James Dickey

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James Dickey American Literature Analysis

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Dickey’s essay “The Enemy from Eden” is a meditation on the metaphysics of snake hunting with a blowgun. The blowgun-wielding hunter—“the One,” as Dickey identifies him—fashions his weapon from a length of aluminum pipe and arms it with sharpened lengths of coat-hanger wire guided by improvised vanes of typing paper scraps. With this weapon the snake hunter seeks his foe, alert not to walk “right into the fangs, the jungle hypodermic.” When the “Universal Evil,” the “Enemy from Eden,” succumbs to the coat-hanger needle in the brain, his skin will become “something to have a drink with, at all times of day and night.” After the kill, “For some reason, the One is well, full of himself and out of himself.”

This brief essay contains much essential Dickey, an avid deer and snake hunter as he prided on portraying himself. Striding into the natural world, armed with the minimum of hand-fashioned weapons, and doing battle with the allegorical monster is an irresistible theme. It also relates directly to Dickey’s concern in both his fiction and his poetry for the magic and mystery of nature and the dangers and satisfactions available to the man who will face up to the challenges. The attitudes expressed therein are typical of his main theme in literature and, likely, life: survival. Witness to harrowing scenes while serving in the Air Force during World War II, he confessed in one of his 1970 self-interviews to viewing existence from the standpoint of a survivor. Having been called “James Dickey, the Grateful Survivor,” in a critical article from that period, the writer gratefully identified with it.

The major Dickey themes are all exemplified in Poems, 1957-1967 (1967), a compilation from Into the Stone, Drowning with Others, Helmets, Buckdancer’s Choice, and Falling (not previously published in book form). Several of the poems treat the death of Dickey’s brother, Eugene, and the poet’s ensuing guilt. Dickey’s mother suffered from angina, and he became convinced that she would not have put herself through the exertion of bearing him if Eugene had not died. This view of his conception and birth troubled Dickey. “The Underground Stream” voices the poet’s frequently stated urge to merge his identity with natural elements—in this instance, with the underground stream he perceives as he lives on the edge of a flowing well—and is infused with the poet’s memory of his “one true brother,/ the tall cadaver, who/ Either grew or did not grow.” Another early poem, “The String,” recalls the story of his brother’s having performed string tricks, “Incredible feats of construction,” as “he lay/ In his death-bed singing with fever.” The direct personal feeling of “The String” is strengthened by the elegiac refrain “Dead before I was born.”

The same sense of the dead brother’s haunting presence emerges in “Armor” and “In the Tree House at Night.” The fantasy about armor conjures up a brother “whose features I knew/ By the feel of their strength on my face/ And whose limbs by the shining of mine.” In the poem’s moving resolution, the brother is armored in gold and the poet has:

    let the still sun  Down into the stare of the eyepieceAnd raised its bird’s beak to confront  What man is within to live with me   When I begin living forever.

In the tree-house poem, it is the “dead brother’s huge, freckled hand” that steadies the nails in the tree-house ladder; and it is his spirit that draws the speaker into the tree house at night, where he enjoys a mystical experience: “My green, graceful bones fill the air/ With sleeping...

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birds. Alone, alone/ And with them I move gently./ I move at the heart of the world.”

Of the numerous recollections of war in Poems, 1957-1967, “The Performance” is perhaps the most stunning. It is one of the most powerful elegies inspired by World War II. “The Performance” honors Donald Armstrong, master of the “back somersault, the kip-up,” as the poet imagines the downed flier’s execution. Doomed to dig his own grave before the enemy’s “two-handed sword” falls on his neck, Armstrong does all his “lean tricks. . . . As the sun poured up from the sea/ And the headsman broke down/ In a blaze of tears,” but at the end Armstrong “knelt down in himself/ Beside his hacked, glittering grave, having done/ All things in this life that he could.”

“Awaiting the Swimmer” is one of Dickey’s love poems. The speaker of the poem stands by a river, holding a white towel and waiting for a woman to reach him on the bank. He wraps her in the towel and leads her to the house, where he is overcome with feeling: “What can I perform, to come near her?/ How hope to bear up, when she gives me/ The fear-killing moves of her body?” Three other early love poems—“On the Hill Below the Lighthouse,” “Near Darien,” and “Into the Stone”—develop similar statements of awe at the power of love and sexual feeling. In each poem, the natural setting is important, with moonlight bathing the lovers in all three poems as the speaker works out his feelings in figures of light and shade, stone and water.

The early love poems contrast with some later ones in different moods, such as “Adultery,” with its “Gigantic forepleasure,” “wrist watch by the bed,” and “grim techniques.” This poem ends in a recital of illicit lovers’ banalities and the speaker’s lighthearted summing up: “We have done it again we are/ Still living. Sit up and smile,/ God bless you. Guilt is magical.” In “Cherrylog Road,” the speaker waits in a junked Pierce-Arrow for the archetypal farmer’s daughter, here named Doris Holbrook. In the still heat of the junkyard, the hulks “smothered in kudzu,” the young speaker and his consort “clung, glued together,/ With the hooks of the seat springs/ Working through to catch us red-handed.” The wild ride over, they leave “by separate doors,” and the speaker roars off on his motorcycle, “Wringing the handlebar for speed,/ Wild to be wreckage forever.” Many of Dickey’s best poems express a natural relationship between the world of man, as personified in the speaker, and the larger world of leaf and stone. These poems often evoke a natural creation trembling with transcendent spirit.

“The Owl King”

First published: 1962 (collected in Drowning with Others, 1962)

Type of work: Poem

A father calls to his blind son, lost in the woods but bonded by natural sympathies to the owl king.

The eight-page poem “The Owl King” is arranged in three parts. Part 1, “The Call,” is the father’s hopeful search for his blind son. This one-page section is characteristic of much of Dickey’s poetry in several ways. It is written in eight-line stanzas, for example, with the first line recurring at the end as a refrain in italics. Many of Dickey’s poems, especially the earlier ones, are told in stanzas of five to eight lines, and the refrain is fairly commonly used (examples include “Dover: Believing in Kings,” “The String,” and “On the Hill Below the Lighthouse”). The stanzas are linked by enjambment, although this poem has rather less of that device than usual in Dickey. The unrhymed lines are mostly of eight syllables, with Dickey’s typically heavy anapestic stress heard everywhere. The metrical pattern found most frequently in a Dickey line is an iamb followed by two anapests, and “The Call” offers perfect examples, as in “It whispers like straw in my ear,/ And shakes like a stone under water./ My bones stand on tiptoe inside it. Which part of the sound did I utter?” The alliteration in these lines is not unexpected in a Dickey poem, and the word “stone” is perhaps the commonest word in Dickey’s vocabulary.

The father’s call is answered by the owl king’s song, and the second part of the poem, two pages, is the owl’s story; it is told in one long stanza. The owl king’s vision allows him to see “dark burn/ Greater than sunlight or moonlight,/ For it burn[s] from deep within [him].” He hears, then sees, the blind boy with “His blue eyes shining like mine.” They are immediately companionable, so that the father’s call becomes a “perfect, irrelevant music,” and they sit each night on the owl’s oak bough. The blind boy achieves something of the owl’s vision, with the boy’s eyes “inch by inch going forward/ Through stone dark, burning and picking/ The creatures out one by one.”

In the five-page third part, “The Blind Child’s Story,” the boy describes, in short lines, his journey into the forest and the relationship he achieves with the owl. Perched on the oak bough, the boy “learn[s] from the master of sight! What to do when the sun is dead,/ How to make the great darkness work/ As it wants of itself to work.” The owl weeps when the boy takes him in his arms in the glow of a heavenly light. The boy then walks through “the soul of the wood,” for he can now “see as the owl king sees.” The hints of religious allegory grow thicker at the end as the boy concludes, “Father, I touch! Your face. I have not seen/ My own, but it is yours./ I come, I advance,/ I believe everything, I am here.”

“The Sheep Child”

First published: 1967 (collected in Poems, 1957-1967, 1967)

Type of work: Poem

The myth of the sheep child—half human, half sheep—inspires a lyric celebration of the will to life embodied in sexual desire.

“The Sheep Child” is in two parts. In the first section, the poet revives the old legends of anomalous deformed births resulting from humans copulating with animals. Among these is the much-whispered-about story of the “woolly baby/ pickled in alcohol” somewhere in an obscure corner of an unnamed museum in Atlanta. Even though “The boys have taken/ Their own true wives in the city” and the sheep are now safe in the pasture, the story persists in the “terrible dust of museums.” Thus the poet imagines the sheep child saying, with his eyes, the story of his begetting, birth, and death. The sheep child’s narrative, printed in italics, is a beautiful lyric of desire.

Speaking from his “father’s house,” the sheep child recounts his sheep mother’s interlude in the west pasture, “where she stood like moonlight/ Listening for foxes.” It was then that “something like love/ From another world . . . seized her/ From behind,” and she responded to “that great need.” From this event ensued the sheep child:

    I woke, dying,In the summer sun of the hillside, with my eyesFar more than human. I saw for a blazing momentThe great grassy world from both sides,Man and beast in the round of their need,And the hill wind stirred in my wool,My hoof and my hand clasped each other,I ate my one mealOf milk, and diedStaring.

From his birth in the pasture, the sheep child goes directly to his incarceration in the museum and his “closet of glass.” He becomes a reminder of the taboo surrounding unnatural sex, driving the farm boys “like wolves from the hound bitch and calf/ And from the chaste ewe in the wind.” The force celebrated in this poem is a terrible one and must be regulated. So, says the sheep child, “Dreaming of me,/ They groan they wait they suffer! Themselves, they marry, they raise their kind.”


First published: 1970

Type of work: Novel

Four city dwellers take a canoe trip that leads to violence and death amid struggle for survival.

Deliverance, Dickey’s first novel, is a survivalist adventure story which quickly became a best seller, then a popular film directed by John Boorman and starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Dickey turned his interest in hunting and the outdoors into a suspenseful narrative that pits the four main characters not only against a wild river in north Georgia but also against several savage mountain men who prowl the wilderness along the river banks.

The novel’s two epigraphs are much to the point of the events that follow. The first, from the modern French writer Georges Bataille, translates as “there exists at the base of human life a principle of insufficiency.” The second is from the Old Testament prophet Obadiah:“The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee,/ thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock,/ whose habitation is high; that saith in his heart,/ Who shall bring me down to the ground?”

Bataille’s observation explains well the urge that sends these comfortable professional men from Atlanta off on an arduous challenge to their bodies and their spirits. The ringleader is Lewis Medlock, a fitness guru and devotee of outdoor sports, whose mantra is being ever-ready to match himself against some grueling physical challenge. Professing his uncompromising ethic of survival, Lewis puts his philosophy to the test by cajoling others to join him on the trip. The narrator is his friend, Ed Gentry, an advertising agency executive who begins the trip as more or less Lewis’s second in command. Lewis and Ed are accompanied by Drew Ballinger, a sales manager for a soft drink distributor, and Bobby Trippe, a mutual funds salesman.

The trip these four men take down the treacherous Cahulawassee River has the features of an archetypal journey fraught with hazards of nature and human evil, and it is a modern masterpiece of this genre. The novel also inverts the genre, however, in the sense that these men do not have to make such a perilous journey. Their adventure is a typical suburbanite vision of a weekend expedition to shore up their sense of virility, which instead turns into a nightmare. Looking for a deliverance from the ennui of modern city life, ironically the four men drive away from home in modern automobiles and then set themselves the task of getting home using the most difficult way possible. When it is all over, the decent Drew is dead, his body submerged under tons of water. Bobby, the least equipped of the four for the strains of the mythical outdoors, has been sodomized and permanently embittered. Lewis begins by playing the role he was born for, saving Bobby and Ed’s lives from sexual predators with an arrow straight into the heart of one of the assailants. Lewis relishes the tense existential drama for which he has prepared himself through such a long novitiate but, in another ironic turn, suffers a crippling fracture in a canoe crash on the same rapids where Drew loses his life. It is then that Ed—the narrator, the skeptic, the apprentice—takes on Lewis’s responsibilities and—killing a man who hunts for them—accomplishes his initiation triumphantly. Yet the question remains: From what has Ed been delivered?

Deliverance is tightly plotted and structured in three main sections of roughly equal length. A brief “Before” section introduces the characters and the dominant theme of survivalist ethos cultivated in the midst of modern civilization. The first day of the journey is narrated in “September 14th,” and it takes the men by car to the little village of Oree, where they begin their journey to the camp where they will tent the first night. “September 15th” begins mildly but soon reaches a narrative peak in a confrontation on shore with two backwoods yahoos who assault the travelers and rape Bobby before Lewis unhesitatingly kills one with an arrow. The surviving backwoodsman escapes, and the four continue their trip in a grim frame of mind after taking a vote and deciding to bury the dead man instead of reporting the incident to the police. Their trip takes them through vicious rapids; at this juncture, Drew ends up overboard and upsets the lead canoe in which he is riding with Ed. Lewis’s leg is badly mangled, and leadership devolves upon Ed, whom Lewis charges with tracking the woodsman and killing him. Convinced that the surviving mountaineer has laid for them in ambush and shot Drew in cold blood, Ed scales a high cliff in a test of physical endurance of which he would not believe himself capable a few days earlier and waits for their tormentor as the second day ends.

“September 16th” finds Ed in the tree waiting for their pursuer, who indeed appears armed with a rifle. In a tense shootout, in which Ed must divest himself of his placid, reflective nature and look inside for a survivalist and a killer, the mountain man dies. His body is consigned to the waiting river, and the three survivors continue on to the town of Aintry after burying Drew’s body and agreeing on a cover-up story of his accidental death. This denouement of the classic plot pattern is completed by an “After” section in which their rickety story is questioned by the local law but soon becomes part of the river’s annals as the whole area is flooded, ensuring the eternal concealment of the three bodies.

Wherein does the deliverance lie in this story of violence and death? For the innocent four voyagers it beckoned them away from the ennui and death-in-life of suburban existence. Although for Drew there is no consolation, only oblivion, as a group the travelers are delivered from unprovoked assault, mortal peril, and raging forces of nature. Even as Bobby is brutally assaulted, he is delivered from an even greater peril by Lewis’s unwavering arrow. For Lewis there is deliverance from the compulsions that drove him to rigorous physical disciplines, and a better understanding of his strength as well as its limitations. As Ed observes of Lewis at the last, “He can die now; he knows that dying is better than immortality.” Ed himself has been delivered from a great hope, the aspiration to compensate for the insufficiency of life by heroic accomplishment. After Drew’s death, when Lewis and Ed realize the predicament in which they are caught, Lewis observes that “here we are, at the heart of the Lewis Medlock country.” Ed exults in the challenge he faces in Lewis’s role: “My heart expanded with joy at the thought of where I was and what I was doing.”

Ed’s exaltation on the river has been partly prepared by a sequence in the opening exposition. In the flurry of preparations for their trip, Ed’s male attention is caught by the gaze of a model at his agency, a woman with a “gold-glowing mote” in her eye; she represents for Ed the call to overcome the insufficiency of civilized man’s quotidian rounds. The promise of the “gold-glowing mote” is fulfilled in the joy Ed experiences on the riverbank, a genuine deliverance from civilization’s restraints. The culminating deliverance will come only later, in the journey’s aftermath, when passions are stilled and peace is regnant. Then Ed reports that “the gold-halved eye had lost its fascination. Its place was in the night river, in the land of impossibility.” Ed sees the woman now and again around the studio: “She is a pleasant part of the world, but minor. She is imaginary.”

This, then, is the deliverance: the humiliation foreseen in Obadiah that beats out of recalcitrant, Faustian man the urge to surmount the sense that life is not enough. Deliverance is thus a moral tale of self-discovery that comes from a broader perspective on life and its trials. Manhood is but one aspect of it, and the ability to rise to the threat—whether posed by nature or by human assailant—is an inherent part of it. However, maturity transcends physical prowess and even personal valor and ironically may mean acceptance of things that would be perceived as usurping that manhood before. At the conclusion, Ed sits with his wife, Martha, in marital companionability: “In summer we sit by a lake where we have an A-frame cottage—it is not Lake Cahula, it is over on the other side of the lake—and look out over the water, maybe drinking a beer in the evening.” It is a life of muted pleasures, true, but it is a true deliverance from the exhausting pursuit of the promise in the “gold-glowing mote.”


First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

A blind man struggles to discover how his son died when his plane crashed at a North Carolina training base during World War II.

Alnilam is completely different from Deliverance. Whereas Deliverance unfolds swiftly around a tightly structured plot, Alnilam—much longer at 682 pages—rambles along, often faltering under the burden of its sometimes awkward split point of view. The main character, Frank Cahill, is an amusement park owner in Atlanta who learns that his son Joel has died in a mysterious training plane crash at the North Carolina Air Corps base where he is stationed during World War II. Joel’s body cannot be found, and Cahill, recently victimized by blindness brought on by diabetes, travels by bus to the training base with his German shepherd seeing-eye dog, Zack. He hopes to learn exactly what happened to Joel.

Cahill is received well by the camp authorities, and he meets Joel’s officers and friends. He trudges over the site of the fatal accident. He even sleeps with one of the local women well known to the airmen. He never discovers, however, exactly how Joel died. What he does discover is that Joel was the moving spirit of a mysterious cult named for the star Alnilam deep in Orion, the hunter constellation. Their goal is a transcendence of the earthly and physical through the experience of flight, an experience that to them becomes virtually mystical.

Many pages of Alnilam are printed in double columns. A column on the left in boldface print renders the thoughts and sensations of the blind Cahill, groping around the base in both literal and figurative darkness. A column on the right in normal print maintains the usual flow of omniscient third-person narration. The device sometimes intrudes on the reader’s consciousness, forcing a continuous re-evaluation of the events and of the narrator’s role in fashioning them for the reader. When the double column arrangement goes on for several pages, for example, should the reader go all the way with the left column and then backtrack to the right column or try to keep up with both at once? At times, the tonal differences may not seem pronounced enough to warrant the double point of view, but as an overall strategy it is a bold move for a writer whose prose is not known for technical experimentation.

Dickey was always courageous about taking chances, however, and even if the split narration is not always successful, he does succeed in giving a moving impression of the blind Cahill’s quest. This quest echoes the fertility myth of the Fisher King, which, through Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), came to embody Gertrude Stein’s elegy for the “lost generation” of the other Great War. Strip the symbolic layer, and some of the scenes are memorable in their own right. The training plane fight, for example, is a gripping re-creation of a blind man’s sensations at the controls of a PT-17 aircraft; and Cahill’s night bundled up with the woman very effectively captures a different kind of experience.

Cahill’s ordeal takes place in the dead of winter, and the cold contributes to the tactile imagery so necessary in recounting a blind person’s movements around unfamiliar terrain. Cahill’s adjustment to the sterile landscape of the base; his closeness to Zack, his dog (in whose fur he frequently fumbles for reassurance); and the slow revelation of what his son had been up to—all help give the story sufficient life for the reader often to forget the narrative contrivance.

To the White Sea

First published: 1993

Type of work: Novel

Shot down over Tokyo, an American World War II airman pushes northward to Hokkaido amid a survivalist rampage of killing and violence.

Parts of To the White Sea are good and original. Unfortunately, what is original can hardly count as the best of Dickey’s prose, and what is good is not that original, leaning heavily on Deliverance and its survivalist ethos. In the opening section, Dickey reaches back into his own experience as an airman who took part in the 1945 firebombing of Japan. Later on he will smoothly segue into imagined, mystical passages of immersion in animal world and nature, scenes of hunting, stalking, and killing. Halfway through the novel, during the long train ride episode, his language will become even more poetic and associative. Overall, it is not inaccurate to describe the novel as a sustained internal monologue interlaced with curt, matter-of-fact, explosive sequences of action and violence. The mixture of these disparate styles may jar readers, but it is entirely deliberate. As a 1988 letter to Gore Vidal reveals, Dickey made no real distinction between fact, fiction, history, reminiscence, and fantasy because, as he put it, imagination inhabits them all.

Color imagery dominates the protagonist’s progression from Tokyo to the northern tip of the island of Honshu and across the strait to Hokkaido. The dominant hue changes from the fire red during the bombing raid, to the whiteness of the polar landscape at the end. In between, the author strives to emphasize the imagistic play of other hues and shades, but the overall effect is often contrived and detracting from the protagonist’s progress—and, in some way, regress. Dickey’s favorite structural device is to strip the plot and his characters to the barest essentials and then intimate emotionally laden questions about this cubist tableau. In To the White Sea, these questions seem to be aimed at the survivalist ethic in the days of human-made holocaust. Yet filtered through the mind of the American airman, Muldrow, whom the author himself characterized as a sociopath and a conscienceless murder much like the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, they seem shallow at best, self-justifying the senseless killing.

Preaching and living the mantra of being ever-ready for the veneer of civilization to fall away, leaving everyone at the mercy of their survival skills, Muldrow instinctively—but also with full deliberation—seeks to leave the war behind and get to the wastelands of northern Japan. His separate peace has little to do, however, with the rituals of valor and respect. Its only trace is when the killer honors the fallen Japanese sword-master. For most of the journey, Muldrow is not so much apart from the human society as a part of a force of nature, almost amoral in his basic survivalist drives. His ultimate death at the hands of the Japanese is not an act of victory by the superior enemy but an act of supreme indifference to death from a man who has finally found his place in the nature-driven scheme of things—one that transcends human warfare, loyalty, and perhaps civilization as a whole.


James Dickey Long Fiction Analysis