Natural Enemies: Reflections on Writing the Biography of James Dickey

By Hart, Henry | Salmagundi, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Natural Enemies: Reflections on Writing the Biography of James Dickey


Hart, Henry, Salmagundi


If it's true, as Oscar Wilde said, that every great man has many disciples and it's always Judas who writes the biography, James Dickey both courted and resisted his Judas-like biographers. Like other writers worried about their legacies, he could have destroyed the personal papers that would demean or damn him in a biography. But he saved almost every scrap he wrote on, including drafts of poems he sketched on Applebees napkins and a booklet on tooth brushing he assembled when he was five years old. Beginning in 1964, when he sent his first batch of manuscripts to the archives of Washington University, he made sure his papers ended up in public libraries where scholars could examine them. By the time of his death in 1997, he had sold a collection of letters, manuscripts, and other private materials to Emory University that covered over 190 feet of shelf space.

After Dickey won the National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer 's Choice in 1966 and after the novel Deliverance and its film version made him famous in the early 1970s, a number of potential biographers approached him. To one he complained that a biography would merely serve up his guts on a silver platter for his detractors to peck at like vultures. When a friend at the U.S. Air Force Academy revealed his plan to write an account of Dickey's years in the Army Air Corps, Dickey responded with ambivalence: "I am much pleased that you would like to do some biographical work on me, but I feel that I shouldn't encourage you in this." Fearing he might die in 1980 from an operation on his blocked esophagus, and fearing the prospect of biographers swooping in after his demise, Dickey wrote in a will: "I authorize no official biography, though material may be consulted for critical & interpretive works dealing with my writings." Flattered by the idea of biographers lavishing attention on his life and work, he refused to cooperate with them. Fearful of what they would expose , he steered them toward less revealing - or at least less embarrassing - forms of literary criticism.

In 1992, when I informed him of my plan to write his biography, he didn't reply. Over the next eight years, as I leafed through thousands of his archived documents in various libraries around the U.S., collected innumerable newspaper articles about his public appearances around the world, and interviewed his many friends and acquaintances, I realized why he had prohibited an official biography. Everyone, it seemed, had a "Dickey story," and many of these stories were not laudatory. They recounted his drunken behavior on "barnstorming for poetry" tours, his extramarital affairs with women, his salacious flirtations with men, and his self-aggrandizing stories that often hid his failures.

As my research progressed, what I found especially intriguing was the way he'd fictionalized his life to make it conform to his notion of an all- American hero or cult figure. He'd invented a virtual life for himself not because his actual life was uninteresting or unheroic, but because he was determined to make his life appear more interesting and more heroic. "Creative lying," as he insisted on calling it, was a compulsion he couldn't resist. In a letter to Gore Vidal, he explained: "I make no real distinction between fact, fiction, history, reminiscence and fantasy, for the imagination inhabits them all." Biographers, of course, are expected to make distinctions between these categories. So are scholars who review biographies , lawyers who vet biographies for publishers to prevent lawsuits , and lawyers hired by those who want to alter or prohibit biographies.

Dickey's vacillations about my biography-in-progress intensified after he nearly died from cirrhosis and hepatitis in 1994. Having ignored the letters I'd sent him in the early 1990s, he finally told a mutual friend that he wanted me to visit his home in Columbia, South Carolina, so he could talk to me about his life. Because of his declining health, he must have known that he didn't have many more years- or months- to influence what I wrote. …

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