Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Deliverance = truth, lies and artistry

Here are three views of James Dickey, novelist, poet, teacher and the author of "Deliverance." The photograph on the left shows him as he appeared playing the role of Sheriff Bullard in the film version of his book.

Existence in the form of story-teller & chameleon

Part III – The Author Of The Story

For the sake of admitting author admiration, I heard James Dickey lecture and respond to questions once upon a time at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It was during his tenure down the road as a professor of English at the University of South Carolina. (Yes, I do get around at times, in case you still have not figured that out.) I have been a fan of his work since first reading him as a college student.

While these posts have been intended to offer some of my thoughts about the novel "Deliverance" and the motion picture based upon the book, and not about Dickey per se, I never-the-less decided it is impossible to discuss them without also including more than the name, rank and serial number of the author, as well as some comments about how he is viewed in the literary world.

Dickey, whose time with us began in 1923 and lasted until 1997, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and spent his early years there. He played college football, was a combat pilot with 100 missions during World War II and the Korean War, was a very successful advertising executive for the Coca-Cola Company, was a tournament archer and expert bow hunter, was a National Book Award-winning poet, was a poet laureate consultant for the Library of Congress, was a college professor and poet-in-residence for nearly 30 years at the University of South Carolina, and he was the author of poetry books, literary criticism, novels and children's books.

Although I believe Dickey would have called himself first a poet, above all, to me, he was the author of "Deliverance."

Screw his critics, and there are many, more about his lifestyle and his personality than about his literary accomplishments. Not one of us is "perfect." Have Dickey's detractors place their own credentials alongside his, and we shall see who wins.

Yes, yes, yes. Drifting off course there. Back on it again.

Students of literature and ordinary readers alike learned of Dickey's awful and even unlawful behavior during the 1950s and 1960s, just as they learned of Norman Mailer's activities and the stunts of other "big-name" writers. Dickey called things such as alcoholism, mania, suicide and depression the "occupational hazards" of being a writer of poetry. He cited Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and others as examples of what he meant.

He insisted the writer of one authorized biography title the book, "James Dickey – The World as a Lie." The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, professed that the world of time and space is "a vast dream, dreamed by a single being, in such a way that all the dream characters dream too." Following this pathway, Dickey believed that the world could be viewed as a dream or lie or invention -- something created mysteriously and majestically out of the void by a "First Maker" -- in which all the characters dreamed or lied, too.

From living his life in such a manner, Dickey endorsed the notion that a writer must unleash the imagination without concern for conventional truths or morals. Society endorses and depends on role playing and lying, and that is the way Dickey lived his life. He said his life was more complicated than that of Lawrence of Arabia because he wore more masks and played more roles than had Lawrence, and he agreed that he was "the sum of all the roles he played." Dickey thought himself to be the chameleon poet/writer/teacher.

This is demonstrated in his "tall tale" about the basis of the "Deliverance" story stemming from a true-life experience of his own. In Monday's post, I noted how, after getting each of the major actors and the director of the film alone and pledging each to secrecy, Dickey told them this "lie." The facts about this incident only began to surface about five years after the movie had been made when John Voight (Ed Gentry) and Burt Reynolds (Lewis Medlock) happened to sit down together for a casual conversation which included talk about "Deliverance."

Another area of controversy surrounding Dickey was the overt (and sometimes "unusual") sexuality often expressed in his writing. I pointed out the epilogue originally part of "Deliverance" in Monday's post. There was another "confusing" sexual element, as well, which the publishers insisted on omitting from the novel. It took place during Ed's ascent of the sheer, rock cliff.

Sexual overtones are present throughout Dickey's poetry. In the poem that thrills me and chills me, for example, "Falling," the stewardess who has fallen from an airplane and is plunging to her death strips her clothing as she descends. Dickey expressed sexual imagery of the stewardess preparing for a marriage with the soil rather than with a man. He relied on his sexual and mythical fantasies for the poem's material. He described it as a "last superhuman act" that arouses the reproductive energies of the boys, girls and fields of Kansas. Read the poem before you judge it.

A couple of other thoughts along these lines before we drift away from Dickey. His son, Christopher, said this in relation to his father's "tall tales:"

"But, you know, I've come to think that my father's biggest lie was about his lying. My perspective was as an uncertain child growing up in a world of small fantasies and great ambitions. (Critics) seemed to miss the point with many of the tall tales, holding Jim Dickey to a standard of probity that was not applied to his other sources, many of whom told plenty of tales of their own .... As for "Deliverance," (the) two rednecks are villains and a deputy sheriff (related to one of them) is pretty vile, but the other people encountered in the mountains are just naturally suspicious of outsiders and many of them are generous and helpful. Sheriff Bullard was in many respects one of my father's heroes, which is one reason he played him in the movie."

Of Dickey's life after "Deliverance," one biographer concluded: "The novel made him rich; but wealth, fame, and alcoholism slowly eroded the talent that made his previous books so potent."

Upon Dickey's death, another novelist of his generation, Pat Conroy, said this:

"He (Dickey) tried to live a hundred lives and succeeded in living about ninety-five of them. No American life has been so restless in its pursuit of expertise in to many fields. He inspired the Jeffersonian Renaissance man and the Rabelaisian hell-raiser alike."

And, as I said earlier, let his critics place the breath of their literary accomplishments on the table next to Dickey's, and we shall see who has the last word.

This has been a sense of the author. This has been a taste of the novel. This has been a glimpse of the movie. Read it. Watch it. No trickery here. You have a finger-hold on the story now, pretty much, which will not ruin either the book or the movie if you are looking for artistry rather than commercialism. If you require used-car-salesman-like gimmicks to be lured into a book or a movie, look elsewhere. No fluff or gimmicks permitted on these grounds.

If a person allows himself to become immersed within "Deliverance" rather than simply reading it, I believe he will find himself in the midst of one of the most frightening stories ever written. It makes Stephen King books look like the simplistic Halloween spook tales they are. "Deliverance" delivers. Dickey has a handle on actual evil in human form. The only other novel I have read that approaches "Deliverance" in that magnitude is Norman Mailer's "An American Dream."

To anyone who actually has read these pieces about "Deliverance," a special thank you. You have earned the touch of my luck.


TheChicGeek said...

Fram, you do get around, don't you...LOL
I enjoyed your review on the fascinating Mr. Dickey. He is a character. In Dickey's case I think a chameleon is an extremely accurate description for him.
As for the stewardess, it really is a chilling piece. I'm not sure what I think of it. It actually kind of scares me.
Have a Happy Day, Fram :)

Katy said...

I have really enjoyed this tri-partite review of yours Fram, thank you. As I've said, I've neither read nor seen Deliverance, something I know I now must do.

On today's review in particular though. I think you've given us a fascinating glimpse into the life of Dickey. Yes, of course we can enjoy an author's work without knowing much (or anything) about him or her, but I think it's even better when we do.

On that same theme, I'm currently reading Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead: a writer on writing". The book looks at different aspects of the writer's life, including how he or she may be perceived by others and the accumulation of stereotypes that have grown up around writers over years. If you haven't read it, I think you might enjoy it.

Fram said...

What is interesting to me, Kelly, is that I had never thought of Dickey as a chameleon until now. My impression of the chameleon and internal/external perception is rather recent to my way of viewing individuals (including myself), and was not drawn from past study or consideration of other people, places or things. Never too old to learn, and to adjust conceptual ideas, I guess.

Yes, the falling stewardess. To draw a contrast: Dickey is a Hemingwayesque man who frequently speaks with a primitive, mythological voice, in tones which are meant to stir hidden and, sometimes, dark emotions. I wonder how many women actually read his work.

Someone like Robert Bly, on the other hand, speaks in a soft voice, both literally and in his poetry, which draws women and effeminate men to his work because of emphasis on the much more gentle and pleasing elements in life.

Fram said...

One of my mental exercises regarding authors whose lives I learn something about is trying to decide if I would like to sit down for an afternoon discussion with them, usually in a bar.

In the instance of Dickey, I would very much like to have spent an afternoon talking with him and questioning him. But, he is one of the few I would have chosen to sit down with in a place other than a bar.

Thank you, for reading all this stuff, Katy. I think I have Dickey worked out of my system for now.

I think I might enjoy the Margaret Atwood book. Possibly, we should start an international book exchange club. Then again, that might be more expensive than running down to the neighborhood book shop and buying a personal copy. I will put your book on my list, thank you.

A Cuban In London said...

Brawn and brains. You said it all. He combined physical prowess with intellectual might. To me that's the Hellenic ideal to which I always strove in my younger days and to which I would like my offspring to look up. Healthy mind in healthy body. I like the fact that he is considered as a poet first and foremost. A lot of novelists would run away from that tag. Many thanks for such a brilliant post into the life of one of those writers about whom you hardly ever hear.

Greetings from London.

Fram said...

The warrior/poet concept has great appeal to many young men, I think, and Dickey was among the foremost to actually achieve the status in the 20th Century.

In regard both to brawn and brains, Dickey leads both Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer by a country mile, although those two both were better publicists of their self-promoting images. I am not certain there are any others beyond those two from this time period who might be considered contenders. And, in the case of those two, I think some of their prose rings of the poetic, but only Dickey was a master in both arenas.

I am convinced it is the darkness found in much of his work that keeps him and his work in the shadows, CiL. Perhaps history will give him the greater recognition he deserves.

Something special ....