September 25, 2000
Volume 53, No.5
Author discusses Dickey's life
By Stephanie Sonnenfeld
For almost a decade, biographer Henry Hart relived the life it took 73 years for poet and novelist James Dickey to live.
And like the larger-than-life writer, Hart found himself in the middle of some steamy controversy-something Dickey's life was never without.
Hart spoke of that controversy and how it related to his recently published Dickey biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie, to a crowd of about 75 people during a Sept. 18 reading at Woodruff Library.
"My James Dickey was not their James Dickey," said Hart, referring to complaints from Dickey's family members and literary critics that charged his book with focusing too much on the darker side of Dickey, an alcoholic and well-known hellraiser who died in 1997.
An English professor at the College of William & Mary, Hart began researching Dickey, author of the 1970 novel Deliverance, by writing the poet several letters in the early 1990s in hopes of meeting him. The letters went unanswered.
Hart found a research avenue when he heard Emory had recently acquired Dickey's papers, including personal correspondence and manuscripts of his prose and poetry. The papers, which represent the largest American literature archive at Emory, became Hart's primary source for finding potential sources that knew Dickey.
Through 500 interviews with friends, family, lovers and peers, Hart explored Dickey's many sides: the scholar; the man's man; the drunk. It was when Hart finally met with Dickey himself in 1996 that he also met Dickey the liar.
Hart spent several days with the writer at his Columbia, S.C., home, where he had lived since 1969 when he became the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. Despite Dickey's frail and weakend state, Hart said he spent his time simply conversing with the writer and finding answers for the some 1,500 questions he had for Dickey.
One of the key moments from this visit was when Dickey expounded on his belief that poets were "creative liars" and that he himself was prone to telling several versions of stories.
Through his research, Hart learned Dickey often took the creative flair he applied to his writings and sprinkled it among the other aspects in his life. There were war stories Dickey loved to tell that simply hadn't happened; there were affairs (such as one with poet Anne Sexton) of which Dickey boasted which were never confirmed. There is no absolutely "true" James Dickey, Hart said, or if there is, he cannot be represented in his entirety and with absolute certainty in a book.
Despite interviews with Dickey and the many hours of research dedicated to him, Hart learned he would never know the "whole" Dickey. "In the end, I believe all you can do is offer glimpses, fragments," Hart said during last week's reading.
It was Hart's glimpses and fragments about Dickey that critic Jeffrey Meyers attacked when The World as a Lie was released. In a review of the book in The New Criterion, Meyers said "Hart gives endlessly repetitive, mind-numbing accounts of how Dickey, living up to his reputation as a hell-raising poet, became drunk, lecherous, out of control-breaking up furniture, parties, and marriages while reaping the sexual rewards of poetic fame."
Son Christopher Dickey, whom Hart interviewed for the book, wrote to The New Criterion and said Hart's book discarded the greatness of his father's poetry in lieu of a "relentlessly banal and often credulous repetition of Jim Dickey's personal failings."
The criticism was harsh and took him aback, Hart said. It was a genuine love of Dickey's work that drew him to writing the biography, not an opportunity to muckrake the author's life. "I think my early experiences with nature are what drew me to Dickey," said Hart, who grew up in rural Connecticut.
Like Dickey, Hart went to college as an athlete and soon found solace in literature rather than sports. His interest in Dickey came after a college professor had him read a collection of the writer's poems. "That book bowled me over," he said. Hart later wrote his own books of poetry, which some critics have found to be very Dickey-esque.
Since the completion of The World as a Lie, many have asked Hart if he sees Dickey's works in a less desirable light, knowing what he knows about the poet's personal life. Hart is quick to say not at all and that he's still a Dickey fan.
"I know that often the best literature is like beautiful flower: it grows on the compost heap," he said. "There's a difference between the beautiful flower and the compost heap. There's a connection, but you can admire the flower without dismissing it because it came out of the compost pile."