the internet, Google, and hyperlinks, Guy Davenport was the original polymath, perhaps the last great American polymath, who provided the links between art and literature, music and sculpture, modernist poets and classic philosophers, the past and present. And pretty much everything in between. Not only has he seemingly read (and often translated from the original languages) everything in print, he also has the ability, expressed with unalloyed enthusiasm, to make the connections, to see how cultural synapses make, define, and reflect our civilization. He serves as our guide through the jungles of history and literature, pointing out the values and avenues of thought that have shaped our ideas and our thinking.

Geography of the Imagination is part of Godine’s Nonpareil series: celebrating the joy of discovery with books bound to be classics. See here for a complete list of Nonpareils.


“Guy Davenport’s genius merits awe, but inspires excitement. His writing reminds us that our time is finite, and that the world’s offerings are infinite. Reading these essays will make you feel more alive.”
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast

“No one writes like Guy Davenport. He’s a genius, sure, but also a delightful, generous example of how exhilarating the life of the mind can be. These inventive and harmonious essays are a dazzling reminder that great writing is also great fun.”
Jenny Offill, author of Weather

“More than its erudition, which seems inexhaustible and impossible; more than its quality of attention, animated in prose exact and alive and authoritative; more even than its elected awes, what distinguishes Guy Davenport’s criticism is its steadfastness in—and to—tradition. A tradition that was, as he wrote, rotting all around him. Still, he wrote—and how!—past all the agents of decay, past ignorance, amnesia, incoherence, unreason, error, and entertainment, into seed-rich solum, blood and bone, where all past is dense present, and there he found what was best and most beautiful and brought it back up for us to see. No small work. If tradition survives, it will be in no small measure due to Guy Davenport, who is bedrock now.”
Nam Le, author of 36 Ways of Writing a Vietnamese Poem

The Geography of the Imagination offers take-to-a-desert-island levels of companionship. Davenport is simultaneously a reliable and marvelously unpredictable friend.”
Rivka Galchen, author of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch

“Guy Davenport writes, in one of these lovely essays, about Joyce’s stylistic signature, his ‘labyrinthine thumbprint.’ And that labyrinthine thumbprint is how we know Davenport, too. A kind of Kentucky Sir Thomas Browne, he is a fascinated collector of marvels, an antiquarian but also a modernist, a curious imaginer, an omnivorous swallower of all traditions who is always boldly creating his own—nothing less than a ‘geography’ that might stretch from ‘the shores of the Mediterranean all the way to Iowa.’”
James Wood, author of Serious Noticing: Selected Essays 1997–2019

“One of our most gifted and versatile men of letters.”
New York Times

“There is no way to prepare yourself for reading Guy Davenport. You stand in awe of the connections he can make between the archaic and the modern; he makes the remote familiar and the familiar fundamental.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“In these forty essays, spanning the length of a distinguished career, one of America’s major literary critics elucidates an astonishing range of literary history with both wit and wisdom.”

“As a critic, Davenport shines as an intrepid appreciator, an ideal teacher. By preference, he likes to walk the reader through a painting or a poem, teasing out the meaning of odd details, making connections with history and other works of art. His must-have essay collections, The Geography of the Imagination and Every Force Evolves a Form, display his range: With a rainwater clarity, he can write about the naturalist Louis Agassiz or ancient poetry and thought…He can account for the importance of prehistoric cave art to early modernism or outline the achievements of Joyce and Pound. He can make you yearn to read or look again at neglected masters like the poets Charles Olsen and Louis Zukofsky and the painters Balthus and Charles Burchfield. He can send you out eagerly searching for C. M. Doughty’s six-volume epic poem, The Dawn in Britain, and for the works of Ronald Johnson, Jonathan Williams and Paul Metcalf. In all this, his method is nothing other than the deep attentiveness engendered by love: that and a firm faith in simply knowing things. He conveys, to adopt his own words about painter Paul Cadmus, ‘a perfect balance of spirit and information.”
Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

Guy Davenport was a writer, illustrator, teacher, and scholar. He is best known for his modernist-style short stories, but his range of works is wide, spanning poetry, translation, and criticism. He was a professor of English for three decades, having taught at Haverford College and the University of Kentucky.
Davenport published over 40 books, among them collections of short stories, translations from the Greek, illustrated works, a novel, and critical studies on literature, culture, and art. Among his five collections of poems are Flowers and Leaves (1966; 1991) and Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950–1980 (1986). He received a MacArthur fellowship, an O. Henry Award, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

John Jeremiah Sullivan lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He’s the author of the memoir Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son and the essay collection Pulphead. He’s won several awards, including the Whiting and the National Magazine Award and the Windham-Campbell Prize. He was a fellow at the NYPL’s Cullman Center and a Guggenheim fellow. He is a co-founder of Third Person Project, a nonprofit research collective in Wilmington, focused on the Black history of the Cape Fear region.