January 18, 2010

BOOKS: Adventures in Unhistory, Avram Davidson (1993)

In a series of essays, Davidson speculates on the possible factual origins of some of our great legends, among them werewolves, the phoenix, unicorns, and dragons.

Davidson's prose style is unique. These essays are like a series of lectures given the most charming, erudite, witty, avuncular professor on campus. Here's the first paragraph in the book, the opening of the essay "Where Did Sindbad Sail?"
It may be that the reply of many is, Who cares? And it lieth not in my power to make anyone care by force or constraint, but it may be I may be able to awaken the interest of those whose interests slumber. May it be. If we do not all recall to mind instantly the stories of Paul Bunyan the giant lumberjack of the North Woods, at least, I am sure, we have all heard of them and of him. I believe that there exists in the minds of all of us, shall I say a suspicion, that Paul Bunyan did not really own a big blue ox named Babe who measured -- was it forty axe-handles and a plug of chewing tobacco between the horns? We suspect, I think, that no one else did, either -- though, to be sure, it is "the plug of chewing-tobacco" which adds the touch of verisimilitude to what is an otherwise, if not bald, certainly an unconvincing narrative. But that does not in any way mean that there was never a Paul Bunyan, that there are no oxen, no axe-handles, no chewing-tobacco, no cakes and ale, and certainly not that there are no North Woods.

As you can gather from that, Davidson is prone to digression and meandering. Or, in any event, to what seems like meandering, though he always seems to make his way to the central topic of each essay, and usually manages to dazzle you with how neatly all of those digressions tie together. He is an extraordinarily well-read man, and pulls together references ranging from classic Greek literature (he is particularly fond of Pliny) to obscure Scandinavian reference volumes.

It has been nearly thirty years since these essays were originally published, and Davidson was not a young man then; there is an occasional reference that reminds the modern reader of how attitudes towards various ethnic groups have changed. It would be unduly harsh, I think, to describe Davidson as racist -- not for an instant does he come across as hostile or ill-intentioned -- but there is a hint of condescension that slips in now and then.

These essays were originally published as magazine articles, and I think that would probably have been the best way to read them. Davidson's rococo style is rich and dense, and reading the entire book in one stretch is a bit like eating the entire cheesecake in one sitting. And it is a style, I am sure, that would have many readers climbing up the wall. But if you can find your way into Davidson's distinctive prose and mindset, the connections he makes will fascinate you.

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