Reviewed by David Madden
Gerald Duff’s Fugitive Days is a wry contribution to the growing literature of writers’ encounters with writers. A side value is that writers reading about such encounters are reminded, as I am, of their own encounters with other, usually older, famous, or once much more famous than now, writers of fiction, poetry, criticism. At Vanderbilt University and at Kenyon College when he was a young writer teaching, Duff briefly met or knew for a while Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom.
Some of those encounters were learning experiences, some were sad, some were disillusioning. Long relationships with such writers often diminish the anecdotal impact, while brief ones are often so vivid, the memory lingers over many years, as did Duff’s, and one finally scratches the itch to tell waiting listeners about them.
One sometimes refrains from writing such essays as Duff’s in fear of being accused of name dropping. The solution may be, as with Duff, to sustain a somewhat ironic tone that to some readers may verge on condescension. That may be quite appropriate because the great very elderly critic Ransom seemed not only on a downward slope to dementia but obliviously rude and his guest Robert Penn Warren, whom Duff dubs Mr. All the King’s Men, was so addled and rushed to get out of remote Gambier and make a plane that knowing something of Warren as a person was not on the schedule. On another occasion, though, Duff and his fellow instructors took delight in being in Warren’s company at lunch at Vanderbilt, while senior faculty who felt far more deserving fumed at the other end of the table.
Also, very much, mostly too much, at Vanderbilt was the enthroned Donald Davidson, for whom Duff makes little attempt to conceal his scorn. He is equally eager to praise Allen Tate, with whom he shared a minute number of enrollees in a two section course on literary criticism, and who was not only very open and friendly, but who actually sought Duff’s impressions about the students and advice about the course. Duff was entrusted with the few students who had never heard of Tate and who listened to very little about criticism in general.
Duff is a very witty, vivid writer, whose book will inspire, as I suggested, other writers to come forward with their repertoire of encounters with literary heroes. Duff himself, I imagine, has far more to tell, having had a long, illustrious career of his own as the author of over 15 books, novels, poetry, and nonfiction. Here, he confined himself to a group, the Fugitives of Nashville.
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