Friday, May 27, 2011

Dickey's Deliverance - The Macho Movie to End All Macho Movies

James Dickey was one of the most celebrated poets during his lifetime. Chronologically, he belongs to my parents' generation. Born in 1923, Dickey served as a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps in WWII (and later again in Korea), then attended Vanderbilt, and embarked on a teaching career, interrupted for a time while he worked in advertising (Coca-Cola and Lays Potato Chips), before taking up writing and teaching full time in the 1960's. His first three books published by Wesleyan--Drowning With Others [1962], Helmets [1964] and Buckdancer's Choice [1965] which Dickey eventually named collectively "the early motion"--were widely admired. During the Sixties, he published dozens of poems in major periodicals, principally The New Yorker. Also during the Sixties, he became associated with hawkish positions on the war in Vietnam, opposing the liberal phalanxes (represented by, for instance, Robert Bly, Denise Levertov and Galway Kinnell), and was routinely vilified in the press for his reactionary, chauvinistic and jingoistic attitudes. His verse, which addressed many of these issues directly, was frequently condemned along political, as opposed to aesthetic, lines or criteria. As Dickey's career progressed, his successes as a fiction writer tended to overshadow his efforts in verse, and by the late 1970's, when Deliverance [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970] was published, and then made [1972] into a successful movie, he was thought of mostly as a literary has-been, who had descended into pop culture status. He would go on to write more novels (Alnilam and To the White Sea), but his best days clearly lay behind him.

Seen within the context of Dickey's political biases and tendencies, coming out of the 1960's, Deliverance is like a kind of manifesto of his vision of life, and the manly culture he advocated. It presents as clear a picture as we may yet have, of a belief in a primitivistic reliance and a culture of dominant male ritual. Dickey was a sportsman, and had been an athlete in school. He was a child of the South, and he subscribed to many of the familiar attitudes peculiar to rural Southern whites. But Dickey's was an intelligent and inquiring mind. He took nothing for granted, and his work is as much as anything an exploration and a pondering of traditional issues: Death, the dream-life, wildness, our primitive nature(s), courage, conflict, violence. Like Hemingway, he believed in testing his principles under fire, and Deliverance is (rather in the way of Death In the Afternoon) if nothing else, certainly a ritualistic testing adventure, a fictionalized drama of men against men, men against nature, and men pitted against, or expressed through, their own natures.

Lewis, a devoted backwoodsman whose hobby is hunting with a bow and arrow, convinces his buddies Ed, Bobby and Drew to accompany him on a canoe trip down the imaginary Cahulawassee River in the Georgia outback, before it's inundated by a new dam. This rough, unspoiled back country is peopled by rough, mangy, predatory hillbillies, who would (it turns out) as soon rape and shoot you as not. Dickey wrote the screenplay for the movie, and also plays the part of the local sheriff, in a memorable cameo.

The testing part of the narrative at one level places these citified slickers against the challenges of running down an untamed river, where there are no easy portages, and no first aid stations. It's a wilderness that belongs to those who are familiar with its dangers, or those who can master its raw power. The trip will obviously be, at the least, a kind of gauntlet, to be survived as much as enjoyed. Nature is beautiful--seductive--but uncaring, even hostile. A man can discover parts of himself which civilization has domesticated out of him, and once he begins to sense and cultivate these, he may discover a new power, but also an evil or grimly aggressive side of his nature. Confronting other men--uncivilized men who do not follow society's soft compacts and mutually assured comforts and securities--in a natural setting, where the rules don't apply--may awaken qualities and strengths (or weaknesses) which we would perhaps rather not know about ourselves. These are the basic conflicts which face the men as they set out on their vacation canoe trip.

As quiet, courteous, contemporary American suburbanites, the men are hesitant to abandon their duties and obligations, and they'd prefer to think of their adventure as clean fun, instead of as the jeopardy they fear it may entail. As the movie begins, the men arrive at an encampment of old buildings and abandoned auto hulks in a forest setting, where they've hired some locals to drive their cars down river where they will end up. An aura of malice and mystery pervades the place. You can feel the trappings of civilization loosen as the wilderness closes in around them.

As the canoes slide into the water, there's a sense of immersion in the unknown, an irrevocable baptismal submission has begun. The scenery is gorgeous, but all-encompassing. As the men begin to absorb the sounds and smells and motions of the country, they feel both delight and foreboding. Lewis, the leader, brimming with confidence and risk, urges them onward.

Ed is also a veteran of several trips but lacks Lewis' machismo. Bobby and Drew are novices.
The locals are crude and unimpressed with the presence of outsiders, and the film implies that some of them are inbred. Drew briefly connects with a local weird banjo-playing boy by joining him in an impromptu dueling bluegrass duet. The boy's playing is so miraculous that it seems magical. The City Boys are suspicious of these locals. They'd best be left alone.

The men spend the day canoeing down the river in pairs before camping by the riverside at night. Shortly before they retire for bed, Lewis tells the others to be quiet and disappears into the dark woods to investigate a sound he heard. He returns shortly after and says that he didn't find anything. When asked whether he heard "something or someone," he tells them he doesn't know.

The next morning, Ed wakes first, and heads into the woods with his bow and arrow. He sees a deer, but cannot keep his aim straight. He fires and misses. This first confrontation in the woods creates a spooky sense of mystery. He returns as the others are finishing breakfast and loading the canoes. Bobby and Ed get away first, and Lewis says that he and Drew will catch up.

After a while, they pull off to the side to wait. They notice a pair of unkempt hillbillies (Bill McKinney and Herbert Cowboy Coward) emerging from the woods, one carrying a shotgun. Bobby speculates that the two locals have a moonshine still hidden in the woods and amicably offers to buy some, but the hillbillies are not moved. Bobby is forced at gunpoint to strip naked. McKinney's character chases after and physically harasses Bobby as he tries to escape. Bobby's ear is twisted to bring him to his hands and knees, and he is then ordered to "squeal like a pig" as McKinney's character rapes him, holding him by his nostrils. Ed is bound to a tree with his own belt while this is taking place, helpless as Bobby is violently sodomized.

As the two hillbillies set their sights on Ed's "pretty mouth", Ed notices Lewis sneaking up with an arrow drawn. Lewis shoots and kills the rapist as the dimwit escapes into the woods. Lewis and Drew argue about whether to inform the authorities. Lewis argues that they would not receive a fair trial, as he claims that the entire local population are related to one another, and the jury would be comprised of the dead man's friends and relatives. Likewise, Bobby does not want the incident of his sodomy to become public. Lewis tells them that since the entire area would be flooded by a lake soon, the body would never be found and the escaped hillbilly could not inform the authorities since he had participated in the incident. The men vote to side with Lewis' recommendation to bury the dead hillbilly's body and continue as though nothing had happened. During the digging, Drew, the most lyrical and "soft" of the group, is obviously agitated with guilt and remorse, and blurts reservations during the dig.

The four make a run for it downriver, cutting their trip short, but soon disaster strikes as the canoes reach a dangerous stretch of rapids. In the lead canoe, Ed repeatedly asks Drew to don his life jacket, but an unnerved Drew ignores him without a word of explanation. As Drew and Ed reach the rapids, Drew's head appears to shake inexplicably, perhaps from being shot, and he falls forward into the river; the roar of the river is so loud in the rocky confines of the canyon they're passing through that a gunshot would not be heard above it.

After Drew disappears into the river, Ed loses control of his canoe and both canoes collide on the rocks, spilling Lewis, Bobby, and Ed into the river. Lewis breaks his femur and the others manage to swim ashore ashore alongside him, pinned under the overhanging cliff where the shooter may be above. The badly-injured Lewis believes the toothless hillbilly shot Drew and is now stalking them. Ed, in an almost superhuman demonstration of skill, climbs a nearby rock face in order to dispatch the suspected shooter using his bow, while Bobby stays behind to look after Lewis. Ed reaches the top and hides out until the next morning, when he sees the man he was looking for standing on the cliff holding a rifle, looking down into the gorge where Lewis and Bobby are hiding. The moment has an eerie quality, as if seen in a dream. Ed abhors violence, and killing, but he knows he's in a state of absolute natural selection. If he weakens, the half-wit hillbilly will surely despatch him.

Ed, a champion archer who nevertheless earlier lost his nerve while aiming at a deer, now freezes in spite of his clear shot--either out of extreme fear, or preternatural reluctance, we can't be sure. The man notices Ed and fires as Ed clumsily releases his arrow. In the movie version, the botched release of the arrow is made to seem as if the arrow has back-fired somehow and not been released, but instead stabs Ed. The man reaches Ed and is about to shoot him when he collapses, revealing an arrow sticking through him. This whole episode seems like a fantasy; did Ed really shoot him with the arrow, or what? The incident feels a little like the passage in The Shining when the metal door to the freezer compartment opens by itself to enable the Jack Nicholson character to escape. Ed lowers the body down the cliff with a rope and climbs down after it. His rope breaks and he falls in the river, not far from Bobby and Lewis.

Ed and Bobby weigh the dead hillbilly down with stones and drop him into the river. Later, they come upon Drew's grotesquely-contorted corpse and, after being unable to find any definite gunshot wound, they also weigh it down and sink it in the river to ensure that it will never be found. This business of drowning the dead bodies in the river has symbolic significance. The river valley itself will be inundated soon enough, concealing all its history and secrets of human presence. Near the end of the movie, grave-diggers are seen unearthing coffins from a cemetery, in order that they may be moved to new ground--it's an unsettling scene. The religious overtones are clear: Sinful acts can't be completely submerged or hidden. The guilt and consequences of evil or violence may float up to the surface, against our best efforts to keep them pushed down.

When the three survivors finally reach their destination, the town of Aintry (which will soon be submerged by the dammed river and is being evacuated), they take the injured Lewis to the hospital while the Sheriff comes to investigate the incident. One of the deputies has a missing brother-in-law, who may have been the man that Ed killed, and is highly suspicious. The three hastily concoct a cover story for the authorities about Drew's death and disappearance being an accident, lying about their ordeal to Sheriff Bullard (played by author James Dickey). The sheriff clearly doesn't believe them, but having no evidence and clearly sensing the truth of what happened, simply tells Ed: "Don't ever do nothin' like this again...Don't come back up here... I'd kinda like to see this town die peaceful," to which Ed readily agrees. The men vow to keep their story a secret for the rest of their lives, which proves to be psychologically burdensome for Ed; lying in bed with his wife, he awakes screaming from a nightmare in which Drew's hand is seen rising from the lake surface.

The men have suffered through an ordeal which they share, but the secret they've agreed to keep binds them together in ways they want to escape from. They've had a glimpse--in a very Conradian sense--of human vulnerability and culpability, and want no more to do with it. They'd prefer their tame games of golf, and gratefully embrace the familiar trappings of the secure, easy life they know. But there is a lingering sensation of enrichment as well. An experience as profound--and potentially life-changing--as this, wields an improbable power over these men's memories and characters. They appreciate civilization in a way they hadn't before, but they also perceive its fragility with an awful new objectivity. Men may dam nature up, contain it, bury it, conceal his own depredations of it, but nature won't be bottled up and tamed. It's inside of us, a part of our natures, and demands to be recognized. Our genetic inheritance isn't something we can manage as if it were a problem in corporate governance. We're capable of violence, and revenge, and ruthless acts of self-preservation. Under the grace and beauty and efficiency of selection and technological solutions, lies a stranger, intractable force.

This recognition would be familiar to readers of Dickey's poetry, where ritual killing and death and violence are regular subjects. It was part of what made his poetry powerful, if a bit brutish and relentless. Dickey was considered a bit reckless as a poet, but his daemon demanded nothing less. This proclivity for seeing life in terms of its most sharp challenges--in a competition with nature, or with other men (as in war)--undoubtedly was crucial in shaping Dickey's conservative attitudes towards American foreign policy during the post-war period. As a veteran of two wars, it would be unusual if he hadn't turned politically the way he did. As a generational split, it's completely appropriate and predictable. Men dressed in fatigues, hiking around the Appalachian hill country, carrying automatic weapons, isn't very far removed from soldiers patrolling the jungles of South Vietnam. The rehearsal of ritual manhood common to the country this fictional story describes, holds the same imaginative attraction we experience when thinking about any virtual battleground.

But Dickey loved wilderness. The wilderness in himself. The wilderness around us. The wilderness of our dreams and plans and the commitments we make. They are gestural and histrionic, but also fated and joined. Deliverance is a masterpiece of movie-making. It reminds me of another testing film, The Edge [1997], which starred Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. Both are films that ask fundamental questions in the context of a state of nature.


J said...

Deliverance the flick was good--I agree the cinematography was well-done-- but I wouldn't rate it as some timeless classic--though Dickey did jack the hippie-day glo-sci-fi zeitgeist, to some degree (then, what's one fatboy being sodomized compared to a napalm raid...or hiroshima for that matter). Reynolds plays a macho hero--probably not too difficult. The city boys meet the hillbillies and the wilderness--sort of pop-Nietzsche if you will, and a fairly common theme (--G Gordon Liddy another example). Apocalypse Now in the sticks--in 'Nam it was Deliverance, to the tenth was it not. A lot of that macho realism was escapist, in a sense-- patriotic as well. Perhaps a bit of a ...confederate to Dickey as well? AS in...look what the yankees did to southern manhood--fat, soft--excepting the Reynolds character (and what's with the bow?? perhaps an allusion to natives, Rousseauian jive...and more than a few braves fought for the ...grey--at least until a few union canister shots roared). They meet some real men who are still tending stills. Or something. That said, I agree superior to most of the techie-gangster crap that passes for ho-wood movies now

Curtis Faville said...

Well, you pushed all the usual buttons, here.

I'm more interested in what the movie signifies in the context of Dickey's own writing and public persona.

He was an interesting man. Troubled father, though, and a little wayward.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirby Olson said...

There was a biography of Dickey that appeared about five years ago. I read about twenty pages in a Boston bookstore. Claimed he was an egomaniac who cared for nobody and nothing but his reputation as a writer. Now I see where the animus was coming from: he supported the troops. Also, in Field, an article appeared probably thirty years ago that compared him to an Oregon poet -- can't remember the fella's name -- and Dickey came off as a complete creep in the article, as the critic spent twenty pages comparing a poem of D's to the Oregonian's. I loved the Dickey poem (about Adam and Eve as violent hillbillies) compared to a very genteel lyric by -- ? Which I couldn't remember, couldn't even remember the poet's name. The other poet was so MILD.

This was considered attractive by the FIELD critic, but it was all couched in line endings doing the work.

It was pure politics.

What other poets of that era backed the Vietnam War? There can't have been many. Marianne Moore, James Dickey, and Seymour something (the one that Ron Silliman told us about, who died about two years back).

All three had their own rationale. Moore wanted the whole world to enjoy democratic liberties.

You make it sound as if Dickey just wanted to triumph over the Vietnamese.

Never figured out why Seymour what's his name was for the war. I wrote to him, but he never answered.

Vietnam today's a mess probably as bad as North Korea. But the media won't cover the mess there because they're the ones who fouled it up. Average annual income: 324 dollars. One of the big problems in Vietnam is the lack of ability to publish. It's similar to Cuba or to N. Korea. Poets are dead if they try to publish, or imprisoned. This obviously ruins their cultures.

Without a feedback system that allows for individuals to offer their unmediated viewpoint, you can't find out the truth about anything, and no dialogue takes place, so things just get worse and worse.

I was never able to stand to watch this movie Deliverance, but thanks for the summary. I liked the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal, which was a lite version of this and the Edge movie you mentioned, which I did watch. Have you seen City Slickers? The hardest thing they do is ride a bull while mean cussed farmers look on, laughing at the ineptitude of the City Slickers. It's about being tested, too, I think.

Nobody gets a scratch in City Slickers. It's sort of the Billy Collins version of Deliverance. not that there's anything wrong with billy collins, mind you.

Art Durkee said...

It would be interesting to compare Dickey to a more recent successor to Hemingway and the whole macho writer trope, Jim Harrison. Also a poet and novelist and essayist, like Dickey, but in many ways deeper in his thought, a lot less reactionary, funnier, and while covering a lot of the same turf about the man's man's macho life, doing so with more self-awareness. Harrison's novels that cover similar turf might be worth looking into for comparison's sake. The testing novel or poem is one Harrison does well. "Letters to Yesenin" for example, or "Wolf."

I generally agree with Bly's assessment of Dickey (in "American Poetry: Domesticity and Wildness"). It's not just Dickey's politics that are problematic, because the more he turned reactionary, frankly the more his writing suffered from it. Aesthetically, I mean. It's like the writing became as rigid and stoney as the politics. A test case for how personal life affects art.

Curtis Faville said...

Thanks for this, Art.

I agree. Harrison's an apt comparison. I've not read very much of his work, though.

Some of the poetry is very good, but I read a lot less fiction than I used to.

It's true that the decline in the quality of Dickey's poetry coincided with his incline as an unofficial reactionary spokesperson. But is that connection as direct or simple as that makes it sound? I tend to regard poets whose work suffers from these ills as compromised in other ways. Robert Penn Warren, for instance, wrote some very good poems in the 1930's and 1940's, then some very peculiar "bloody" stuff later. Is that a decline that has other implications, or is it just the natural trajectory of his personality, or personal aesthetic? How far can we take the political thematic in a writer's work, particularly one whose work isn't ABOUT politics per se. Lowell's work declined, I think it fair to say, because he became, in a way, too liberal. I think Mencken's work, for instance, is very politically directed, and that's an easy call. But to make a case "against" Deliverance because its message may carry un-PC inspiration is wrong. It affects different people in different ways.

I think it's just a very good mystery-play about masculine testing and good and evil etc. Works like that should be written, and imagined.

Kirby Olson said...

The ability to buy the premise of a work is fundamental to how good it is for us. So, I find Art's logic to be circular. Someone who presumably shared Dickey's macho assumptions might find that the later work was even better.

I don't think we are ever purely aesthetic in our reading (line endings are not nearly as important as what is being said).

There are curious cases like the readers of Celine who can cross over and accept his greatness in spite of his message, or Pound, say. I'm not one of them.

J said...

I think Mencken's work, for instance, is very politically directed, and that's an easy call. But to make a case "against" Deliverance because its message may carry un-PC inspiration is wrong.

Who said that? It's not about the "un-PCness"...Deliverance was alright but fairly trivial--nostalgic, even. Or Hemingway-ish as indicated--another macho-WASP blowhard (granted he wrote a few good fishing stories). The case involves Dickey's limited vision, IMHE.
Bly on the other hand's a semi-macho, new age WASP blowhard.

Mencken's a different kettle of fish--sophisticated, lapsed catholic, cynical. He didn't care for klansmen (or crypto-klansmen).

J said...

""in a very Conradian sense""

Heh. Dickey, Conradian?? Non. He has none of JC's symphonic power or ne sais quoi, the political complexity, suggestions of fate....shadowy forces. More like Mark Trail episode gone amuck Sir F. (or Hem.s macho cartoons as suggested)

Curtis Faville said...


You WOULD say, though, would you not, that it is possible to appreciate the aesthetic qualities (or elegance) of a work without necessarily agreeing with either its premise or the conclusion it derives from its own "argument"?

Bob Dylan wrote some very pretty ballads, but they don't necessarily require that we subscribe to Bob Zimmerman's politics, no? Is there a correlation between doing good works and the likelihood of creative better art? I doubt it--always have. In fact, I suspect that the willingness or proclivity to explore or endure the strange, the forbidden, the unknown is almost a necessary precondition to the advance of knowledge, and moral tolerance. Tolerance as a concept is somewhat misunderstood. We must teach ourselves how to appreciate difference, even when it's most difficult. Our reluctance isn't necessarily always our best guide. I'm not suggesting ethnical neutrality--quite the opposite. We discriminate endlessly. The finer the discrimination, the finer the mind.

Curtis Faville said...


I'm not comparing Dickey and Mencken. I'm merely opposing different kinds of cases--kinds of writing. Mencken can be measured by his politics, which constitute the heart of his meaning as an artist. He's a polemicist.

Dickey's a poet and fiction writer. What he "says" in a work of fiction isn't an assertion directly from a point of view--it's a representation of something, informed by his knowledge and sensibility about a set of circumstances, a group of individual personalities, etc. We can't simply say Deliverance "says" this or that. It's a work of fiction.

Mencken didn't write fiction. If he had, we could use the same kind of criteria to judge and analyze it.

And I'm not "comparing" Dicky to Conrad, either. But you can't deny that Dickey's approach in Deliverance is very Conradian. A journey by men through a testing journey--could hardly be more like Conrad. Conrad was an amateur philosopher, though his style is a bit heavy. English wasn't his first language, though his particular mastery of it is obvious. Are Conrad's stories "boys books"? Like Marryat and C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien?

J said...

Conrad's about colonialism, the clash of civilizations, a hint of the exotic...fate. Deeep stuff, Sir F. Dickey doesn't have that profound vision. Few if any 'Mericans do (Melville, perhaps). Sort of like comparing Beethoven to the grand ol opry.

J said...

I don't think you understand Conrad's writing, Sir F--reading it visavis your stoical, new-critical secular perspective yll never get it, anymore than a biblethumper or zionist would.

Curtis Faville said...

Dickey isn't a great novelist. I don't think anyone would compare him to Conrad or Melville.

That's not the point. My blog was about the movie, not the novel. Though Dickey wrote the screenplay, so we can infer certain intentions from it. I think it's a great piece of popular entertainment, which succeeds in being a very efficient transmitter of Dickey's ideas about nature and evil and redemption, etc.

Dickey's story has nothing to do with colonialism, though I suppose one could make a point about the condescension the men feel towards the hill country people. In what sense are these people better "adapted" to their milieu than the men?

Curtis Faville said...


Let's not get sidetracked into a discussion of Conrad. Referring to his trope of men tested under fire--a la Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness--is as much as I wanted out of the reference.

Let's leave it at that.

Craig said...

My wife rafted that river during the decade following the movie's release with a female colleague from the clinic where they worked along Highway 61 in Mississippi. They were federal employees and the only white women at a clinic in a town comprised entirely of descendants of former slaves. They needed more sunscreen but didn't encounter any hillbillies or macho city slickers out proving their manhood. I'd say the book and the movie also bear comparison with Golding's Lord of the Flies.

J said...

OK. As I said, I enjoyed the Deliverance movie, unPC or not, but don't consider it some visionary work or whatever. Then, Coppola/Milius botched Conrad in "Apoc. Now" as well.

Realism doesn't work so well in movies, IMHE--tends to get bo-ring, even with murders, rape, macho-men, bimbos, etc.--like a endless movie of the week show. The over-the-top flicks --Dr. Strangelove, or those by Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, animation, etc--pack more of a punch.

Curtis Faville said...


Yes, movies is a separate medium. Rarely does a great movie result from a great novel. Caine Mutiny, IMO. But the novel is not longer considered great literature.

There's a certain seriousness of purpose which doesn't translate well to the screen. Catcher in the Rye, for instance--no movie possibility there at all. It's all in the voice and the fancy-footwork of the internal monologue.

Kirby Olson said...

Making fun of hill people of white appalachia is one of the last groups that left and right still discriminate against: how often does it happen that they rape and murder just for the sheer hell of it. I grew up in Appalachia (Pennsylvania) and still live in the Catskills (New York), and think the people are pretty well-behaved.

One of the reasons I've never liked the movie is that I find it to have appalling stereotypes of the country people of the Appalachians.

I can understand Conrad. In Africa in 1850 you might get blitzed by the local. In Vietnam, likewise.

Getting blitzed by the locals in Appalachia? Not likely.

More likely to happen at a cocktail party among celebrities in Manhattan where they would start stirring their olives and rolling their eyeballs.

Was Dickey's movie and book based on a real event of any kind? Or is just more vicious stereotyping?

Curtis Faville said...


I don't think it fair exactly to accuse Dickey of "making fun of Appalachia" if that's what you're getting at.

Deliverance is a work of fiction. The attitudes it portrays are not "real" in that sense, but dramatizations of possible (or imagined) versions of a make-believe world. I should say that I knew a nice fellow at my government job who had worked in his earlier life as a traveling salesman in the outback of Kentucky and West Virginia, who told me that all the guys there routinely carried a loaded handgun in the glove compartment of their vehicles, because "you never knew" what you were likely to encounter in the backwoods. People could be strange--and a bit worrisome. I don't have any personal history about this.

It isn't quite fair to compare Pennsylvania or upstate New York with the backwoods of Arkansas or West Virginia--they're quite different in an ethnographic sense. Country people may be friendly, or they may not be. One mustn't generalize. Was Dickey's story a deliberate swipe at country people? I don't think so. Was/Is it "true" to "reality"? I can't say. But that's not the point of my post, really.

J said...

Actually, the American theme of Dickey's scrawling I mostly approve of--but don't think he quite had.....a Weltanschauung. As a Faulkner did. Or Kesey. ...One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest was a vision of the ...takeover of Jeffersonian America, if you will, by the liberal-bureaucratic state--McMurphy's eradicated by the doctors and Nurse Ratcheds, and her orderlys. Most think it's just some hippy-dippy BS (because of the moovie, which wasn't my cup of tea). But it's not, really. The book didn't really manifest itself on the silver screen.

Kirby Olson said...

Well, I realized you hadn't thought about it. Appalachia is not as bad as people think, and people anywhere can misbehave.

Wikipedia has an article that covers the plot of the film:

It hits the same highlights as your own.

The same details stick out.

But there's nothing about any original activity upon which the film was based. It seems creepy to pick on country people by the supposedly sophisticated people.

Country people are quite sophisticated and just as nice as city people.

Curtis Faville said...


The country people have a kind of von der erde symbolic significance in the film, which isn't intended, I don't think, to cast aspersions on "country" per se.

You're correct that country people can be as welcoming and genial as any. But it's been a commonplace cliché for two hundred years that the secluded "poor white" of back country Appalachia often display quite backward lives. Dickey was using a cliché, but I'd wager it was a cliché he could back up with first-hand knowledge.

Do you have first hand experience to defend your charge? Would you wander into the West Virginia backwoods without a wingman?

J said...

Olson's full of sentimental scheisse as usual.

West Virginia? It's unlikely he would last a night in Butte County, or much of the central valley--Kirby O meets the Hell Angels or 'skins! He'd be "puffin" in a few minutes as the scootertramps say

Kirby Olson said...

I've lived my whole life in Appalachia and consider myself Appalachian. I admit that I've only lived in the northern stretches but have camped in the Smokies and my parents lived in N. Carolina. I wonder if the stereotype is just an attempt to drive down a specific group. They're the last group everyone feels like they can dump on and massacre. But why is this?

It's like dumping on blondes, but it's classist, and strange.

On the other hand, there has been some animosity toward city dwellers because of the rivers getting turned into hydroelectric power. The backwoods people may have sometimes tried to fight back, but I've never heard about it. Around here many towns (8) were inundated for the New York City reservoirs, and all trace of their existence was expunged.

Some still gather by the side of the reservoir and sing songs and moan for their ancestors. This happened in the 1930s. Perhaps the agit-prop of Deliverance was meant to excoriate the people of similar towns in Georgia, and to say that their lives didn't matter since they were such scum anyway.

Curtis Faville said...


I'll repeat my earlier observation. This is a movie, adapted from a work of fiction.

Writers of fiction are free to make any kind of representation without being responsible for what the characters may say, or what the narrative appears to support. This would be true of Upton Sinclair and Ayn Rand and Paul Horgan, despite the fact their work(s) show(s) all kinds of propagandistic content. It's certainly true of Dickey. Dickey's novel isn't an indictment of country yahoos. One may question whether or not the novel is based on real models, but that's as far as we can legitimately go.

Kirby Olson said...

I think writers shouldn't go after easy targets. 'Tis cowardly. He positioned these folks as unthinkably evil and not good neighbors. Not the case. This in turn makes me question his neighborliness and just what it was he thought he was up to. Writing implies a philosophy, and has arguments in it. It has premises. Otherwise, it doesn't matter. Dickey is making a social statement about Appalachia and its residents that many are quick to unthinkingly believe. It's a lot of twaddle.

Curtis Faville said...


This could devolve into an argument about the differences between fiction and non-fiction.

I don't think that's what I was addressing in the post.

One could criticize any figure from fiction on the grounds of the words s/he speaks, or their actions. But the author of a fiction has a larger purpose, which encompasses the characters and action.

A writer should have the freedom to write about anything, without getting into this trap about implication(s). Insisting upon some moral use is exterior to the imaginative act.

Dickey probably knew 100 times more than you do about the country and people he was describing than you do, Kirby. That's a certainty. But that's beside the point you're trying to make. You've vastly oversimplified the process of dramatic representation. You seem incapable, for instance, of understanding the purpose and function of a play like Oedipus: "The Author shouldn't be saying such horrible things about sons! And Mothers! Ban it!"

Kirby Olson said...

I would never argue for banning fiction or poetry. But I do think it can be discussed as to its possible defective elements, which might include how it libels/labels a group.

The Beverly Hillbillies presents other Appalachians as virtually ineducable, and yet strange with sudden insight (Granny is uncanny!).

We can and should discuss these things. You're banning discussion, or saying that any discussion is an attempt at banning. Dickey is allowed to put hillbillies down if he wants. The left in general does this with hillbillies. Palin is a hillbilly of a kind.

I don't think you have to have gone to Harvard or Yale (or at least to one o the Ivies or the sister colleges) to be appropriate or acceptable within a literary or presidential context.

Perezoso said...

The hillbillies are ..arguably...Dickey's amoral heroes, Olsonski. You just don't get it.

Were literary works required to contain/uphold formal arguments--or for that matter, be completely fair to everyone-- there would be little literature remaining (including your favorite beatnik-hallmark cards). Fiction is thematic,perhaps evidentiary-- not axiomatic (lets see a necessarily true "literary" premise. Well, maybe.."all men are mortal"---AFAWK). Then has KO ever finished, say, Aristotle's Poetics? Doesn't look like it.

Curtis Faville said...


I have the unpleasant feeling you're trying to manipulate the argument towards other purposes, here.

First, there is no such thing as a pan-hillbilly culture in America. America is vast. To compare West Virginia or Georgia with Alaska is kind of dumb.

A defect in a work of fiction would be its formal weaknesses. Creating weird stereotypes and hybrid characters is the basic work of fictional enterprise. Literature is full of them.

Comparing a fictionalized comedic television serial such as the Beverly Hillbillies to "real people" is pointless, just as comparing Dickey's hill folk extended family to all of America's rural population is dumb. Who's to say Dickey's representation of one family is a stereotyping of others, anyway? That seems a very big stretch, even if Dickey's novel were a social criticism--which it certainly isn't. He's setting up a test narrative in which Nature (with a capital N) is explored and examined. Nature is inherent in the participants--I think that's the message. Men contain evil--civilization weans it out of us, or tries to. The tension (and struggle) between civilized and "wild" is what drives the narrative. The hill folk are posed as the consequence of limited civilization, of people living partway inside, and partway outside, of ordered, civilized life. They have one foot inside the mysterious, unpredictable, untamable wilderness. Nature "claims" its proxies and its victims. It's a very Darwinian universe Dickey is showing us--but it's a fictional universe. Keep that in mind.

As fas as "banning" discussion. The evidence against that is our exchange right here. Have I ever censored your commentary?

Kirby Olson said...

Of course literature is about real life. To say that it isn't is to argue that literature has no bearing on real life, and has therefore no meaning whatsoever.

Of course the Beverly Hillbillies are about real people.

Of course Shakespeare, the Bible, and all other fictions, reference real people, and real life. Otherwise, it's useless.

But writers can be way off in their approximations, as can mathematicians.

Bad writers and critics can have really screwed up understandings of the worlds they describe.

Dickey is way off, and he demonizes country people.

The feminists do have important points about the ways in which women are depicted. And we can glean from those criticisms a critique that can upend the criticisms of other groups.

There is a massive and unconscious prejudice in America toward Appalachia and its residents. This is partially political. It is partially based on fear, and ignorance.

Curtis Faville said...


This is unreasonable--

the discussion is going nowhere.

I'm outahere!

Hardy Har Har said...


ahehehehehehehehehehheh heh

Kirby Olson said...

The hills are alive with the sound of Muzak.

Craig said...

Did I mention I that a hillbilly from West Virginia introduced me to the woman who became my wife. He worked as a cement finisher and his wife talked him into hiring me on as his hod carrier. The hillbillies were decent folk, especially in comparison to the delusory class consciousness I encountered in the years I spent seeking a niche among the rancorous literati.

Curtis Faville said...

I certainly couldn't have predicted how the discussion would unfold in this case.

People end up arguing about Dickey's portrayal of "hillbillies"--a social group that was once condemned in this country, and who turn up (in familiar guise) in a he-man testing novel by a sensitive American poet.

I wouldn't have thought it was an issue, but it apparently is. You could even say that Dickey used them as puppet-figures to enable his plot, but Dickey himself was a Southerner, so his awareness of the issue is more complicated than that.

Is it possible that Dickey's portrayal of them isn't really negative--that what viewers see in them is something different from how he imagined them? Did the movie distort his intention?

I still think we need to see them in the context of the dialectic he sets up between human culture and civilization. Neither the novel nor the movie is a criticism of American backwoods culture. It's a morality play--fully imagined--improbable and unlikely in many of its particulars--which was set up to demonstrate a system of contention. It's an "action" which pits forces, and resolves them (or doesn't). That's how I'd like to see it.

We can argue endlessly about whether his characters are "real" or "made up." Cartoon characters and clowns and strange birds--even Shakespeare used them.