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Basil Davenport papers

Call Number: YCAL MSS 489

Scope and Contents

The papers of Basil Davenport (1905-1966) comprise 26 boxes and 12,000 pages of material. Davenport's outgoing letters to members of the family, especially his mother, number 7501 pages and fill the first 13 boxes. A few of these are holographs written in childhood or while he was absent from home. Others are signed typescripts. But the majority are carbons retained by him for his own file. Early in his letters he formed the habit of dating them by the name of the day instead of in the usual way. Designations such as Christmas and Twelfth Night are easily understood but the identification of Lady's Day, Saint Distaff's Day and many of the lesser known Saint's Days requires the use of an Almanac.

The collection contains 273 pages of original manuscript. There are also three loose-leaf notebooks known as "His Book", with 464 pages of early prose, verse and letters. None of these are originals, however, as they were copied (mostly in typescript) and assembled by Davenport's "Aunt Dudy," Mrs. Juliet (Pritte) Belknap, who died in 1948. The whole collection reached Yale as a result of Davenport's own bequest.

The day-to-day details of Davenport's life as reflected in the long letters to his mother are supplemented by diaries begun in 1925 and sustained from 1935 to 1964, with numerous gaps while be traveled abroad, vacationed at Pemaquid Point, Maine, or served in the second world war. The diaries provide a more humdrum record than the letters, with emphasis on such trivialities as the pleasures and pains of mint juleps and Grade A or Grade B hangovers. That Davenport himself was more satisfied with the letters than with the diaries is shown by the entry for July 28, 1960, written while his mother's health was rapidly deteriorating: "All my life I have been half-satisfying my creative urge by my letters, especially to her. Can it find another outlet [when she is gone]?"

Before Davenport reached thirteen, Edwin Markham praised his poetic efforts in an August 26, 1918 letter to Emily Davenport acknowledging receipt of an "Illuminated missal" prepared in his honor by "young poet Basil... It seems to me that Basil's poems show unusual promise [with] here and there...a freshness of phrase that is very gratifying...Tell him to send me more of his verses in the coming months." (A copy of this missal remains among Davenport's manuscripts and is also included in "His Book".) A second enthusiastic letter from Markham dated five years later is in Series II.

Other correspondents represented in the collection are six members of the Benét family, Bennett Cerf, Francis Welch Crowinshield, Clifton Fadiman, Amy Loveman, Fletcher Pratt and Edgar Montillon Woolley. That Davenport's contemporaries appreciated his erudition is shown by this couplet from a twenty-eight line effusion by Raymond Holden subtitled: "Not Any Davenport Will Do in a Storm," composed on the eve of the subject's departure for the second world war:
We need men, but the Army is needier,
So here is Basil, our Encyclopedia,...

The letters Davenport wrote to his mother in August, 1945 as the second world war was ending, are noteworthy, providing details of his month-long odyssey, as he returned from France by way of Africa and Brazil.

Outstanding among the individual manuscripts preserved in Series V are: "Lancelot at the Chapel of the Grail" (also contained in "His Book"), which was sent to his father from Europe on April 4, 1927; "Legends of Our Lady from Old France" (the "illuminated missal" sent to Edwin Markham in 1918) and affectionate verses "To Mommon," Davenport's grandmother Emily (Andrews) Davison who died in 1925.

These excerpts from his 1955 diary show his continuing concern for the carving of his niche in the literary world:
Jan 25 - Finished the [Book-of-the-Month News] column just before lunch...Not so good as last month's but acceptable to me, and to Harry [Scherman]. Ought to feel very happy, but I don't.
Jan 27 - Almost hate to admit it, but I'm getting reconciled to Hudson Street. I thoroughly enjoy my walk to work in the morning;...and while lunch is not terribly good, it is relaxing to come in and settle down for the day.
Rosemary [Benét]...said "everybody" was talking about my column, and that Amy [Loveman] had spoken to Norman Cousins about getting me to do something regular [for the Saturday Review]. I ought to try to decide what I do want.
Apr 26 - ...but it isn't funny without the drinks - and without my intonation and expression and all the rest. I can entertain people, and I do it almost continuously when I am in company, but I cannot find any way to canalize it...
May 24 - I always ask myself what Alexander Woolcott has that I haven't, but nothing much, it seems to me, ever comes out of me.


  • 1899-1964


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Basil Davenport Papers is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Bequest of Basil Davenport, July 1966.


Organized into nine series: I. Outgoing Family Correspondence, 1918-1964. II. Incoming Family Correspondence, 1918-1964. III. General Correspondence, 1919-1964. IV. Diaries, 1925-1964. V. Manuscripts, 1916-1939. VI. "His Book," 1916-1928. VII. Printed Matter, 1920-1963. VIII. Davenport Genealogy, 1899-1932. IX. Miscellany, 1920-1962.


9.08 Linear Feet (26 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The Basil Davenport Papers consist chiefly of correspondence, including a substantial number of outgoing letters from Davenport to his family. The collection also contains Davenport's diaries, drafts of his writings and translations, printed material documenting his career and critical work, and personal papers including genealogical material.

Basil Davenport (1905-1966)

Reared in Louisville, Kentucky, Basil Davenport was the eldest of two sons born to Ira William and Emily Andrews (Davison) Davenport. A slim and personable aesthete, he never married. At the Taft School he suffered from homesickness, but won distinction as an editor of the school's literary magazine, debater and thespian. At Yale he continued these pursuits and took up boxing before graduating in 1926. Then he studied classics for two years at Oxford and taught Greek tor a year at Rutgers after returning to this country.

From childhood Davenport cultivated a facility for storytelling, especially the genre of tale associated with campfires. This proclivity delighted both his peers and his elders, and subsequently it led to his numerous anthologies, especially: Ghostly tales to be told; a collection of stories from the great masters, arranged for reading and telling aloud (1950) and Tales to be told in the dark; a selection of stories from the great authors, arranged for reading and telling aloud (1953). Other notable anthologies were: The Portable Roman Reader(1951) and The Selected Works of Stephen Vincent Benét (1942). His translations of Rostand's L'Aiglon (issued by the Yale Press in 1927) and Aeschylus The Oresteia were performed at Yale during his Freshman and Senior years respectively. Two original works were: An Inquiry Into Science Fiction (1955) and An Introduction to Islandia (1942).

After his year at Rutgers he settled in New York, contributing book reviews and feature articles to The Saturday Review of Literature and performing similar services for the Book-of-the-Month Club News. From 1936 until his death, he was associated with the latter organization, first as Editorial Assistant and from 1956-1966 as one of the five judges, at whose monthly meetings the final selections were voted.

His virtually inexhaustible store of classical and literary lore served him well on various quiz programs, notably "Down You Go." Unfortunately it was scratched soon after he joined it, due to scandals precipitated when other programs were exposed as "fixed."

Processing Information

The collection was fully processed in 1971. In 2011, the paper finding aid was converted to electronic form, including some rearrangement of the text to conform to current standards. The collection was also rehoused into standard archival quality boxes.

Formerly classed as Za Davenport.

Guide to the Basil Davenport Papers
by Irving N. Fisher
August 1971
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.