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Picture of James Dickey, author of Deliverance; twentieth century American Literature


 
March 28, 1970
James Dickey   (1923 - 1997)
 
James Dickey and Deliverance
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1970, James Dickey's Deliverance was published. Although primarily a poet -- thirty collections by the time of his death in 1997, a National Book Award in 1965 for Buckdancer's Choice -- Dickey's first novel was a best-seller when it appeared, and the movie two years later (Dickey wrote the script and played the Sheriff) was a box-office hit. The tale of four suburb-dwellers on a manly descent into camping nightmare -- the human-nature horrors include rape and murder -- is described as "an allegory of fear and survival" and "a Heart of Darkness for our time" by the critics.

In his 1998 Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father And Son, Christopher Dickey describes the success of the book and movie as the deeper horror. The son grew up to become a well-known war correspondent (now head of Newsweek magazine's Paris bureau); the father became progressively alcoholic and erratic, and the two hardly communicated for twenty-years. The title of Christopher's book is tied to their reconciliation during his father's last months, and to the summer during which twenty-five-year-old Christopher worked as a stand-in on the set of Deliverance, watching "amazed and amused, proud and a little appalled," as his father "loomed larger and larger in the book reviews, the magazine articles, on talk shows and publicity tours, combative and funny, drunk and outrageous and ruthless . . . It seemed to me then and for a long time afterward that forces of self-indulgence and self-destruction, which were always there in my father but held in check, were now cut loose." Eventually, writes Christopher, his father was "a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect and a son of a bitch I hated."

By all accounts, Dickey's large personality came with many demands and costs, but paid many rewards. Christopher's book describes fondly recalling the family's cross-country camping adventures to his dying father, and being interrupted to be told how much he is loved. Dickey wrote of such adventures too, in a 1973 New York Times article, "Camping." The first night out is full of regret for having given up the comforts of the cocktail bar for "the Unknown, as it took the form of bushes and trees," but it also brought "the most efficacious act I have ever perpetrated as a father":
    I reached up out of my sleeping bag and put my duck-feather-warmed hand on my son's face, and felt him relax with the only reassurance I was able to give him under the circumstances. I hope that when the time comes he will serve his own children so, and with a lot more frequency than I. All four of us shook into sleep.
The next day, the whole family armed themselves with hunting bows and dared a walk in the woods:
    What happened then was wonderful. Every cocktail bar in the world blew away like chaff. We came around a bend, and to the left was a kind of cliff that opened on a huge, far-down field of conifers. Among the trees, spaced in a lovely, random arrangement, were deer. Dozens of them, all browsing, and then pausing to look around, with their incredibly delicate, dreaming alertness. . . . I turned and saw my youngest boy's hand over his mouth in wonderment, and I myself, in the manner of the young Wordsworth, felt that I had better hang onto a tree or I would take off straight up. This is the wilderness, I said to myself. This is what we came for, though we don't know what it is.

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