In Celebration of James Dickey

    Dwight Garner has an interesting article in today's New York Times--a piece written about James Dickey on the occasion of  the 40th anniversary of Deliverance.  It reminded us of the visits that this writer, who had a sort of deliberately constructed larger-than-life personna, literary and otherwise, made to Oxford and to Square Books.  Lisa and I first met Dickey in 1977 when we were booksellers in Washington, D. C., and attended a public reading by all the then-former poetry consultants to the Library of Congress.   

The reading was in a beautiful and fairly intimate auditorium in the Library, and prior to the reading there was an open reception in the Library's astonishing lobby, where, remarkably, we met and actually spoke with Elizabeth Bishop, Howard Nemerov, Stephen Spender and ten other poets who had held this position, now known as poet laureate.  When we encountered Dickey, who clearly had been drinking, he took a shine to us because we were Southerners, and from Oxford.  He shared a Faulkner tale, which I will one day tell, and introduced us to his wife, Deborah.  During the reading, he was the last of the thirteen poets to read, weaving about the stage as he did -- I feared that he would fall into the orchestra pit -- but gave a grand reading of his poem, "The Sheep Child."

We invited him to sign books at the Savile Bookshop, where we worked, when his book God's Images was published.  On the appointed date he showed up and, again, had drunk so much that he simply could not sign his name in the books.  Deborah assured us that she would see that he came by some other time and sign some books -- and he did.

Willie Morris knew Dickey -- "Jimbo" -- well, and invited him to Oxford to speak on campus and sign books at Square Books on two occasions during the 1980s -- once in the original store location, when we enjoyed a large and fairly wild dinner at Taylor Grocery (pre-rehab, before Bill Dunlap's crop duster mural and the signatures of some famous writers and U.S. Senators were completely covered up by besotted frat-graffiti), and again in the upstairs of the existing Square Books, where he read a number of poems standing beside the cafe counter.   He returned to Square Books for a final time in 1993 when his novel, To The White Sea, was published, and gave a memorable reading and visit otherwise -- too much to go into here.   

The Coen brothers adapted To The White Sea as a screenplay, but the film has never been made.  Like Deliverance, To The White Sea is a haunting story of man's possibly innate capacity for inhumanity.  Its locale and events are quite different: the firebombing of Tokyo and an American soldier's violent perambulation through Japan in an effort to escape to a wilderness island -- man against man and nature.  Both books are American classics and insufficiently recognized as such, as Garner makes clear in the case of Deliverance.  I would give just about anything to see a Coen brothers version of To The White Sea on the screen.   RH

Read Garner's entire article in the New York Times here