The Burden of James Dickey

JAMES Dickey was hugely gifted and hugely flawed, a tremendous reader and a born writer, an athlete and an intellectual, a deep thinker and a drinker, a composer of burly and extremist poetry, an excessive performer, a hopeless liar, an inveterate womanizer, a father who gave himself airs. This furnished much for a son, especially a talented son, to flee from. Christopher Dickey writes,

The whisky on my father's breath, a smell that seemed to come from deep in the bellows of his lungs, started to frighten me.... I'd smell the whisky and know that whatever I said to him would go past him and whatever he replied would be words spoken to the air. He was my father still, but he was somebody I didn't know.

Though Summer of Deliverance tells more than other books are likely to about the life and death of James Dickey, it should be even better appreciated for what it achieves in telling the truth about the ways a son gives meaning to the weight of a father -- Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy. American southerners somehow understand more about the truth of the past than northerners do; perhaps because, like William Faulkner, they know that "the past is never dead. It's not even past," and consequently know how to tell us more-resonant stories. Christopher Dickey's book is southern in that it inhabits the past and the present at once: "Was I the grown man talking to his aged father, or the little boy talking to his dad?" Various observers have for years been preparing to write about the life and work of James Dickey, but those who admired his talent -- or the best of his talent -- have doubtless been facing that eventuality with a sinking feeling. Much of the redemptive job of biography has now been done by the poet's elder son.

James Dickey seemed to come out of nowhere in the 1960s, arriving in a flood of poetry -- strange, exalted verse stories. The poems in Drowning With Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer's Choice (which deservedly won the National Book Award in 1966) may have strutted like someone wearing elevator shoes, but they soon justified themselves in the way they set forth one self after another, against the backdrops of war, of lust and growth, of a southern landscape dripping with anticipation. In Poems 1957-1967, Dickey's roaring poems took on various personae: an adulterer, a frenzied pilot, a panther, a sex fiend, a country preacher, and a guitar player. In such fierce lyrics as "Kudzu," "Cherrylog Road," "The Sheep Child," and "Adultery," and on larger canvases like "The Fiend," "Falling," "The Firebombing," and "May Day Sermon," Dickey seemed to be pushing at the frontiers of poetic narrative. In 1967 The Atlantic Monthly published an article in which I compared, with certain reservations, Dickey's poetic stature to that of Robert Lowell, the reigning influence for many of the younger poets of the time.

When, in 1970, Dickey published his first novel, Deliverance, he seemed yet again to be stretching the sort of writing a poet could manage to do. Deliverance was excerpted in The Atlantic, and that macho tale of four middle-class Atlantan males embarked on an unpredictably perilous weekend canoe trip down a wild river in Georgia became one of the runaway best sellers of its year. Soon afterward it was made into a movie -- a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds and a smash hit. But although numerous James Dickey books were published over the next twenty-five years, neither Dickey's poems nor his subsequent novels, Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993), ever achieved the same level of quality.

tells Christopher Dickey's story of both men, father and son, with an unflinching rigor that most such stories never attain. The challenge of the truth about the poet estranged the younger from the older man, yet in the end, when the son had grown into his forties and the father had descended into his seventies and was dying, they both rose to meet it. There remained, after all, enough love between them to survive all the enmities that must separate father and son. As Christopher writes, "Even when I fled him, I missed him."

JAMES Dickey was not diffident. Imposing, swaggering, and fearsomely intelligent, he put himself forward, a bullyboy in poetry criticism, granting interviews and even improvising self-interviews by way of staking a claim for his literary ambitions. The greatest obstacle to Christopher's understanding was his father's lying: James spun all sorts of tales about hand-to-hand grappling with black bears in the forest, about his imaginary diseases, about his conquests of women.

"My father had begun to make himself up. And me. He would not tolerate for a minute the world as it was." Call that creative, if you will, but it makes for a hard life, and also for a difficult biography. It does, however, give the son a tremendous incentive to fix on the actual truth about his father. Christopher Dickey, talented and sensing himself flawed by whatever standard he chose as measurement, accepted the challenge of his father's mendacity and pursued it to the very end of James's life, in 1997. The resulting narrative subscribes to a plot as valid as the tale of carrying a father out of Troy or founding, with a twin brother, a city upon seven hills.

While Deliverance was being filmed, in 1971, the nineteen-year-old Christopher, married and a new father, was granted a stand-in job on location and spent the summer watching the activity on the set and behind the scenes. He was filmed for a cameo appearance in the movie as a corpse, though the scene was later cut. There's a certain ghastly reality in that impersonation, enabling the son to confront what every son has to face sooner or later: the mortal struggle between him and his father. The son who does not face this truth will be the weaker for it. Any biographer attempting to re-create James Dickey's life would have to compare his protagonist's public presentation of himself with his private actions; would have to account by some objective standard for the shortfall between the writer's early work and his later pretentious windiness. A son, unlike a biographer, can measure his father's reality by his own eyewitnessing. Whereas a biographer, that very special form of prosecutor, can only present the evidence, a son can rely on the felt testimony of his own life and experience, his own failures and successes, to assess against his blood and memory the reality of what he has witnessed.

Christopher Dickey watched his father and his mother sink into deep alcoholism, watched the enormous talents of the poet dissipate, watched his mother die of complications from cirrhosis and his father marry, in haste, one of his young students, who later became addicted to narcotics. Meanwhile, the abashed son underwent his own struggle to realize his talents as a journalist and a novelist, to live through the failure of one marriage and enjoy the success of a second. He became a foreign correspondent, first for The Washington Post and later for Newsweek, filing copy from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cairo, Tehran, and other remote stations, where he remained uneasily insulated from the agony of his father's sodden and turbulent life in South Carolina. Only after Christopher had become Newsweek's bureau chief in Paris, in James Dickey's old age, when the giant's health finally and appallingly broke down after years of alcohol abuse, did Christopher and his wife, Carol, manage apprehensively to approach James and try to negotiate, in his last couple of years of sobriety and shame, a certain reconciliation. It will surprise no one that the son learned more at this late stage than the father did. The old always have a little more to teach. From the young, if they can be patient and honest enough, no secrets are hidden. The results glowingly emerge in this touching book, as powerful and poignant as Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever's comparable memoir about her father, John. Occasionally Christopher Dickey's writing stumbles; sometimes fewer adjectives would have conveyed more meaning; sometimes a frog constricts the throat; but the candor and decency of this narrative seldom fail the reader.

Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic. His essay on James Dickey and Robert Lowell, "The Difficulties of Being Major," was published in the October, 1967, Atlantic.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1998; The Burden of James Dickey; Volume 282, No. 2; pages 106 - 108.