One year before he passed away, essayist Guy Davenport sent a small antique letter box to a young American writer with the request that when the time came the box be handed down again to another young writer.
The author of over 40 books, Davenport received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowship in 1990, as well as numerous other accolades, and the deep admiration of nearly everyone who read him. He was, by far, one of our smartest writers.
But Davenport was also a generous man. At his memorial service, Davenport’s friends remembered him as “a small miracle of humanity,” someone who encouraged his peers, supported innovation, and was the first to champion some of the most challenging and controversial books in modern literary history. He wrote the first thesis on James Joyce at Oxford University, traveled 2,000 miles every year to visit Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, and maintained correspondence with dozens of young writers, offering them support, advice, and regular reading lists.
The Essay Prize is given in tribute to that spirit of generosity, encouragement, and community that Davenport instilled in everyone who knew him and who appreciated his work.
Modeled after Davenport’s own antique letter box, the Essay Prize is handmade by a woodworker in Oxford, Iowa. It’s constructed of solid walnut and inscribed on its inside lid with the recipient’s name and the title of his or her essay.
Each winner is also invited to the University of Iowa to formally present his or her essay, and to speak with the students who selected it for the Prize.