James Dickey

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Dickey, James 1923–

Dickey is an American poet, novelist, critic, screenwriter, and essayist. His poetry possesses a strong rhythmic pattern, expressing his concern with the cycles of love and death and the interaction of man and nature. Dickey has enjoyed acceptance in both the popular and academic worlds. He received the National Book Award in 1965 and has served as the Consultant on Poetry in English to the Library of Congress. Dickey's novel Deliverance was made into a successful film. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Paul G. Italia

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Perhaps [the patterned brutality in Deliverance] is nothing more than a macabre symmetry, a grimly humorous instance of "poetic justice," in which each of the perverted primitives gets what he deserves where he deserves it. But there is something more; the neatly ironic balancing of sin and retribution, of crime and counter-crime, is transcended by the mystery formed between the civilized hunter and the primitive one. What results from this whirlwind weekend courtship with death is love. (p. 204)

There are perversion and fantasy present in [the love scene between Gentry and his wife, a] scene of "civilized" love: it has one other important element in common with the climactic hunt—dreams and dreaming. For night (with its fantasies, inversions, dreams) constitutes the "atmosphere" of both the love-episode and the hunt-episode. Indeed, the scene that describes Gentry's embrace of his wife opens with his musing upon dreams…. Gentry defines wakening as the attempt to "get clear of" where he had been. Dreaming becomes another vehicle to illustrate his struggle to escape death and find "another life." Gentry's definition of dreaming takes us out of the bedroom and into the wilderness, out of the love-scene and into the hunt. And the dream ends in each episode with deliverance. A close look at that hunt furnishes the perspective needed to view this collage of night, dream, fantasy, and perversion.

The hunting episode begins with Gentry's climbing a steep gorge to reach the cliff where he suspects the bushwacker is hiding. This scene, too, begins with a dream. In fact, the whole episode might be called a dream sequence. Gentry's stalking of the backwoodsman begins just before dawn, as does the bedroom scene, and his difficult climb is reminiscent of the "dragged upward" sensation he always experiences in his attempts to struggle free of his dreams…. The sexuality becomes clearer as the hunt proceeds. "Then I would begin to try to inch upward again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me."…

This hunt is a primal union with "mother nature," the intimacy of which is greater than marriage. And, as in the love-scene, something obtrudes upon his intimacy with his wife. But the strongest link between this passage and the earlier episode is the fact that Gentry manages to climb out of his dream and up the rock-face to eventual deliverance because an "enormous moon-blazing sexuality" lifted him beyond the abyss.

Gentry's sense of suspension during the climb strongly resembles that of the dream state. And, as in a dream, his thoughts during the hunt are a kind of fantasy. He thinks of his deadly accurate plan to trap the hunter as a daydream; indeed, the whole situation has the finality and matter-of-factness that dreams give to extraordinary events…. Sex, as well as murder, is the object of Ed Gentry's fantasy, of his "wet dream." (pp. 205-06)

The hunt, itself, is clearly sexual in [D. H. Lawrence's short...

(This entire section contains 1730 words.)

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novel]The Fox, perhaps less so in Deliverance. Dickey's use of sexuality in the hunt is subtle, but it is there: "We were closed together, and the feeling of a peculiar kind of intimacy increased," says Gentry…. And as he lined the woodsman up in his sights, he noted that "There was something relaxed and enjoying in his body position, something primally graceful; I had never seen a more beautiful or convincing element of a design. I wanted to kill him just like that…. Wait till he lies down, I said far back in my throat."… Finally, this chase ends in a whirlwind climax in which both hunters, feeling a sudden blast and finding themselves turning and twisting and falling, perform a macabre parody of sexual union.

The hunt, then, is a sexual one in Deliverance. But to end with this observation is to miss Dickey's point—and Lawrence's…. Lawrence's is the more explicit: … "He was a huntsman in spirit…. And it was as a young hunter that he wanted to bring down March as his quarry, to make her his wife."… The hunt is sexual, but the point of it is to bring love out of the perverseness of man's desire, to bring another life out of the quarry's death. Gentry's kill is no dodge of cleverness. But only gradually does it become clear that love is involved in the slaying of the woodsman. Dickey quietly injects the possibility of love into the chase when he slips into Gentry's mind the observation that "If Lewis had not shot his companion, he [the man he is tracking] and I would have made a kind of love, painful and terrifying to me, in some dreadful way pleasurable to him, but we would have been together in the flesh, there on the floor of the woods."…

The sexuality in the hunt is a function of the fantasy in the hunt. The fantasy dictates that he shoot the hillbilly in the back, as, earlier, he took his wife in the "back," and as the older backwoodsman got Trippe in the "back."… When fantasy ends reality takes over: the arrow pierces the mountaineer's throat and not his back. (pp. 207-08)

Earlier, Gentry regretfully noted that the hunted hunters could have "made a kind of love," could have "been together in the flesh." Yet, they do become one: each inflicts a wound in the other at the same moment, and their blood flows and mingles together just as their minds "merged" and "fused" during the chase. At the height of that climax both sex and death are transcended. They become "one flesh"—but not in the manner Gentry has fantasized…. Gentry escaped the backwoodsman's sexual fantasy, and he eludes Gentry's. The novel's treatment of sexuality makes the point that, like hunting, sex is a deadly struggle. But Dickey's treatment of hunting and sexuality indicate that love can result from the battle.

When now we return to Gentry's "struggle" with his wife, we can appreciate the function of dream and fantasy in that love-scene from the perspectives furnished by the hunt. Gentry's catching sight of his quarry's face turns the scene from exploitation to identification, from rape to love. The same thing occurs at the climax of Gentry's embrace of his wife…. Gentry's fantasy-girl does not usurp his wife, for the sudden reality of the girl's face (both during the photography session and the love session) and the "otherness" of her golden eye cause the unnatural and potentially exploitive fantasy to dissolve and become a genuine act of love.

Although Dickey clearly rejects the fantasy element, he does not dismiss the entire dream experience. In fact, the dream situation, when taken as a whole (all that precedes the climax both in the love-scene and in the hunt-scene), predicts and creates the essential truth in each experience. Life is like a dream, suggests Dickey, but each dream contains omens and illusions. The two major episodes in Deliverance are constructed as dream sequences. The illusion in each is precisely the same: Gentry's fantasy of sodomy and the power and pleasure it promises. The truth in each dream is similar: the "promise of … another life, deliverance."… The fantasy promises pleasure and power, but is death; the omen promises struggle, and yields new life.

Life is like a dream. Yet we can never distinguish between truth and illusion until the dream comes to its climax and we waken. The novel tells us that we are condemned to feeling our way in the dark, to finding truth through dreams like Penelope in the Odyssey. Defenseless, unable to touch or make contact with our own environment, surrounded by hypocrites, we live in a world of shadows and half-lights. By definition, mortals cannot distinguish between the dream and the fantasy; but when dawn ends and day triumphs in its primal struggle with night, then mortals may know the truth. And, in Deliverance, the dreams do occur at dawn, just as in the Odyssey. (pp. 208-10)

If we say that the backwoodsman and the city-boy come together at the climax of the struggle, that in their identification the hillbilly becomes Gentry's "double," then what dies there is Gentry's other self. He has killed the predator in him by becoming a predator. Gentry has shucked off that part of himself that might kill or rape anything that turns its back on him. He becomes truly civilized by destroying the slackjaw hillbilly in himself. Thus, the death of the back-woodsman is not wanton exploitation: it is "in some dreadful way" a creation of something new—Gentry's freedom and love. (pp. 210-11)

The climax of the hunt (and the novel) is a kind of liebestod. It displays a union of the primal tensions of human existence, just as the dawn displays the brief union of night and day. Love and death are identified, and as inextricable as day from night or the hunter from his quarry. But Dickey's romance does not end with this liebestod. His conception of romance differs from the fin-de-siècle European version by being at once much tougher and more optimistic.

Dickey is not a decadent. The hunt may have its esthetics, but it is also a philosophy: the display of paradox and antithesis must be productive. And here again the sexuality in the novel furnishes some clarity. In Deliverance, love is the point; sodomy is the exaggeration that makes the point—sex as an end in itself is a dead end. Sodomy is a vicious exploitation, here, in which (biologically as well as ethically) "another life" cannot be produced. But if the minds "merge" and "fuse" and the eyes make contact and see, then the partners can be "together in the flesh." This merging happens to Gentry in bed with his wife and in the wilderness with the backwoodsman. If love is not brought out of the climax, if the miracle is not delivered out of the muddle, then the liebestod becomes a "mind-rape."

But what does the book say about sex apart from its function as a metaphor? I think Dickey is saying that sex is the energy that shapes all life…. (p. 212)

Paul G. Italia, "Love and Lust in James Dickey's 'Deliverance'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1975, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1975, pp. 203-13.

Robert Penn Warren

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["The Zodiac"] is consistently demanding, characteristically eloquent and often in an original way, and sometimes magnificent. I can think of no poem since Hart Crane's "The Bridge" that is so stylistically ambitious and has aimed to stir such depths of emotion. Like "The Bridge" (and most works of man's hand) this poem has certain limitations and defects that may provoke quarrel: for instance, the structural principle of progression for the first seven or eight sections is not always clear, and there is again some sort of structural blockage in the last two sections—defects in, we may say, the dramatic pivots. But the audacity of imagery, assemblage of rhythms, the power of language redeems all—in a period too often marked by a delicate hovering over the fragile merely because it is fragile and the prosy because it is prosy, the celebration of sensibility as such, polite or academic scrupulosities, self-pity in a cruel world, craven free verse lacking basic and projective rhythms.

In one sense "The Zodiac" can be said to be about the over-ambitiousness of poetry—even as it celebrates its ambitiousness….

The poem is a metaphysical poem, one that with passion, rage, eloquence, and occasionally hysterical yammer asks a metaphysical question as a form of poetry. If for nothing, it would be memorable for the passage that seals the end…. (p. 8)

Robert Penn Warren, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1976.

Harold Bloom

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Dickey, after the lapse of his later poems,… ventures everything in The Zodiac, a longish poem of some 30 pages loosely based upon a modern Dutch original. Dickey's "drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet" speaks for Dickey's own will-to-power over language and the universe of sense, a will so monomaniac as to resemble Ahab's, rather than Melville's. The Zodiac is obsessive and perhaps even hysterical verse, and after a number of readings I am helpless to say whether, for me, it works or fails. I cannot say whether Dickey has mastered his own language here or not, but I will have to keep going back to this poem, as will many other readers. It ends as strongly as anything in the Orphic and Promethean demi-god Dickey: "So long as the spirit hurls on space / The star-beasts of intellect and madness." (p. 22)

Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.

Stanley Burnshaw

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"[The Zodiac] is based on another of the same title by Hendrik Marsman", Dickey explains, and "with the exception of a few lines, is completely my own." "Based" is the warranted word. Part I of Dickey's poem is almost as long (414 lines) as the whole of Marsman's (422), Parts II-XII even longer. But the telling difference grows out of the two conceptions of the hero: "A drunken Dutch poet who returns to his home in Amsterdam after years of travel and tries desperately to relate himself, by means of stars, to the universe."… (p. 120)

[The] two works … are fairly close in story but in other ways vastly apart. Marsman's narrator describes and interprets the hero's thoughts, feelings, acts; he philosophizes, he exclaims—and all in verse of conventional patterns: spare, condensed, restrained. In Dickey's poem the hero himself speaks, moans, shouts, questions, streams with visions, spits out four-letter words, curses his soul and God. Dickey disposes the words on the page as a prosody music-score, the margins and spaces reflecting the twists, turns, leaps of a man half-drunk, half-mad, half-supersane: a more-than-lifesize creature torn between whisky and stars. (pp. 120-21)

Mallarmé sought "the secret's answer" on earth ("Things already exist … we have simply to see their relationships"); the Dutch poet reads it in the sky. But for both, humanity's salvaging power is the same: the "creative" answer. Mallarmé calls for "composing the Book, the Orphic explanation of the earth … attempted by every writer." Dickey's speaker goes further, affirming that man will not fail himself so long as he is able to conceive the world imaginatively—

       So long as the hand can hold its island
         Of blazing paper, and bleed for its images:
         Make what it can of what is:
          So long as the spirit hurls on space
       The star-beasts of intellect and madness.

The avowal is no useless fancy. Poetry's "re-enactment of unification" (as The Seamless Web sought to make clear) overcomes the divisiveness within ourselves, among ourselves, and between ourselves and the universe. Poetry thus can no longer be viewed as a cultural ornament. Rather by providing as it does the fulfilment of a need of our nature, poetry serves as an instrument for human survival.

In Sorties, a book which I urged on my fellow-judges for a National Book Award, Dickey declared "I want my poem to devour the reader, so that he cannot possibly put it down as he reads it, or forget about it." The Zodiac sets a new height in this writer's achievement. It is surely the most disturbingly remarkable booklength poem in decades, charged as it is with the "raw vitalism", "the convincing speech", the insights, the visions, the unflagging intensity that Dickey attains in the finest works of his art. Let the reader make himself ready to roll with this poem as it draws him into its vortex of search and light. (pp. 123-24)

Stanley Burnshaw, "James Dickey" (originally published in a different version as "Star-Beasts of Intellect and Madness," in Book World—The Washington Post, November 21, 1976, p. E1; reprinted by permission of William McPherson), in Agenda, Winter-Spring 1977, pp. 120-24.

Raymond J. Smith

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[The] protagonist of Dickey's [The Zodiac], a Dutch poet who uses the expression "Old Buddy," is a drunk. One would have hoped that the romantic image of the whiskey-poet had been finally smashed by Berryman's suicide. Not so. Alcohol and creativity go hand in hand for this poet….

More of a tour de force than the mesmerizing "Falling" or the brilliantly Gothic "May Day Sermon," The Zodiac marks a new departure for Dickey in that it is derivative…. (p. 96)

Dickey has divided his poem into twelve parts (related only numerically to the signs of the zodiac), each of which focuses upon a particular episode in the life of a man who after many years of travel has returned to his home town (Amsterdam), where he tries to order his life…. (pp. 96-7)

Specifically Dickey's is the drunkenness of the protagonist, as well as an appropriate openness of style (marked by an infusion of the colloquial) and form (the words sprawl drunkenly across these pages which [have been] widened for Dickey's purposes), which was anticipated by his previous book, The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. At its worst, the openness leads to something like this:

                      Son of a bitch.
            His life is shot my life is shot.
 It's also shit. He knows it. Where's it all gone off to?
 The gods are in pieces
                      All over Europe.
                                  But, by God, not God

Dickey's main contribution to The Zodiac is his development of the protagonist's interest in the stars, which Marsman (wisely, I think) only touched upon. This, indeed, is the focus of the later poem, which is about a man who (as Dickey puts it) "tries desperately to relate himself, by means of the stars, to the universe." (p. 97)

The fiction here is similar to that of the deeply stirring "Eye-Beaters," where desperate, blind, orphaned children beat their eyes to create sparks—a kind of internal zodiac. Here the poet, rather than turning inward for consolation, to tribal memories, the caveman artist drawing the life-giving animal ("the deer, still wet with creation"), turns outward to the macrocosm, the star-beasts of the zodiac—projecting in each case an imaginative pattern on space. The fiction is an intriguing one. But the whiskey-poet, who expresses a great deal of familiarity for his fellow-artist God ("Listen you universal son-of-a-bitch, / You're talking to a poet now, so don't give me a lot of shit"), attempts to link his drunkenness and creativity by taking on the role of God's bartender—"What'll it be?" goes the refrain. And in this role, he can try to serve up something life-giving to take the crab Cancer's place in the zodiac—a "healing lobster."

The Zodiac does manage to transcend the banal and ludicrous, especially in the last section…. The poet's concluding prayer begins:

  But now, now
          Oh God you rocky landscape give me, Give
  Me drop by drop
            desert water at least.
          I want to write about deserts

          And in the dark the sand begins to cry
          For living water that not a sun or star
  Can kill, and for the splay camel-prints that bring men,
    And the ocean with its enormous crooning, begs

        For haunted sailors for refugees putting back
          Flesh on their ever-tumbling bones
            To man that fleet, for in its ships
                Only, the sea becomes the sea.

In such a way does Dickey resolve the antinomies—art/often following [his predecessor] Marsman quite closely. Here is the Dutch poet's (or his translator A. J. Barnouw's) version of the passage just quoted:

        And in the dark the desert made its plaint
        For living water that no heat will dry,
        And for the footprints of a caravan.
        And the ocean's siren song begged for a crew
        To man its waves with a high-riding fleet,
        For without ships the sea is not a sea.

Although Dickey insists in his preface that the poem is "in no sense a translation," close correspondences such as this seriously limit its originality. We are left, indeed, with not much more than the boozy ranting and ludicrous fiction of the poet bartending for God. (pp. 97-8)

Raymond J. Smith, "'Bartending for God'," in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1977 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1977–78, pp. 96-8.

Diane A. Parente

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As a reviewer, I find myself somewhat intimidated, even awed by this beautiful, ambitious concert of effort. Artist (Marvin Hayes) and Poet (James Dickey) have combined talents to produce [God's Images] a new vehicle through which to experience the Bible.

Biblical events and personalities come alive in a series of fifty-three striking etchings, each accompanied by a reflective, poetic meditation….

The verbal images will evoke a … varied response from those who pause to read and reflect. Diversity is the key word here, the author's personal reactions to the Biblical passages illustrated—now it takes the form of a poetic retelling of a Biblical event modernized by expanded imagery, then there are the first-person reactions of a Biblical character as he or she confronts his moment of truth, and scattered throughout are the gem-like reflections which provide insight and inspiration for the reader rather than simply expanding his experience of the Bible. (p. 283)

Diane A. Parente, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977, Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), December, 1977.

Richard Finholt

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Leonard Lutwack, in Heroic Fiction, has stated that Melville's Moby-Dick introduced "unequivocally the spirit of the epic to American fiction by daring to endow native materials with qualities of the heroic past."… James Dickey's Deliverance … fits the ancient pattern more closely than any of the novels Lutwack chooses to discuss (it seems, in fact, an almost perfect embodiment of Joseph Campbell's "monomyth"). (p. 128)

In a time when the suspicion begins to grow, as Mailer puts it, that "nothing is nailed down" or, as Lewis puts it, that "nothing 'stays put,'" Dickey would take us back across time to the time before man had a sense of history but did, instead, take "for granted" his place in the natural cycle of birth and death. The country people in Deliverance seem grotesque and simple-minded to city people like Bobby, Drew, and Ed, but Lewis Medlock tells Ed that "we're lesser men" … than they, because they live the kind of natural existence that city-bound men have lost over the civilized centuries.

Lewis Medlock is cut from the mold of the "primitive" epic hero, the champion of a "less sophisticated way of life" who is as ready to "plunge outside of history" as Ellison's Tod Clifton. As Odysseus was the man "never at a loss," Lewis is, according to the narrator Ed Gentry, "the only man I knew who could do with his life exactly what he wanted to."… "He was not only self-determined; he was determined." The obligatory epic description of his "prowess" reads: "He was one of the best tournament archers in the state and, even at the age of thirty-eight or -nine, one of the strongest men I had ever shaken hands with."… Ed Gentry, the quintessential contemporary American, a soft and overweight suburbanite, finds himself nonetheless "of the chosen" … of Lewis. If this is not exactly the honor of being chosen by Odysseus to man the voyage to Ithaca, it is at least as good as being asked by Papa himself to join him on the "tragic adventure" of fishing the swamp on the big two-hearted river. And since Lewis's river happens to flow through just such a dreaded underworld, his weekend canoe trip takes on an epical significance demanding an American-bred heroism that is at least Hemingwayesque, if not Homeric.

The tragedies and triumphs of Homeric epic, according to C. S. Lewis, were played against a "background of meaningless flux," played against the sense of the "permanence, the indifference, the heartrending or consoling fact that whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is."… The action of Deliverance is played against the Homeric background. As Ed says in a moment of revelation during his climb up the side of the cliff, "The river was blank and mindless with beauty…. I beheld the river in its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence."… The experience of Deliverance is a return in time (symbolized by the line Ed describes between the urban South and rural South …) to pre-Christian era to match that of our "post-Christian America" (Saul Bellow's phrase, Herzog), a return to a time much like our own when values were grabbed on the run and meaning was where you found it, to a time when the hero's role was not diminished by the indifference of the cosmos to his actions but heightened thereby because heroism was all. The final difference between meaning and meaninglessness was the hero's ability, versus his inability, to act when the necessary time came (Mailer's "existential edge"). This is the nature of Ed's discovery after undergoing an initiation rite into heroism on the death climb up the cliff: in an indifferent universe governed by no laws except natural forces (the metaphor of which Ed sees in the running of the river …) "Who knows what might not be possible?" (pp. 129-31)

Deliverance is something other than just an epic; it is a Bildungsroman, a novel of Ed Gentry's education, playing Telemachus to Lewis's Odysseus, in the mysteries of heroism. Ed begins by being amused by Lewis's atavistic faith in the body as the ultimate source of human survival….

In a cerebral society in which all bodily functions have been reduced to a complex of sublimations, and a dominant male threatens other submissive males with transfer to the branch office in Juneau rather than with physical harm, vanity is perhaps the principal reason a man can have for developing his muscles. But while society may nurture narcissism …, the wilderness teaches humility; a man of the wilderness develops his body as a hedge against its proven vulnerability. (p. 132)

Hemingway dead by his own hand, Gatsby the victim of the "foul dust" of industrial society that "floated in the wake of his dreams"; these are the real-life and fictional embodiments of the American frontier spirit, reverse-scapegoats fighting not for the chance to "light out for the territory" but against the social mechanisms that threaten to cut off the individual from his last lingering sense of source. As Lewis teaches Ed, a man must never let his social role obscure his natural identity…. (p. 133)

The would-be contemporary American epic hero must learn first of all that his own life can have epic or mythic implications, but only if he bears the responsibility for his own deliverance that he would rather leave on the stronger shoulders of Odysseus, Victor Mature, or Lewis Medlock: "The assurance with which he had killed a man was desperately frightening to me," Ed says of Lewis, "but the same quality was also calming, and I moved, without being completely aware of movement, nearer to him. I would have liked nothing better than to touch that big relaxed forearm…. I would have followed him anywhere…."… Now Ed finds himself miscast as the epic hero in a classically defined kill-or-be-killed confrontation, and the thought makes his "tongue thicken at the possibility."… (pp. 135-36)

Dickey uses archery to dramatize, and symbolize, the epic struggle of mind to master matter and of will to master fear. The arrow becomes the extension of the hero's will, and the rightness of its flight to the target mirrors the straightness of the archer's mind. (p. 136)

Lewis stands at full draw for a full minute, a demanding situation for an archer because the steadiness of his aim ebbs away with his strength, waiting for the right moment to shoot the man holding the shotgun on Ed. The man, of course, is "center shot." We expect this steadiness and psychological "cool" from Lewis, as the ancients expected it from Odysseus, who made his incredible shot through the axe heads, Homer tells us, having never bothered to get up from his banquet seat. But we do not know what to expect from Ed, the "dumb brute" common man, when his time comes. This is the essence of the American epic: Will the common man, given his opportunity for deliverance, be able to conquer the hysteria that stalks us all? The reader is apprehensive because earlier Ed had "exploded … high and wide" … when he tried to shoot a deer. With this scene in mind, the reader waits for Ed's resolve to fail. It does, at his first glimpse of the mountain man, and pity and fear flood the hearts of all those readers in suburbia who suspect the same deeply rooted cowardice in themselves…. (pp. 136-37)

Dickey's use of the archery shot as the symbol and dramatization of the hero's balance of body and mind, instinct and intellect, that signals his resonance with the forces of nature is reminiscent of another American contribution to the mystique of epic heroism, that of Fenimore Cooper's frontier scout, Natty Bumppo…. Lewis would seem to have the same moral affinity with natural forces that made Natty so invincible. (pp. 138-39)

Ed's "grace under pressure" when the time comes that he must hit his target, or die for missing, is surely meant to signify his achievement of the moral secret of "true aim." During his climb up the cliff he undergoes the renewal of his basic instincts and achieves the return of his unconscious to its physical source. (p. 139)

The real climax of the story occurs when Ed purifies his body enough to gain the capacity to discover or possibly to create the crevice which saves his life; in ecstasy he declares, "I had both hands in the cliff to the palms, and strength from the stone flowed into me."… This may sound like mysticism, but its truth is attested to by such observers of the human being in combat as Robert Graves and Erich Maria Remarque. (p. 140)

For Ed the purification of the body leads to a purification of the mind, which is demonstrated by his discovery that "the river was running in my mind, and I raised my lids and saw exactly what had been the image of my thought."… The secret strength of the hero is now his. His body has brought his mind into touch with nature's ways. His understanding of the human situation is now in balance with the existential reality of natural law. His aspirations are running in harmony with his expectations. His once fear-ridden imagination … is vibrating in concert with the way things are. And his nerves steady with the realization that human actions were never intended to matter very much, that there are no eternal cosmic repercussions, only momentary thrashings about. His mood comes to reflect the all-pervasive tone of the universe that he had seen reflected in the river: "It was not that I felt myself turning evil, but that an enormous physical indifference, as vast as the whole abyss of light at my feet, came to me: an indifference not only to the other man's body scrambling and kicking on the ground with an arrow through it, but also to mine."… (p. 141)

Dickey takes his epigraph from [an] 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?" (Obadiah 3, KJV). Critics have wondered if Dickey meant this as a condemnation of the mountain men or of Ed and Lewis. But Dickey does not mean this as a condemnation at all but as a formula for salvation, the lesson of humility leading the man who learns it to "Mount Zion," infinitely higher than the highest human habitation, where, according to Obadiah, "shall be deliverance."… (p. 142)

Perhaps Dickey's choice of epigraph serves as a warning that Lewis's mystique is not as pure as it should be. "Lewis wanted to be immortal," Ed tells us in the beginning, but by the end, having resisted the pull of the river and having been wounded for it, Lewis learns that "he can die now; he knows that dying is better than immortality."… With this knowledge Lewis can return to his society and, like Nebuchadnezzar, live at peace with it. There is no longer any desperate need to "light out for the territory." He can sit by the man-made lake with Ed watching the water skiers, secure in his hard-won feeling for "the true weight and purpose of all water."… (pp. 142-43)

Lewis and Ed have learned the indifference to their own lives which is the secret to putting one's body and mind in touch with all life, that is the secret of the hero's power to save lives and to make this salvation the way to a life more abundant. They have learned that deliverance lies downriver, that a man has only to give himself up to the primal pull of natural forces. So, Ed concludes, "Let the river run."… (p. 143)

Richard Finholt, "Dickey's American Epic," in his American Visionary Fiction: Mad Metaphysics as Salvation Psychology (copyright © 1978 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1978, pp. 128-43.


Dickey, James (Vol. 1)


Dickey, James (Vol. 109)