Notes From The Grave
Dead Man Talking
You read where there was a forty-year celebration of the movie Deliverance this spring up in Clayton, Georgia, and Longcreek, South Carolina. It wasn’t all fun and games. Some folks didn’t appreciate the festival dredging up bad blood. Deliverance casts a long shadow along the banks of the Chattooga.
If someone wrote a novel depicting the people of your county as toothless, murderous rednecks would you take it in stride? People up in Rabun County still fume over the movie’s portrayal of them as barbaric hillbillies. Forty years later you’d think they’ve moved on but, no, some haven’t.
Yes fiction sure stirs folks up, and it’s revealing when we talk to authors about their work and life views. I interviewed James Dickey June 24, 1995, when his star was fading and the gift of life was soon to expire. He had just 574 days left and would die January 19, 1997. I never asked him why he put “the scene” in his story nor why he set it on the Chattooga though he did it give the fictional name the Cahulawassee. I asked him other questions though and I’ve been sitting on a 7,000-word transcript where he covered a lot of ground. This column represents the first time some of this material has seen daylight.
The interview that produced that transcript was part of an assignment for Reckon magazine, “the magazine of southern culture” at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Like James Dickey Reckon magazine is dead too. Dickey’s words live on, however, and seventeen years later he speaks to us from the grave about Southern literature, his prediction for the O.J. Simpson trial, lawyers, the problem with country music, the story behind “Dueling Banjos,” actors in Deliverance and more.
At the start of the interview I commented that a lot of books had been written about him over the years. Ironically Dickey joked about still being alive.
“A writer gets as old as I am—most of them don’t survive this long—interest in him piles up ’cause they’ve got a live one, you know, instead of having to wait ’til he’s dead.”
Poetry first opened doors for Dickey. In 1977, Jimmy Carter asked Dickey to compose a poem for his Presidential Inauguration. Dickey read the “The Strength of Fields” at the Inaugural gala describing “the profound, unstoppable craving of nations” Carter faced.
As we talked the tape rolled. I told him that despite his poetry people thought of him mainly as the man who wrote Deliverance. Dickey’s stout ego was unfazed.
“Well, that’s all right. I don’t mind that. They don’t realize that the real strength is in the poetry, but not many people read poetry. But I don’t really worry about second-guessing what anybody else thinks about what I write. I know what I think about it, and that’s plenty good enough for me.”
We soon turned to the reason for the interview. Reckon magazine wanted to know how Dickey defined “southern literature.”
“Material that is written by people who are Southerners, either lifetime Southerners, or have some association with the area, and the other people who deal with material that’s based on southern themes and locales, and sometimes they’re the same people. There’s somebody like Erskine Caldwell; he’s a Georgian, and he writes about Georgia. He’s pretty much of a localist. And to some extent, Faulkner is too. They’re Southerners who write about the South. That’s as close as I personally come to defining what would constitute Southern writing or Southern literature.”
We then discussed why Southern literature captures the interest of the country. “I think Southern literature is as good as it is,” he said, “because what we have now is sort of the tag end of the oral storytelling tradition. In the old days that was the only entertainment people got, spending Sunday afternoon going and visiting people. Naturally, they would tell stories. Southerners are very social people, and that’s partly because they lived in isolation on their own farm. When they saw another farmer and his family or got together at a church meeting, they always had plenty to say. It was inevitable that stories would develop out of this. Flannery O’Connor is a good example of that.”
Though he was under doctor’s orders to talk just 45 minutes, he was in a talkative mood. The interview ranged over various topics. We discussed how the South was changing and not for the best. Dickey saw the industrialization of the South and the recruitment of northern industry as evil. He had a memorable identity for it. Leviathan.
“Leviathan is the industrial culture, the anti-culture civilization encroaching on the Southern pastoral and agrarian way of life. Industrialism is the Leviathan—the all-devouring beast of the Bible … my old friends (writer/teachers at Vanderbilt) would be turning over in their graves to see South Carolina, which is the pivot of the Confederacy wooing this industry to come down here. Every time a new factory locates down here, everybody whoops it up—so many more new jobs and this, that, and the other, but look what they’re doing to the culture. The jukebox music comes in and the traditional, Southern, Appalachian ballads go out. So-called Country and Western is a debasement of the original mountain music, which, in turn, came over here from Highland Scotland. It’s just a debased form listened to by debased people.”
After explaining why his father, an attorney, turned his back on the legal profession, he brought up the O.J. Simpson trial as proof to why his father was right to leave the legal profession. The Simpson verdict would not come until October 3, 1995, three months and eleven days later. He predicted its outcome not that that was hard to do.
“The law is the (expletive deleted) lousiest profession there ever was. Look at this O.J. Simpson trial. I think he’ll get off. They’re not going to convict him. Look at all the colored people on the jury. There’s not a single colored person in this country that would be on a jury and not vote to exonerate him, even if they had seen him do it! They would still vote to free him. Even if they had seen him do the crime and knew that he did it, which he did. (Author’s Note: “Colored” is a word long used in the South. If you have a PC issue with this word remember that the NAACP uses it.)
“There’s not a single person connected to that trial who doesn’t know he’s guilty. He is guilty! It is obvious. What kind of evidence do they want? Those lawyers are loophole lawyers, in which there’s no more contemptible human being. They know the truth. Theirs is supposed to be the cause of truth and justice. They’re not. They’re in the cause of technicalities and getting paid for subverting the law. They’re disgusting. My father was a lawyer, but my father finally left the profession because he was so disgusted at all the loopholes and people getting off that he knew personally were guilty.”
After a break Deliverance and its famous “Dueling Banjoes” song came up.
“I heard it in Portland, Oregon, at a folk concert,” he said. “I was teaching at Reed College, which is a hotbed of folk music. There were two really good musicians, just local guys. One of them was a sign painter. You know, “Best Deals On Used Cars” and the other one was a curator in an Indian Folk museum out there. He played the banjo and the sign painter played the guitar. They were better than the ones we used in the movie.”
I told him I had heard a lot of folks claimed the rights to that song.
“Musicians are the least original of all artists,” he said. “They steal from each other without any shame at all. Arthur Smith and everybody and his brother claimed they wrote it, and music copyright is very hard to establish.”
Some talk about Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight came up just before the interview began to wind down.
“John Voight was a class guy. He was a real actor, a student of the acting trade. Burt Reynolds is just an actor in the average sense. But John Voight is a very intellectual type actor. And you could talk to him. He could see the point of what you’d say. Burt is very resistant to any suggestions that you might have. He wants to do what he thinks no matter whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, you know, which is usually it’s not very good. But Voight will listen to you. If you can give him a good reason why he should do a thing in a certain way, he will give it his full attention.”
After some photography, it was time to go. I couldn’t know it at the time but that would be my last visit with James Dickey. He died and the years rolled by. And then last month I was signing books near Pawleys Island and Litchfield, South Carolina. I knew Dickey was buried there at the All Saints Episcopal Church. Before I left Litchfield I had one last thing to do. I wanted to see his resting place. Having heard outlandish tales about him, I expected his grave would stand out in the spacious cemetery shaded by moss-draped trees. It didn’t. Hard to find, it was a stone like any other stone. I was glad that it wasn’t an obelisk or oversized monument.
Something about that ordinary stone gave me a good feeling about the man whose poems sang the praises of backwood Southerners, not the type of backwoodsmen Deliverance presented to the world in the 1970s.
One more thing, a curious thing. Down Lowcountry way people place shells on gravestones. Atop Dickey’s tombstone you’ll notice a conch shell. This practice originated among the people of lower Zaire. They’d bleach shells and place them on the graves of family members. They believed deceased ancestors became white creatures that lived on river bottoms.
Why shouldn’t a man who wrote a story about a wild river find new life along the bottom of the very river he made a legend.
- Photo taken by Tom Poland.