Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

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

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

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

Article excerpt

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. …

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