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“Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire”: Some Notes on the Life and Art of the Late James Dickey


ISSUE:  Winter 2001

The main burden of Henry Hart’s recently published James Dickey: The World as a Lie (Picador, $35), coming to the reading public after eight years of intensive research and investigation, is two-fold: to set a highly inaccurate record straight, and to establish a factual and critical basis for future examinations of the poet’s life and art. It was not an easy job, though Hart could not have known that at the outset. He began his task with great interest in his subject and with an understanding and appreciation of Dickey’s literary art, particularly the accomplishments of his earlier years; and he emerges from the experience of writing the biography with that sense of honor undiminished by the story he has to tell. Reviewing the book (favorably) in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 16, 2000), Stephen Ennis describes the principal problem Hart faced and his answer to it: “Hart devotes much of this biography to disentangling the web of distortion, lies, poses and sheer bluster that Dickey relished. We learn, for example, that Dickey was never the pro football prospect he sometimes claimed to have been. Nor did he serve as a combat pilot during World War II. He did not fly over Nagasaki hours after the dropping of the atomic bomb, and he was never awarded a Purple Heart. He did not play guitar for the country music band the Brazos Valley Boys, nor was he the accomplished hunter and outdoorsman he pretended to be. On the contrary, he shot only one animal in his entire life—a possum—and, according to Hart, “that may have been fanciful, too”.” What we have in the world of fact is, then, a jock without much talent or ability, a hunter with maybe one kill (maybe it was a roadkill) in a lifetime, a pilot who never flew an airplane after washing out of preliminary flight training, a boozer and unreconstructed womanizer who was mostly impotent when push came to shove, and a major American poet whose best poems were a marvelous achievement and a huge influence on other American poets ever since.”

Each reader will find his own favorite anecdotes. Mine involves Dickey as political pundit bombarding Jimmy Carter, in 1976 and 1977, with unsolicited letters of advice and counsel. His advice just before a debate with Gerald Ford—”You might, for example, say something about the recent exploration on Mars which seems conclusively to prove that there is no life on the place where we most hoped it might be discovered”—could have settled the election on the spot.

II

When I was hired by the University of South Carolina in 1970 to come there (from Hollins College) and to teach creative writing and literature, I accepted the offer and firmed up the deal (salary, teaching load, etc.) with various deans and with Calhoun Winton, the head of the English department. Shook hands all around and was ready and eager to drive back to Roanoke, Virginia.

“Before you leave, George,” Winton told me, “you probably ought to drop by and see Jim Dickey and say hello. At least let him know you are coming here in the fall.”

I agreed. It certainly would be the right thing to do. Winton had known Jim well for many years, going back to Vanderbilt days when they had both been graduate students. And, as it happened, Winton and I had also once upon a time been students together at Princeton. Old boy network in action. . . .

Dickey was right in the big middle of the Deliverance experience. The novel had been a best seller and now they were getting ready to shoot the movie down in north Georgia that summer. Part of the reason they had moved to hire me was that they had to have somebody to replace him, or, anyway, to back him up while he was actively involved with the filming and promotion of Deliverance. I had known Dickey for a good while, too, and, in fact, I had hired him to be on the poetry staff (along with Richard Wilbur, Henry Taylor, James Seay, Jim Whitehead and others) at the previous summer’s Hollins Conference in Creative Writing and Cinema. We had never been what you might call—if you were another Southerner of our generation—close buddies. But we got along just fine.

So I drove out from the University into shady residential Columbia and parked in front of Dickey’s sprawling ranch-style house nicely situated on the shore of an artificial lake—Lake Katherine. I found Dickey sitting out on his dock enjoying the afternoon sun and the breeze off the lake. He invited me to pull up a chair and join him. He offered me a drink, but I think we both settled for tall glasses of iced tea instead. After a little lighthearted small talk he came right to the point.

“George, I understand you are looking for a job here.”

“Well, yes, I guess I am.”

“I’ll do everything I possibly can for you,” he said. “I don’t know if I can swing it, but I will sure enough do the best I can for you.”

“Thanks.”

“It would be fun working together. I’m tight, I’m close friends with the president; so, even if the deans and the department don’t really want you, I think I might be able to work out something anyway.”

“Yes.”

“How much money are you thinking about?”

All these years later I don’t have even the ghost of a memory of what my salary at South Carolina, what we had agreed on, was going to be, only that it was adequate for the time. For the sake of this anecdote let’s just stipulate and say that it was $30,000, that I had accepted the offer of the dean for that sum.

“Well, I don’t know, Jim. I’m not sure.”

“Don’t expect more than maybe 15 or 20. Don’t let them think you are greedy. I’ll work hard, behind the scenes, to try and get you as much as 20. But I can’t guarantee anything. Somewhere between 15 and 20. Maybe I can get you 20 if you’re willing to take on an extra course.”

Pause. What to say?

“Jim, I am deeply grateful for your interest and concern. And I look forward to working with you.”

If it all works out.”

“Right. If it works out.”

“I’ll do my best for you.”

“I know. And that’s all I can ask for.”

We finished the tea and I stood up to leave.

“One thing more,” he said.

He was standing, too, and waved his hand inclusively indicating the whole neighborhood, the pleasant houses built around the lake, and maybe the whole of greater Columbia.

“This is a nice quiet neighborhood. With lots of nice people— doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, dentists and the like. A psychiatrist used to own this house of mine. Nice people live around here.”

“I can see that.”

“So, George, I hope you don’t plan to invite a whole lot of your wild and wooly buddies to come on down here and visit. If you do they’ll hop on some land of a damn psychedelic bus and come and raise hell. And they will all want to come out here and see me. And that could be an embarrassment.”

“Who do you have in mind?”

“You know—Dillard and Henry Taylor, Jim Seay, Peter Taylor too. And Wilbur . . .people like that.”

“Wilbur?”

“Yeah. He was on the phone to me for an hour and a half last night. He was all upset. He said to me, “Jimbo, old buddy, tell me where I went wrong!”“

“No kidding?”

“It’s really sad. I mean, between him and people like Updike and Cheever, calling up in the middle of the night and asking me for advice and comfort, I’m not getting enough sleep. The thing is, all kinds of people depend on me. I have to do the best I can for others. It goes with the territory, as they say.”

III

“Both Bruce Chatwin and Hemingway were “mythomanes”,” said Martha Gellhorn. “They were not conscious liars. They invent to increase everything about themselves and their lives and believe it. They believe everything they say.” —from Bruce Chatwin (2000), by Nicholas Shakespeare.

“”I ran a launch,” he would say, “out into the Gulf where the schooner from Cuba would bring the raw alcohol and bury it on a sand-spit and we’d dig it up and bring it back to the bootlegger and his mother—she was an Italian, she was a nice little old lady, and she was the expert, she would turn it into Scotch with a little creosote, and bourbon.” Neither Jack Falkner nor Bill Spratling believed these tales.”—from Faulkner, by Joseph Blotner.

“Pota’s reputation for humor was well-earned, in his writing and in social discourse, and it was known by his friends that he could weave the most elaborate falsehoods with the most trustworthy of faces for as long as his listeners remained credulous.”—from Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, by Joseph Heller.

IV

Long before the death of James Dickey (Jan. 19, 1997) there was a serious and busy little industry of Dickey scholarship and criticism. Beginning, more or less, with James Elledge’s James Dickey: A Bibliography 1947—1974 (Scarecrow Press), there was a wealth of on-going studies. From 1984 on there was the James Dickey Newsletter and there were many articles in literary, scholarly, and even popular commercial magazines. There were, first to last, a multitude of interviews, almost beyond counting, in all sorts of magazines and newspapers, on radio and television, on film. And there were the books, a surprising number. Among them: Laurence Lieberman, The Achievement of James Dickey (1968); Robert J. Calhoun (editor), James Dickey: The Expansive Imagination (1973); Richard J. Calhoun and Robert W. Hill, James Dickey (1983); Bruce Weigel and T.R. Hummer (editors), The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey (1984); Ronald Baughman, Understanding James Dickey (1985); Neal Bowers, James Dickey: The Poet as Pitchman (1985); Harold Bloom (editor), James Dickey: Modern Critical Views (1987); Robert Kirschten, James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth (1988); Gordon Van Ness, Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey (1992); Ernest Suarez, James Dickey and the Politics of Canon (1993); Robert Kirschten (editor), Critical Essays on James Dickey, (1994); Kirschten, “Struggling for Wings”: The Art of James Dickey (1977). And this list is incomplete. I have not, for example, included books that have some writing about Dickey and his work among other things. Books like Rosemary Daniel’s Fatal Flowers (1980) which details a love affair they had.

In any case, while he was still alive Dickey was the subject of an extraordinary amount of public critical (and personal) interest. Of all the books listed above only Neal Bowers’ Poet as Pitchman is less than uniformly adulatory and even Bowers assumes the value and importance of Dickey’s finest work. Thus it can be argued, with the strength of strong evidence, that a goodly number of academics and critics had acquired a vested interest in the reputation of James Dickey well before his death.

Following his death there was what appears to be a well-orchestrated sequence of scholarly and biographical material, all part of the context of the publication of Henry Hart’s fullscale biography. Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son, by Dickey’s eldest son, Christopher, journalist and novelist, appeared in 1998. This often moving account of the relationship of father and son surprised and shocked many reviewers and readers with its loving but unsparing portrait of Dickey, simultaneously preparing the way for Henry Hart’s biography even as it served to mute and undercut some of the negative and unpleasant information about Dickey. Summer of Deliverance was widely reviewed and (mostly) highly praised. Also in 1998 came James Dickey the Selected Poems, edited by Robert Kirschten. An odd, and oddly embarrassing little book is Mary Cantwell’s Speaking with Strangers (1998), joining the others in preparing the way for the biography. Ms. Cantwell’s book is a personal memoir concerning her failed marriage, her family, her travels and her editorial work for Mademoiselle magazine, and a long affair she had with the late James Dickey here known as “the balding man,” whose first words to her at their cute meeting are vintage Dickey—”Mary, you evah been screwed till ya screamed?” In her account the relationship turned out to be a little different from her first impression and from Dickey’s public persona: “Age—he was about ten years older than I—and alcohol had taken its toll of the balding man, and although he was never impotent, he was demanding. Neither the athlete his publicity claimed nor the sexual Goliath his reputation promised, he was more myth than male,” Of course, this little book is not the only kiss-and-tell vision of Dickey as lover. A former student, Rosemary Daniell, wrote about him as “The Great Southern Poet” in Fatal Flowers (Holt, 1980): “Southern men, I was learning, meant Southern lies, especially lies about personal intention, marital status, genealogy, money, and achievement. Sentimentality, about himself, even his fantasies of himself, is the hallmark of the grass-roots Southern male mind.”

The following year, 1999, witnessed even more flurrying activity. Biographer Henry Hart edited (and dedicated to Dickey’s literary executor, Matthew J. Bruccoli) The James Dickey Reader, with well-chosen selections from Dickey’s published and uncollected poems, his fiction and criticism, and concise version of the biographical facts in Hart’s “Introduction.” Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, is a 575-page selection from Dickey’s correspondence, roughly 20 percent of the letters available, according to Bruccoli, and offers up a kind of chronological account of the intellectual and literary life of Dickey from May 1943 to November 1996, in and through Dickey’s own words as he wrote to friends and enemies (often hopelessly interchangeable). In this introduction Bruccoli explains the guidelines he used in his selection of the letters: “The double rationale for selection was first to document the growth of a major writer . . .then, second to document the ways he fulfilled his genius and advanced his career. Jim was unabashedly a careerist. . . . He deliberately promoted and exaggerated his several reputations—genius, drinker, woodsman, athlete—until the legends took over after Deliverance” Reviewers, taking their cue, probably, from The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, professed to be shocked by the self-portrait of a literary careerist that is limned in these letters. Here is Michiko cranking up: “Although there are a handful of passages in this volume that help illuminate Dickey’s own work and attest to his love of books, a distressingly large portion is devoted to poetic politics: to snide put-downs of other poets, insider talk about prizes and fellowships and catty remarks about rival cliques and claques.” This is more than a little disingenuous, though Crux and Hart’s biography do show that a lot of Dickey’s time and energy went into literary hustling and literary politics. He certainly schemed and scammed, tried to get awards and prizes, fellowships and grants, jobs and sinecures and honorary degrees. To achieve his worldly goals he appears to have been cheerfully willing to flatter and praise anybody who could conceivably help him at the moment; to injure others who might stand in his way; and to betray any friend or ally and to honor any enemy if that would help. He shows amazing lack of discrimination— why, for example, does he bother to flatter and try to charm much younger poets who would not be able to do much good or ill for him, one way or the other? In the case of Dave Smith, as with many others, it depends on what letter you read. Dickey is reasonably polite and even slightly humble in a letter of Jan.29, 1994, where he is trying to revise the poem “Last Hours” to suit Smith and his Southern Review. Elsewhere, in a letter of Peter Balakian, poet-teacher at Colgate, Dickey has a somewhat different point of view: “Puella is controversial, and will be attacked plenty; I expect Helen Vendler will come down on it, for she wishes to put one of her chicks, Dave Smith—who is a kind of follower of mine, and did his doctoral dissertation on my work—up at my expense, and of course there are always people like Robert Bly and Donald Hall, who would do anything on earth to get at me.” Another letter, not from Crux but quoted by Hart in the biography, a letter to poet Richard Tillinghast accompanying a blurb by Dickey for Tillinghast’s The Knife and Other Poems, covers some of the same territory: “The only danger you run from such an endorsement is that people like Helen Vendler, who for some reason detests me, will write you off as a follower of mine. But since Dave Smith is also a follower of mine or has certainly been influenced to an almost unparalled degree by my work, and since for some reason Ms. Vendler likes him, maybe you won’t come in for dismissal by her, or even worse, for her always-wrong praise.”

Reviewers of Crux have been appropriately hypocritical, as if confirming Dickey’s picture of the poetry world as a seething series of penny ante conspiracies, refusing to admit the obvious: that his way has become and is the way of the American poetry world. True, as these letters reveal, he was willing to say or do almost anything for the sake of advancing his career and, whenever possible, to frustrate the careers of his peers, friend and enemy alike. To those he considered his betters and, often exactly the same, those most likely to be able to do him favors and good turns, he could be overwhelmingly humble, shamelessly obsequious. Certainly he cultivated allies with flattery and promises and, by the same token, attacked and betrayed those self-same friends and mentors once he believed he had no more practical use of and for them. In fairness, it seems clear that Dickey’s attitude and behavior were less common in his generation than in the later (present) generation of American poets. Always prescient, he saw the handwriting on the wall. His literary ways and means, unabashed and shameless to be sure, were executed with more style, bravado, and chutzpah than the next generation can seem to muster. And—sad truth must be known and acknowledged, there is no amount of flattery and chicanery, blatant or subtle, that can satisfy the hunger of too many American poets for honor and recognition. Dickey saw this and understood the game. Bruccoli makes a strong case in his introduction to Crux: “He had a clear understanding of the odds against any poet, no matter how gifted, and he recognized that his poetry did not exist if it was not read.”

Another kind of book—James Dickey: Dictionary of Literary Biography: Documentary Series Volume 19 (1999), edited by Judith S. Baughman, serves to bring together a great deal of critical and referential material in a large scale study of Dickey’s life and career, replete with photographs, rich with illustrative manuscript materials, drafts and notes. Under the title “Teacher: James Dickey,” the editor has assembled a gathering of previously unpublished class and lecture notes from his teaching days at the University of South Carolina.

Though he couldn’t help himself from playing favorites with some students, nursing grudges against others, Jim earned a good reputation as a teacher.

V

On the job, on campus, we didn’t see all that much of each other. Sometimes in the parking lot next to the English building. Sometimes going up on the elevator . . . .

It was there, on the lazy elevator, that the hat event took place. Both of us showed up and stepped aboard the elevator wearing broad-brimmed hats, cowboy hats. Jim’s was his sheriffs hat from Deliverance. Mine was an elegant, supple, and heavy leather hat made for me by the Maiolo brothers. There were no girls or ladies on the elevator, so we didn’t remove them. He looked at me and I looked at him. Nobody blinked. Then we arrived at our floor. The lackadaisical elevator doors began their slowmotion opening and closing. Jim stepped out. I followed. He turned toward me. “Don’t misunderstand me, George, but the way I feel is there should only be one cowboy hat in this department. And I was here first.” Another time we were riding up or down—I forget—and the elevator was full of students going and coining to and from classes. When we stepped on the elevator one of the students in the back looked at Jim and reacted. Nudging his companion. “Hey,” he whispered audibly. “Look at that. Know who that is?” Jim nudged me and winked. “That’s the guy that played the sheriff in Deliverance.” The elevator stopped and we were pushed out by the tide of students. “Wait a minute! Wait just a big minute,” Jim was calling to everybody, nobody in particular. “There’s a whole lot more to me than just that.”

Sometimes, irregularly enough to be unexpected, he would bang on my office door and then charge in. Once he came, red faced and waving the local paper. The lead headlined story was about the murder of Sharon Tate and the others in Hollywood. We didn’t know about Charley Manson yet. Just that this terrible murder had taken place. Jim mopped sweat with a pocket handkerchief and rattled the newspaper. “You know what this means, don’t you, George? You know what this means?” Myself ever the straight man: “No, Jim what does it mean?”

“It means we’re next. They are killing celebrities and we’re next.” He said he was going right out to buy an expensive and complex alarm and security system. He urged me to come with him and buy one, too.

“Thanks for thinking of me,” I said. “But I don’t think I’m really in as much danger as you are.”

“You’re probably right.”

Another time he came in very quietly and felt for, found, and seated himself in a chair facing me. He seemed a little weak-kneed and pale.

“Anything wrong, Jim?”

“You better believe it, buddy. I feel just terrible.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Well. . . I just heard today that several people died over the weekend trying to white water canoe on the Chattooga River.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Don’t you see, George? Don’t you get it?”

“Get what?”

“I am directly and personally responsible for their deaths. I mean it. They either read Deliverance or saw the movie, and they got the idea to try it out themselves. And now they’re dead and it’s all my fault.”

“I don’t quite see it that way, Jim.”

He wasn’t listening. He groaned and stretched his long legs.

“Dumb bastards, they jump in a canoe—probably never even been in one in their lives—and paddle out to white water and jump over and drown on me. Before this is all over and done with I’ll probably be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people.”

This was about a year or two after Deliverance (the film).

“Maybe you could put a warning sign alongside the river. “STAY OFF OF THIS HERE RIVER OR DIE!“And sign it James Dickey.”

“This is not funny, godamn it,” he said. “Not funny at all.”

“Well, Jim,” I said, stealing a favorite line of his—what Lewis Payne, of Booth’s Lincoln plot, said to the hangman, “you know best.”

VI

Some things need to be said about Henry Hart’s particular problems and solutions in writing the Dickey biography. First, there is the obvious fact that Hart’s biography is not an “authorized” or “official” biography; and, except for correcting a great many factual details and at the same time establishing a foundation for accurate information, it is not, because it cannot be, a “definitive” biography. The result of intense and difficult research, hundreds of personal interviews, and years of effort, it was and is a necessary biography. Neither is it an “unauthorized” biography of the kind developed and refined in a number of excellent studies by Carl Rollyson. Rollyson deliberately and successfully aims to create a thorough and accurate literary biography without dealing with the complicated arrangements and permissions uniformly required by living authors or the estates of the dead, using instead the available public materials that can be found and effectively used by anyone willing and able to do the hard work. Hart’s James Dickey. The World as a Lie is somewhere in between these extremes. Which, while not officially authorizing it, indeed professing that he did not want a biography of himself written, Dickey supported Hart’s labor in a number of ways, asking and allowing his friends and kinfolk to cooperate with Hart and by permitting Hart to interview him in detail. We learn that the subtitle of Hart’s book was Dickey’s idea.

Hart lacked the security, limited as that may be, of a fully authorized biographer. He was, from first to last, in the unenviable position of having to satisfy the literary executor and the estate, both in general and in detail, or risk losing permission to quote much from Dickey’s published works or from his letters and papers. Also, like almost any writer of anything in our day and age, Hart was required to satisfy the nervous legal worries of the publisher and its lawyers, made all the more onerous by the contemporary legal custom of preferring, under almost any set of circumstances, a compromise settlement to the risky drama of courtroom litigation regardless of the merits of a given case. A day in court is exactly what publishers’ lawyers do not want. Hart’s book was evidently delayed some time due to demands for changes of one kind or another. Of course this is the usual situation for most contemporary biographers, a condition that at once shapes and limits contemporary literary biography.

Secondly, as noted, Hart’s work was made more complicated by the other books that had recently appeared before he finished and published his own. It should be observed that these earlier books, especially Summer of Deliverance and Crux, though they aimed for honesty, were also intended to present a best case point of view or, at least, not a worst case scenario. As indicated, even though they “shocked” some reviewers, they also softened and muted the impact of Hart’s biography, certainly reducing the element of surprise. But Hart’s most serious problem was that Dickey, one of the most often interviewed and monitored writers in American literary history, hardly ever told anybody the truth about anything. He lied about everything even when there was no reason not to tell the truth. There is a certain amount of fun in seeing Dickey get away with this. Again and again, a five-minute phone call, a trip of about equal duration to any reference library, would have easily revealed the lie. But the press, including the literary press and, at its upper level, literary criticism, is deeply lazy and also, finally, shares Dickey’s lack of interest in the tyranny of fact. Literary journalists, perhaps justly, are more interested in a good colorful story than in prosaic truth. From the beginning Dickey understood the expectations of the press and lived up to them.

All well and good except, for Henry Hart, there was the Herculean labor of having to go back to square one and, like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, to try to put the shattered facts back together again. This necessity meant, among other things, that it would have to be a very large, long biography (811 pages). Either that or ignore factual accuracy and hope for the best. I find myself wondering if Jim didn’t want it that way—that the first real biography to be published, where much that had been concealed is now revealed and much that is false is corrected, is faulted for its steady focus on many small details rather than its large generalizations and its bold judgmental attitudes. Hart’s story is only minimally judgmental—disillusioned maybe, yet always admiring the art and the artist at their best. But because almost every conceivable fact about Dickey’s life turned out to be fiction, the biography became what it had to be—a long haul for the biographer and the reader. Other biographers will be along. Some are already waiting in the wings. And every one of them will have to depend on the hard and comprehensive labor of Henry Hart to get their easier task done.

Another problem the biographer faced is closely related. True and false alike, Dickey is the subject of many stories told by others. Clearly he did things to be noticed and remembered. For example, even his public poetry readings, apparently spontaneous in their ad libs and asides, in “mistakes” and in sudden inspiration, prove to have been tightly scripted. Speaking of which, one of Dickey’s large lies escapes even Hart’s skeptical safety net. Dickey called his intense schedule of poetry readings “Barnstorming for Poetry,” asserting, and being taken at face value, that he did his readings not for gain and glory but to open up that “market” for poetry readings and his fellow poets. In fact his extraordinary high fees wiped out the budgets of many institutions large and small and, if anything, had a counterproductive effect on future poetry readings. Robert Frost and, later, Dylan Thomas did some real “barnstorming for poetry.” The combination of Dickey’s exorbitant fees and rowdy behavior made it more difficult for other poets to follow after him.

One might imagine that the next major difficulty Hart had to deal with in creating a coherent biography is a strength rather than a weakness. A lot of people knew James Dickey fairly well. There are many men and women who were witnesses to events in his life— hundreds of eyewitnesses, then. Over eight years Hart interviewed a great many of these people, family and friends, rivals and enemies, discovering inevitably that, like all eyewitnesses, their visions are highly subjective, often contradictory, and changed and modified by memory. This is a problem for all contemporary biographers, literary or otherwise. I believe Dickey was fully aware of this. Literary biography was a subject of great interest to him. He safely camouflaged himself in the diverse memories of a multitude of acquaintances. His actions generated a rich mythology of stories, apocryphal as well as authentic. And these stories have a life of their own like all gossip and oral history. Hart doesn’t always get these mythological tales “right.” But what is “right” and “wrong” in a myth?

VII

Quoting oneself is less than admirable, but in this instance seems appropriate. Following the Hollins Conference in Creative Writing and Cinema, we put together a book of interviews with some of the writers who were there, including James Dickey. At first we were going to use photographs of each writer in the book, but the publisher refused to do that. So I wrote a short (less than a typed page) “snapshot” for each writer. Here is the snapshot of James Dickey, from The Writer’s Voice (1973): “Legends, myths, fables and fabliaux, anecdotes, quotations from, hard and funny sayings, true and false, wheel and flock about him, a shrill invisible halo of birds explosively circling the edges of his wide-brimmed Warner Brothers sheriffs hat, the one he probably sleeps in (they say). No, not once upon a time an ad man for nothing at all, and he can do some splendid impersonations, best of all (I think) King Kong and Marlon Brando. Yes, more masks and costumes than a whole Halloween party, more hidden rabbits and aces than a magician. Something else! But. . .but behind all obvious shucks and colorful charades is the powerful dedicated poet and a complex man burning alive in pure intensity. Not even his big, strong, long-legged body can deny his curious gentleness, his clear vulnerability. His head-high easy swagger does not disguise his suffering. Jim can be like a carnival pitchman because the truth is so precious to him and always so threatened. To know him, the only way, look for him, truly tall and strong and all alive, in his poems.”

VIII

Novelist, and former student of Dickey and myself, Ben Greer, called me from Columbia to report that on an impulse he drove out to Dickey’s old address at Lake Katherine. He had heard that the house had been sold. Wanted to see it one more time before somebody else moved in. He drove out there and was startled to discover that the house was gone. Not just knocked down, but vanished without a trace.

“There is no sign that there ever was a house there,” he told me. “The house has been completely destroyed and removed. The land has been planted with trees and shrubs. It looks like a little park. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled around looking for anything—a nail, a screw, a piece of plaster or broken glass, anything at all to prove the house had been there. I couldn’t find a thing. It was really weird.”

It is weird to hear about that, too. No sign or indication of the good times and the bad times there. Many a story, much laughter, a lot of good whiskey. Thanks to Jim we had a lot of fun once upon a time.

It was there, during or right after the shooting of the Deliverance movie, John Boorman told the Lee Marvin story.

(It might have been Boorman who told it. That’s how I remember it. But it could just as well have been Jim, himself, repeating and embellishing it. No matter who told it, it was Boorman’s story, as told in that house.)

Before Deliverance Boorman had directed an odd little picture called Hell in the Pacific. It had only two actors in it—Lee Marvin and the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune. The plot line, as I recall, was that these two old-timers, leftovers from World War II, share an island where they spend most of their time hunting each other with intent to kill. One day a huge hurricane comes along, and in order to escape to another uninhabited island, they have to cooperate. Working together they manage the escape. And then . . . they start right in with the hunt to kill routine. The end.

When this low budget film premiered in Hollywood, it was a pretty small, quiet affair. Mifune wasn’t about to fly over from Japan. Mr. and Mrs. Boorman hopped into their Volkswagen van and picked up Lee Marvin and went to see the movie in the middle of the afternoon. A few little old ladies in tennis shoes applauded their arrival and departure. When the film was over, the cast party wasn’t a big problem: “Hey, Lee, where would you like to go to supper?”

Marvin allowed that he would like to go out to Venice, by the beach, and get really drunk and eat a greasy steak.

They found themselves in a bar that Marvin liked, trying to keep up with him, more or less, drink for drink. Soon the Boormans were pouring most of their drinks under the table and Marvin was having a good time. At 2:00 a.m. the bar closed and everybody stumbled out to the street. When they approached the van, the Boormans were astonished that Lee Marvin climbed up on top and settled down, prone, on the luggage rack. He wouldn’t answer them and wouldn’t come down. They discussed the situation, Marvin lived up the coast about 30 minutes drive from Venice on the freeway. They decided to drive very, very slowly in the breakdown lane on the almost empty highway (it was now three o’clock in the morning.)

Everything went along fine. After about an hour, at ten miles an hour, they suddenly found themselves being pulled over by the California Highway Patrol, colored lights blinking. Boorman stopped and waited. The patrolman got out of his car, walked back and rapped on the window on the driver’s side. Boorman rolled down the window. The patrolman saluted.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said. “But do you realize you have Lee Marvin on top of your car?”

Only in Hollywood. As they say.

There is an anti-climactic ending. The police assembled a posse of police cars, rather like those years later in the O.J. chase, and convoyed the Boormans and Lee Marvin, still obstinately clinging to the luggage rack, to Marvin’s house. Where they were able to coax him down and into his bed.

Plenty of laughter and fresh drinks all around at Dickey’s house.

Now all the words and even the echoes of them are long gone. Lost except for fragments of fading and changing memory. Not a rusty nail, not a sliver of broken glass. Nothing at all. Except, as it should be, the words of the dead poet in print, on audio tape, on the soundtrack of several films. And those words are as fresh and clear as when he wrote them and spoke them. And, as is the case with all true poetry, they will be perfectly new and shining for a new generation and a long time to come.

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