A Palpable Elysium

Softcover with flaps sale price: $6.00 (Regularly $30.00)

As a country, America has never been a slouch at producing “originals,” a term applied loosely and glibly to everyone from rock stars to CEOs. But if any place of the past century really did spawn originals like a breeding box, it was Black Mountain College, and among its many illustrious graduates is  Jonathan Williams: poet, publisher, raconteur, and eclectic collector of like spirits. In this wonderfully quirky book, Williams has made the rounds and produced his inventory of poets, painters, writers, and artists whose only commonality is their unequivocal distinction. And what a world it is, populated by his friends, some alive and some quite dead, people he knew, and people he wished he had known; famous people (Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Paul Strand, Buckminster Fuller, William Carlos Williams), people who should be famous but aren’t (Basil Bunting, Frederick Sommer, Aaron Siskind, Wendell Berry, Charles Olson, James Laughlin), and the gravestones of some who were once famous, are now interred, and whose memories he’d have us honor (H.P. Lovecraft, Wallace Stevens, Erik Satie, James Thurber). Musicians, writers, composers, and especially the white and black geniuses of Outsider Art (Howard Finster, Elijah Pierce, Keith Smith) are all here, alive and kicking, in Williams’s heaven of honorary prodigies.

This self-contained galaxy, this “home-made world” of extraordinary personalities captured on film and then decoded in extended captions, presents people of genuine accomplishment who are never going to be feted in the pages of People or interviewed on Oprah. As Davenport writes, “He is not a journalist looking for feature stories, nor a critic with an agenda, nor a lion hunter collecting names to drop. A cultural anthropologist? I see parallels with Ruskin finding forgotten painters of the Trecento.” Here is the flip side of America, where fame seldom intersects or coexists with true talent, and where the truly gifted often inhabit their own domains, hermetic, unseen, unheralded, but always present in the creative flux of our cultural landscape.

Jonathan Williams makes his home in Highlands, North Carolina, where he acts as the publisher of The Jargon Society, which for decades has been serving an ungrateful America everything from white trash cooking to the poetry of Lorine Niedecker.  His most recent book is Black Bird Dust.

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.