Taking the measure of a man as protean as James Dickey is neither a simple nor an easy task. He roared through life with an uncommon energy, leaping from one arena to another, achieving expertise in the manlier pastimes, activities like World War II fighter squadron hero and power bow hunter. In high school and college he had been a football star. He liked to pick on a guitar a la Merle Travis and was well-read in the field of astronomy. As an adult, he paradoxically bundled those energies and hitched them to a robust style of poetry.
That was where he turned with the greatest vitality, first earning fame in the literary world as a crafter of intensely articulated observations of an ordinary world he turned into a teeming place of magic. He taught at Rice and Vanderbilt and the University of Florida, and was in demand on the poetry circuit where he gave highly theatrical performances of his work. He won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1965 for his fourth volume, Buckdancer’s Choice, along with a string of other awards. All in all, he had become the most prominent and talked-about literary figure of the moment.
In 1970 he stunned the literary world that had known him as a poet by publishing a novel, a starkly violent meditation on what Dickey saw as the increasing loss of the natural world to an engulfing urban sprawl, a dystopia of commerce and rampant development. Dickey had himself been an agent of that apocalypse when he had worked as a young man in advertising, handling high octane accounts like Coca Cola and Lay’s, the latter a producer of potato chips. The novel, which Dickey gave the theologically suggestive title of Deliverance, was as much a testament of his own rescue from the artificialities of the business world as it was a plea for a return to a more instinctive and authentic mode of living. It was also a memorable plunge into forbidden waters, into chilly depths where the worst forms of human degradation were allowed to have their way.
Born in 1923 in Atlanta into middle class comfort, Dickey went to the city’s public schools and then on to an abortive first attempt at college at Clemson. The war in the Pacific sounded a more insistent call at the time, and he surrendered to its summons. As a pilot in the Navy, he saw war’s destruction from high above, and remembered its fury, which he later put into poems like “The Firebombing,” an incantatory ode to the power of war’s death-bringing machines, an apparatus that he controlled a piece of for a time, delivering destruction in sortie after sortie behind enemy lines. His gift was to bring poetry out of the place of fire.
The evolution from ad man to poet came at the end of his advertising career, parts of which Dickey fictionalized in Deliverance. He had chafed loudly and often against what he called the spirit-killing world of business, and when he was fired after a fit of insubordination at the office, he decided to make good his vow to put his considerable energy to work in the sole pursuit of his muse. His early work was marked by a steady and penetrating gaze into the natural world, recording in almost Biblical rhetoric his struggle to find heart and heartbeat of the zeitgeist. The tightly metered poems of his early books eventually grew into looser and baggier forms, his mystical quest for the extreme beginning to border on the parodic.
His best work was in marked contrast to the academic poetry that dominated the literary world at the time, and its public success went to his head. His ego became the stuff of legend. During his readings he often wept and fell into hortatory shouting, pausing in mid-poem to address his audience, demanding signs of their approval. “Isn’t that good?” he cried at stunned audiences after reading a particularly vivid line. He soon became as much an object of derision as of admiration, but he seemed to relish it all. In a country where there was supposed to be no such thing as a famous poet, Dickey was as close to being one as any American poet had ever been.
When his novel Deliverance hit the bookstores, Dickey was all too prepared for the fervor of its reception. He’d come to love adulation and counted on his switch to a more popular genre to provide more of it. As the novel began to garner excited reviews and to climb the bestseller charts, he was sent out by his publisher to promote the book in personal appearances in bookstores and on television. His conspicuously bear-like physique, honeyed Southern accent, and way with the telling anecdote simultaneously charmed and put off audiences. But the power and force of his novel itself were not to be denied. Amazingly for a first effort at fiction, Dickey’s book demonstrated an admirable mastery of a novel’s principle demands. He’d created memorable characters and given them believable dialogue. He’d worked up scenes of intense drama adumbrated with accurate details. Most of all he put forth a story of consuming narrative thrust.
Dickey had a moral in mind when he sent four Atlanta suburbanites into the wilderness to test their instincts and agilities. That morality is largely invested in the novel’s most driven character, Lewis, a disillusioned visionary who is a stand-in for Dickey and a ventriloquist of Dickey’s primitivist aesthetic. He’s alienated by the same things as Dickey and wants like Dickey to test himself against nature and see whether he is capable of emerging from it a victor. He believes his friends have grown soft and too comfortable in their city life, and conceives an expedition by raft through a wilderness area about to be flooded for a dam as both a challenge and a reproach. The voyage will be a failure, but for Dickey the extremity of the challenge is what living is all about. When the exercise in survival turns violent and the characters’ motivations turn to deception and evasion, the moral of the tale experiences a sudden shift of gears and the characters become the hunted ones, their sufficiency in wilderness now deployed against civilization’s imperatives for civic order.
Forty years after its publication, the reputation of Dickey’s novel may rest more on a notorious single scene than on its overall literary excellence. An episode of violent sexual assault, perpetrated by a backwoods thug against one of the Atlanta suburbanites, occurs at an unexpected moment in the story, a sudden damning humiliation from a human source in a place where the wilderness is believed to be the threat. The scene is included in John Boorman’s film adaptation of Deliverance and is said to have elicited more nightmares than any film since the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
In the aftermath of the critical success of his poetry and the critical and commercial success of his novel, Dickey appeared to be in need of a deliverance of his own. His career soon went into a steep decline at almost the same velocity with which it had once soared. An attempt at a second novel produced a hopeless tangle of confusing themes and characters, an effort to embrace what seemed like Faulknerian obscurity, that did not please the audience that had so avidly read Deliverance. His poetry grew more and more grandiose, full of helium and false profundity. A photograph of the man taken five months before his death from fibrosis of the lungs portrays a shriveled Dickey dwarfed by clothes that hang on him, a frail man of words surrounded by teetering stacks of books, books that form a kind of fortress around him, a symbolic show of protection for a human wraith whose energy had once had the force of nature.