“JAMES DICKEY: A LITERARY LIFE” by Gordon Van Ness (Mercer University Press, 454 pages, $45).
James Dickey may be best known for his 1970 novel “Deliverance” and its 1972 film adaptation, for which he wrote the screenplay and in which he played the role of sheriff. In the decades before the hit movie, he became one of America’s most celebrated, if often controversial, poets. During the decades that followed, Dickey’s literary star sank almost as fast as he had risen.
In “James Dickey: A Literary Life,” Gordon Van Ness, author of five previous books about the complicated man from Atlanta, explores Dickey’s life and work. This comprehensive biography carefully links each chapter, from childhood to his service in World War II, his student days at Vanderbilt and beyond, with Dickey’s prodigious output and the development of his literary aesthetic.
I first met Gordon Van Ness in a class taught by James Dickey in 1983. Both the biographer and his subject are intertwined with my life. Dickey wrote a recommendation for my first teaching job (which I still have 31 years later) and a blurb for my first book; Gordon has long been my sounding board for ideas about teaching, literature, and academic life. I may lack the journalistic detachment most readers would prefer in an interviewer, but I knew Gordon would have some interesting things to say about the man he has studied for most of his adult life. He recently answered questions via email.
Q: You emailed me recently, “I am so tired of Dickey’s work being judged and evaluated on his behavior rather than the merits of that work.” Why do you suppose previous critics and biographers have been so eager to do the former rather than the latter?
A: In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dickey courted modernists such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, corresponding with them, and espousing the critical dictums that characterized his poetry, including poetic craftsmanship, erudite allusions, and narrowly constructed metric, in order to be successful. However, in attempting to establish his own poetic identity, Dickey soon began to center the poet within the poem itself and thus provided an autobiographical connection to the poet’s own life.
At the same time, during extensive poetry tours, which he called “poetry storm”, he embellished his war experiences and made up stories about his hunting and boating exploits. Readers willingly equated his poems with the poet himself. In a sense, Dickey’s popular and critical success validated his efforts at promotion. The public myth diverted attention from the private man and the literary work from him. The critics didn’t do their homework for him.
Q: In this literary biography, how did you seek to balance those opposing weights, the scope of your work, and the complexities of your life?
A: As Pat Conroy, who was an acclaimed novelist and Dickey’s former student, put it, “A whole city of men lived in that vivid and restless country behind the paralyzing eyes of James Dickey.” However, I was never James Boswell to Dickey’s Samuel Johnson. While I was interested in the writer as a man, I also wanted to present the man as a writer, so I sought to examine how the events and experiences of Dickey’s life were reproduced in his work.
Q: Over the decades of your research, what are some of the most surprising (publishable) facts you’ve learned about your topic?
A: The most surprising fact I learned about Dickey was something he himself admitted shortly before he died. Despite the larger-than-life figure he promoted, despite his bravado and Rabelaisian behavior, he was essentially a coward, which is why he created or exaggerated identities for himself. His own father may have sensed this and tried to “toughen up” his son by taking him to cockfights and bear-baiting contests. But Dickey himself was repelled by blood and violence. His father never understood his son’s deep sensitivity or his need to recreate himself.
Q: Dickey is famous as a poet, novelist, screenwriter, musician and even an actor; however, until this book, few have written about the scope and impact of his teaching. I believe that you and I have carried lessons from Dickey through our own classrooms over the years. What are some you would like to share?
A: In Composition of Verses, I remember him saying, “When we start this process, I want you to continue with it. Fight until the end so that we start with your own unconscious and your own dreams and see where it comes out. That’s the excitement and fun. Deep discovery. Deep adventure. You live much more intensely, with much more vitality and with much more sense of meaning, of consequence, that things matter, rather than nothing matters.”
As usual, he was right.
To read an uncut version of this interview, and more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.