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“I don’t believe the American public will believe, itself, what comes up on that panavision screen next March.”
James Dickey in a letter to a friend
while the movie Deliverance was being shot

Since I mentioned both director John Boorman and Liberal Arts in the last few days that lead me to the writer of Deliverance, James Dickey. It took Dickey ten years to write the novel and he also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie that would be his only feature film release. (Though he did also write the TV version of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.) 

Dickey was born and raised in the Atlanta area and was an athlete in high school and began writing poetry while serving in the Army during World War II flying combat missions in the South Pacific. He didn’t want the girls back home to forget him. After the war he attended Vanderbilt and earned a B.A. in philosophy and minored in astronomy and then went on to earn an M.A. in English.

After school he taught at what is now Rice University before being recalled to active duty in the U.S. Air Force due to the Korean War. He later worked as a copywriter in Atlanta and in New York where he said he was “selling his soul to the devil in the daytime and buying it back at night.”

He published his first book of poetry in 1960 and appointed in 1966 he as the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.  In 1977 he was invited to read his poem “The Strength of Fields” at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. And just to top off an interesting life, he played Sheriff Bullard in Deliverance. 

Though Dickey’s popularity exploded after the movie Deliverance was released he taught and wrote poetry until he died in 1997. His limited role with Hollywood  may have something to do with the stories of the behind the scene drama of the Deliverance location shoot that sometimes matched the drama on-screen of Burt Reynolds and his buddies little boating adventure. In short, Dickey was banned from the set.

Dickey was like many a classic southern writer – greatly talented and greatly flawed. Given to drink and sometimes hard to get along with Dickey was an exaggerator and liar on par with the father in the movie Big Fish. (While Dickey was in many flight missions over the South Pacific during World War II he was never the pilot he claimed to be.)

Dickey’s oldest son, Christopher Dickey, an accomplished writer and speaker (who also has a website and blog) , wrote the book Summer of Deliverance about his father and the film. (Christopher worked on the film including standing in as Ned Beatty’s character in the famous pig scene.)

Christopher also has done us all a favor by setting up the blog, James Dickey: Deep Deliverance, devoted to his father and his writings. And where I found this quote from a You Tube link where James says in a distinctly slow southern draw:

“To anyone who reads my work, I would like to have it deepen him and make him more aware of possibilities… of the mystery of things, and the strangeness of the creation — the universe. Although as much as I write about death, disease, and mutilation, and so I on, I essentially consider myself an affirmative poet. I remember hearing that Beethoven once said, ‘He who truly knows my music can never know unhappiness again.’ I would like to think it had some effect of that sort.” 

And as a side note here’s something interesting to ponder from one of Dickey’s letters, “I heard from John Boorman day before yesterday, and he says Marlon Brando is definitely going to play Lewis (Burt’s character) in the film version of Deliverance. I certainly hope so, for that would bring Nicholson in, and after that the rest would be easy, provided we don’t get Brando’s and Nicholson’s heads bashed in on some of those rocks up in north Georgia, which is quite easy to do.”

Scott W. Smith

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