This Day In Writing History
On February 2nd, 1923, the famous American poet and novelist James Dickey was born in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1942, after graduating from high school, Dickey enrolled at the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, where he played on the football team as a tailback. After his first semester ended, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and served in the night fighter squadrons during World War 2.
After the war ended, Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt University, where he earned degrees in English and philosophy. He taught first at the University of Florida, then at Rice University in Houston. While teaching freshman composition at Rice, he re-enlisted in the military, this time in the Air Force, for a two-year tour of duty in Korea. After that, he returned to Rice and taught a course in the Literature of the American South.
James Dickey soon left teaching to work as an advertising copy writer, directing the creative work on advertising campaigns for Coca-Cola and Lay's Potato Chips. He would later say that he only took up a career in advertising to support himself while he wrote poetry: "I was selling my soul to the devil all day... and trying to buy it back at night."
In 1960, Dickey's first book was published. It was a poetry collection titled Into the Stone and Other Poems. His second poetry collection, Drowning with Others (1962), won him a Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1965, his poetry collection Buckdancer's Choice won him the National Book Award. After the Library of Congress named him a poetry consultant, Dickey published Poems 1957-67 in 1967. Considered to be a collection of the poet's best work, it led the University of South Carolina at Columbia to offer him a position as professor of English and writer-in-residence.
Although he was primarily a poet, James Dickey published three novels during his lifetime. His first, published in 1970, made him world famous and earned him a place in pop culture history, thanks to the acclaimed feature film adaptation of the novel that was released two years later in 1972. The novel would also leave an unflattering impression of the author's birth state on the American psyche that continues to this day.
Deliverance told the story of four middle-aged city men from Atlanta who embark on a weekend hunting and canoeing trip in the north Georgia wilderness that turns into a nightmare. Friends Ed Gentry, Bobby Trippe, Drew Ballinger, and Lewis Medlock (the outdoorsman leading the trip) arrive at a gas station in the mountains where Drew meets Lonnie, a mentally handicapped, inbred hillbilly with an uncanny talent for playing the banjo. Drew takes out his guitar and joins him in a duet.
Later, the four friends begin their canoe trip and shoot the rapids. Ed begins to reflect ominously on just how isolated they are in the middle of the wilderness. Their attempt at male bonding goes awry when first Ed, then Bobby becomes irritated by Lewis' survivalist mentality. To get away from Lewis, Ed and Bobby go canoeing. Later that day, they are accosted by two hillbilly mountain men, one of them carrying a shotgun.
In the novel's (and the movie's) most famous scene, the hillbillies tie Ed to a tree, then one of them brutally rapes Bobby and the other forces Ed to perform oral sex on him. The twang of a bow rings out as Lewis, who happened upon the scene, shoots one of the hillbillies and kills him. Then Ed wrestles the shotgun away from the other. The four friends decide what to do with the dead hillbilly. Over Drew's objections, the others side with Lewis and bury the body, for fear of being put in front of a jury likely comprised of the dead man's friends and relatives.
Soon, the four friends find themselves fighting for their lives in a different way when more hillbillies attack them. When Drew is murdered by the hillbillies, Lewis, Ed, and Bobby hide his body as well. The trio manages to survive their battle with the vicious, depraved hillbillies. Though the sheriff is suspicious of them, (one of the dead hillbillies was his deputy's brother-in-law) he lets them go due to lack of evidence and warns them not to come back. They return home safe but shattered from the experience.
The 1972 feature film adaptation of Deliverance was directed by John Boorman, working from a screenplay by James Dickey. It starred Jon Voight as Ed, Ned Beatty as Bobby, Ronny Cox as Drew, and Burt Reynolds as Lewis. James Dickey had a small co-starring role as the Sheriff. The film earned several Academy Award nominations. The famous line where one of the hillbillies tells Bobby to "squeal like a pig" was not in the novel. It had been conceived by Ned Beatty while he was improvising the scene with Bill McKinney, who played the hillbilly. The movie was also famous for turning the instrumental piece Dueling Banjos into a horror theme.
James Dickey's two other novels were Alnilam (1987) and To The White Sea (1994). Alnilam was a 682-page epic novel set during World War 2. It's 1943, and Frank Cahill, a middle-aged man who lost his sight to diabetes, gets a chance to go up in an Air Corps training plane. Later, Cahill learns that his son Joel, an Air Force cadet whom he never knew, (he and his wife separated when she was pregnant) crashed his plane while flying over a brush fire. His body wasn't found, but he's presumed dead.
Cahill goes to Joel's base and talks to officials and his son's fellow cadets. Joel's flying experience was legendary, and he was the leader of Alnilam - a secret group of cadets who were into mysticism. Skeptical, Cahill nonetheless plunges himself into the mystery of his son's life, disappearance, and alleged death in a plane crash. To The White Sea was a World War 2 adventure about an American gunner pilot who is shot down during a mission. To save himself, he must parachute into Tokyo just days before a scheduled Allied firebombing raid.
James Dickey continued to write and to teach at the University of South Carolina. In 1977, he was invited to read his poem The Strength of Fields at the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter - a fellow Georgian. In his later years, Dickey suffered from various health problems, including alcoholism, liver disease, and lung disease. In January of 1997, six days after teaching his last class at the university, he died at the age of 73.
A year after James Dickey's death, his son Christopher, a novelist and journalist, published Summer of Deliverance, a memoir of his sometimes troubled relationship with him.
Quote Of The Day
"A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning." - James Dickey
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for the classic 1972 feature film adaptation of James Dickey's novel, Deliverance. Enjoy!