the star Deliverance actors paddling in canoes

You can read Deliverance – the classic 1970 novel about a weekend canoe trip by four suburbanites down a wild north Georgia river – as a simple adventure story. Or, as many have, as more esoteric literature open to scores of scholarly interpretations, including the idea that the four canoeists represent different facets of the author James Dickey’s personality.

When I first read the novel, which is still in print and still resonates throughout American culture, I enjoyed it merely as great escapist reading. But something else captivated me about the book that took me years to fully comprehend: In Deliverance, I found a realistic adult male guide to the sometimes stark realities of life provided by the novel’s characters, including the protagonist and narrator, Ed Gentry. It was a guide I never got from my absentee father who I lost to a divorce when I was a pre-teen.

I know my father’s absence created a void in my development that dogged me well into adulthood. It wasn’t until I read Deliverance at age 24 that it dawned on me how much I had missed by not having a father who might have provided a coherent and realistic way for a grown American male to think of the world and his place in it.

For someone struggling to find his niche, Deliverance became my deliverance, a simple guide to life that, for better or worse, I could draw on as my own template for how to think of the world.

First Edition Cover of Deliverance by James Dickey

If you’ve read Deliverance, you have your own take on the novel’s meaning.

A few of my own takeaways…

  • Our Place In The World
    Be brave, but also be modest and humble. The epigraphs at the beginning of Deliverance quote Georges Bataille and Obadiah, Verse 3, which I took to be reminders that 1) we’re not alone when we feel a sense of inadequacy and insufficiency, and 2) on the flipside, hubris is the inevitable pride that goes before the fall.
  • Careers
    Find a career that you like and can do on your own terms. Moreover, forget the idea that you have to be mega-rich to be happy or successful. Ed describes his partnership in and co-ownership of an art studio he refers to as a “no sweat shop,” a term he’s glad to see “get around town.” The term refers to a workplace of his own and his business partner’s making that takes care of its clients and provides for those who work for the agency, which was enough for both of them. It was there, explained Ed that “We had grooved, modestly, as a studio. I knew it and was glad of it; I had no wish to surpass our limitations, or to provide a home for geniuses on their way to the Whitney or to suicide.” Later, Ed tells his fellow canoeist Lewis Medlock that his approach to work is one of being a “get-through-the-day man” who is mainly interested in “sliding,” which is “living anti-friction,” or “living by anti-friction.” Says Ed: “It is finding a modest thing you can do, and then greasing that thing. On both sides. It is grooving with comfort.”
  • Women
    Look beyond skin deep physical beauty.
    Dickey uses the word “practical” in Deliverance to describe his thoughts about a suitable wife. Ed is said to have met his wife when she was working as a surgical nurse, and “the fact that she might or might not be pretty, did not occur to me at all, though friends, without great enthusiasm or conviction, used to tell me she was.” For Ed, beauty, “beyond certain obvious considerations, never really interested me in women,” he said. “What I looked for and felt for was the spark, the absolutely personal connection, and when I found a genuine form of it, small but steady, I had married it. There was nothing to regret about this, and I didn’t regret it. She was a good wife and a good companion, a little tough, but with a toughness that got things done,” including her “practical approach to sex” with her “great hands [that] knew me. There was something about the residue of the nursing in her that turned me on…the very deliberate and frank actions that give pleasure to people.”
  • Friends
    Companions. We all need them. The world has always been chaotic, or, as Lewis says, “Life is so f_ _ _ _ _ up now, and so complicated.” One way to deal with it is to periodically escape through hobbies, recreational activities like weekend canoe trips with friends, or by cocooning and re-charging in a fantasy world of your own or someone else’s making. The friends—you probably don’t need more than a handful—should be close enough so that they’ll stand by you in an emergency. Ed refers to Lewis’ mental getaways, noting, ”In his mind he was always leaving, always going somewhere, always doing something else.”
  • Stay In Shape
    Don’t let yourself go. Even in our highly industrialized and technological age, your life may one day depend on your physical fitness. When Ed is forced to scale a rock wall to protect his compatriots from almost certain death, his physical ability to reach the top of the precipice becomes the ultimate test with a bow and arrow to kill or be killed. “Pure survival,” he says. “This is what it comes to,” says Lewis, adding, “I told you.” Ed replies: “Yes, you told me.”
  • “Civilization” And The State Of The World
    Society’s veneer of a civilized world is thin and easily disrupted. Monsters have always lurked among us. Even in 1970, Lewis has an ominous warning: “I think the machines are going to fail, the political systems are going to fail.” What’s in today’s news? The same thing that’s always been in the news: murder, mayhem, muggings, wars, chaos, and anarchy. In other words, constant human conflict necessitating such societal constructs as laws, courts, police departments, prisons, armies, and yes, sometimes the application of lethal force to maintain “law and order.” Despite society’s efforts to deal with human nature, occasionally good, law-abiding people are forced to defend themselves against the monsters by taking the law into their own hands. It could be their deliverance. It could be yours.

Image Credit: the feature illustration is from the cover (also shown at the end) of the first edition of James Dickey's Deliverance (fair use); the canoe photo is a cropped version of a poster for the movie - likely from the Warner Brothers Film Archive (fair use).

Marshall Swanson

Marshall Swanson

Marshall Swanson retired in 2013 as senior writer-editor with the Publications Office of the University of South Carolina in Columbia where James Dickey was poet-in-residence from 1969 to 1997.

Bob Lamb writes, of Marshall, "A Vietnam vet, Marshall is as true blue as men and friends come. A native of Connecticut, his heart belongs to the South. He goes back north only to visit his relatives."

(Profile photo by Chris Hildreth)