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Journalist Christopher Dickey's Troubled Relationship with His Poet Father

Dickey has written a new memoir about his relationship with his father, the late poet and novelist James Dickey. It's called "Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son" (Simon & Schuster). Dickey writes that his father was "a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated." But Dickey writes that he also loved his alcoholic, abusive father. And as an adult, he picked up his relationship with his father again, after a 20 year absence.


Other segments from the episode on September 15, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 15, 1998: Interview with Christopher Dickey; Commentary on the Delmore Brothers.


Date: SEPTEMBER 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091501np.217
Head: "Summer of Deliverance"
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The artist whose work we most admire don't always conduct their personal lives in such admirable ways. My guest Christopher Dickey has written a memoir about what it was like to grow up the son of the acclaimed poet and novelist James Dickey, whose success brought out part of his character that were difficult for his family -- like drinking and womanizing.

In the '60s, James Dickey's poetry elevated him to celebrity status. He won a National Book Award in 1966. He became even better known in the early '70s as the author of the novel "Deliverance," which was adapted into a popular film starring Burt Reynolds.

Christopher Dickey became a writer as well, but worked far away from his father as a foreign correspondent, often in war zones. He's now "Newsweek's" Paris bureau chief.

Christopher Dickey's memoir about his relationship with his father is called "Summer of Deliverance." Let's start with a reading from the book.


"I thought that I could save my father's life. For most of 20 years, I did not see him, couldn't talk to him, could not bear to be around him. I believed I knew that he had killed my mother. He belittled and betrayed her, humiliated her, and forgot about her -- then watched her over the course of a few years quietly, relentlessly poison herself with the whiskey she had at her right hand -- all day long, every day, until she died bloated, her liver hardening, and the veins in her esophagus erupting; bleeding to death at the age of 50.

"My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated. And that last fact was just part of me. It was a cold knot of anger that I lived with and that helped drive me to do the things I wanted and needed to do in my own life. I became a foreign correspondent, as far from him as I could be.

"Anger was so much easier to deal with than love, and he made it so easy to be angry. He was drunk himself for most of those 20 years. If I didn't get him on the phone before 11 in the morning, there was no point in calling at all. He wouldn't remember or couldn't speak coherently enough, and he never called me.

"So those times I got out of El Salvador or Nicaragua, Libya or Lebanon, feeling lucky to survive and in love with the world, I could just barely bring myself to call him. We'd talk, but not much, and I'd say 'I love you' when I said good-bye, and 'to hell with you' when the phone hit its cradle.

"What a shame, I would think, that I still loved him at all, but I did. And that disturbed me much more than the anger. I understood my hurt. I didn't understand him. I didn't begin to understand us."

GROSS: That's Christopher Dickey reading from the beginning of his new memoir about his father, James Dickey. And the memoir is called "Summer of Deliverance."

As you point out, Chris, your father was an acclaimed poet, a great poet. And when you were young, you said that he was seen as a God. Was that very confusing to you to feel such strong and mixed feelings about your father, and know that other people saw him as a God?

DICKEY: Well, I saw him as a God. I thought he was wonderful when I was a child. And he was wonderful when I was a child in a an awful lot of ways. He was tremendously attentive. He found a lot of time for me when I was a little boy, as indeed he did for my brother when he was little, and for my much younger sister when she was little.

The problems tended to come later, as he started drinking more; as I grew up; as his kind of animal competitiveness took over -- all kinds of things contributed to what eventually became an untenable, unendurable situation.

But no, it wasn't too bad having a father who was a god. I felt great for a while.

GROSS: Did the acclaim that's around him leave him immune to criticism from the family?

DICKEY: Well, not -- not in the early days -- not when it was acclaim of his poetry; not when he was in the course of making his reputation. The problem with the claim around him -- the adulation around him -- really started about the time that "Deliverance" came out, both as a novel and then as a film. That became such a big phenomenon in movie theaters all over the country, the book a bestseller -- that all of a sudden, he felt as if he could do nothing wrong, and he began to indulge all of the worst aspects of his character.

But there was another element to that, too, which is that people expected him to indulge the worst elements of his character. He was a legendary drunk, and they wanted to see him drunk. He was a legendary womanizer, and they wanted to see him try to pick up women or even make a fool of himself with them. It didn't matter. It was all just part of the show.

GROSS: The opening quote in your memoir is this: "Come, son, and find me here in love with the sound of my voice."

DICKEY: Yeah. That's from a poem -- one of his best poems, I think, called "The Owl King," which was written in the '50s. And he was always aware of his own ego, and aware of his desire through poetry and through his son -- through his children -- to achieve some kind of immortality.

"The Owl King" is a fairly complex poem that has to do with immortality; that has to do with teaching a son, a blind child. But that line, I think, is the essence of a lot of my father's thinking about himself and about me.

GROSS: Did he realize that he was self-infatuated?

DICKEY: He did. He did, and really didn't make many apologies for it. He was -- and even before "Deliverance," you know, he was a big, handsome -- especially when he was young -- incredibly handsome guy who could be absolutely charming and had spent much of his life getting whatever he wanted, whether it was from his mother or from women he met or from the men that he worked with and for.

GROSS: Your father had a teacher who told him that no artist is bound by the truth. That's a nice thing to say when the artist is writing fiction, but some artists use that as a justification to lie in real life. Did you father do that?

DICKEY: Oh, my father did that in ways that are almost impossible to imagine. And in fact, it was only very recently that I began to discover how extensive the lies were. The last couple of years of his life, we spent a lot of time talking about the truth and about what really had had happened, about all kinds of things that he'd told me before.

And I discovered, for instance, that a marriage that he -- he had told me that he had been married before he met my mother, and that was in Australia during the war and the woman had died of blood poisoning. And that was a very vivid tale to tell and eight-year-old boy. And I always thought it was true. But when I asked him about it when I was 45 years old, he said: "No, I just made that up."

He just thought it was something interesting to tell people -- to tell me. And that was just one of countless lies, countless stories that he made up, just because it was more interesting than the reality of life.

GROSS: When you were young, your mother found a letter from a woman who your father had obviously slept with. And you write that you realized that your father was living a life that wasn't about the family and that threatened the family. Tell us more about that realization.

DICKEY: Well, that was in a period where he had begun touring the country reading his poems -- "barnstorming for poetry" he called it. And he loved that life on the road. He would always say: "Oh, I'm so exhausted. I'm so tired. It's been so difficult to do that." But in fact, he loved the adulation. He loved going to these colleges. He loved a situation where young women would throw themselves at him, or older women would throw themselves at him. He was happy to have any woman who would throw herself at him.

And that was obviously very difficult for my mother to handle. And I was in the awkward position -- I was 11 years old when that particular incident when the letter happened -- of trying to reassure my mother and at the same time trying to defend my father from my mother's wrath, from her fury, which is not really a good position to be in when you're 11 years old.

GROSS: By the way, what was it like to hear your father read a poem about an adulterous affair when you were at the reading?

DICKEY: Not real nice.


Not real nice. It was the kind of thing -- you know, I'm sitting beside my mother, along with my six-year-old brother, and Michael Allen, one of the closest friends of the family, who was in his early 20s then. And my father stands up drunk, as he often was at readings, and presents this poem which I had no idea he'd ever written, with a smirk. You know, to tell you the truth, it wasn't just the poem. I mean the poem -- sure, it's about waking up in motel rooms with other women, and there's a famous line of him in that poem where he says "guilt is magical."

Well, it might have been magical for him. It wasn't magical for us. But what was really disturbing was the way he presented it -- the smirk. He was like a boy smoking in the bathroom who thinks his mama's not going to catch him. It was -- it was my father at his worst. And I think that in the book, it's one of the scenes that people probably remember the most, who've read the book.

GROSS: Do you think your father would ever come home disappointed in the family because you and your mother didn't have that adulation that strangers and readers would have for him?

DICKEY: Sure. Absolutely. I had idolized him when I was a little boy, but I was getting older, more skeptical of him and what he was doing. My mother -- I think my mother's heart was broken a lot of the time, and she was certainly critical of him. I mean, he was just -- he was her husband but he was just her husband; whereas, he was a -- when he was on the road, he was larger than life. And he liked to be larger than life, my father.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Christopher Dickey. His new memoir, "Summer of Deliverance," is a memoir about his relationship with his father, the late writer James Dickey.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey, and he's written a memoir about his father, the late writer James Dickey. The memoir is called "Summer of Deliverance."

Your father had this very manly idea of manhood, I think it's fair to say -- you know, hunting, being a war pilot, playing football, writing a novel about men, like "Deliverance." Did he kind of want to train you to be a "man's man"?

DICKEY: Yeah, I think I was always a little bit of a disappointment in that regard. I was not much of a football player. I was about, oh, five or six inches shorter than my father. And I was never comfortable with that man's man kind of role, at least not the way he conveyed it.

Also there was -- a lot of that was exaggerated where my father was concerned. He was in the war, but he wasn't a pilot. He did play football, but he was never a star. He just played one semester of college football.

And so I was trying to live up to his imaginings of what he had done to his lies about what he had done. And that was pretty hard to do, and it was something I quit trying to do, oh, by the time I was 15 or 16 I guess.

GROSS: You say that he told you stories about being a pilot, but he wasn't really a pilot; and he wasn't really a star football player. How much of his public profile was based on lies that he had told?

DICKEY: Well, I think he exaggerated a lot about his background, partly because he saw it as good public relations when he was first acquiring a reputation as a poet. Back in the '50s and '60s, certainly, there was an idea that poets were all kind of terribly cerebral and withdrawn; that they were wimps. And he wanted to come across as something very different than that.

So part of this was, I think, a conscious public relations construct in terms of his public image. But the problem for us is that he was playing the same game at home, and that was very difficult to understand.

GROSS: But were there things that you'd read about in his -- in his biographies, you know, in writer's encyclopedias, that you thought, well, that's a lie.

DICKEY: There was a kind of a cumulative realization of the lies that didn't really come to a head until the last couple of years of his life because they were lies that he sustained for a very long time. I had no idea that he was not a pilot during World War II. His agent didn't have an idea. Nobody had any idea, it seemed, until I was about 30 years old and he was on trial -- not on trial, but he was in a civil case, a lawsuit. He was asked to testify under oath and was asked if he had been a pilot during World War II. And he said no, he was the intercept officer -- the second guy on the plane.

And all of us who knew him and loved him were like: what? How can this be? And so that -- that was that realization. The business about him having been married before, it was only in the last year of his life that I found that he had not been married before he married my mother. So there was a kind of an accumulative effect. And, sure, the jacket copy for "Deliverance," when it came out, is full of exaggerations. It didn't bear much relationship to the truth at all.

GROSS: You wrote in your book that your parents, I guess when you were a young teenager, were afraid that you were going to be a homosexual. So they used to give you "Playboy" magazines and Henry Miller novels to read to help arouse those hetero instincts. What did you think of that? Did you realize what was going on?

DICKEY: Let me just say it works remarkably well.


Really phenomenally well, although I did come across a photograph when I was going through old family photographs while I was writing the book. I came across some snapshots of me standing next to the closet door of my room in California, which was covered with pin-ups. And I hope nobody else in the world ever sees those photographs, because it was very embarrassing.

But it was -- no -- I think that my father's idea of my sexuality was -- how can I say -- it was confused and certainly it was projecting some of his own misgivings about his own sexuality, onto me. There is all through his poetry and his novels a certain kind of homoerotic element, that he never wanted to address in public, and never talked about. But it -- it may have contributed to his idea that I might be gay. In fact, as it turned out, I wasn't gay.

GROSS: You write that at the age of 15 you made a pact with yourself; you had spent so much of your life being scared, that you couldn't be scared anymore. What was the pact that you made?

DICKEY: I told myself that somehow I was going to live until I was 35, and that I would believe that I was going to live until I was 35, and that nothing could happen to me until I was 35. And I've pretty much lived my life that way. I took an awful lot of risks after that, and lived very, very fast. I was married when I was 18, a father when I was 19.

Fairly soon after that I went to work for "The Washington Post," and became a foreign correspondent. And by the time I was 35, I had spent most of my career covering wars in Central America and in the Middle East.

So it worked pretty well. Of course, when I turned 35, I was left wondering what was going to happen. But it was just sort of a conceit I had followed through on.

GROSS: What was it that you had been afraid of before making this pact with yourself?

DICKEY: Everything, everything. I was afraid -- I was afraid of time. I was afraid of growing old. I was afraid of my parents being sick or dying. I was a pretty morose little kid, actually; not quite as morose as my father would sometimes tell people. But I was afraid of everything, and I just felt like I couldn't be that scared all the time anymore.

Maybe it was because I wasn't athletic, I wasn't going out and proving myself all the time the way my father had done or felt he had done. But that was just a little mind trick I used to try to get over that.

GROSS: Was your father disapproving of the fears that you had?

DICKEY: You know, my father would always talk about how brave I was. But that was one of the problems with out relationship, I guess, is that he would say: you know, Chris has more guts than a burglar -- which is a nice thing to say, but I didn't feel that way at all and I didn't believe it. And one of the problems with so much of his praise for me, for my brother, for anybody in the family, anybody who was close to him, is that you felt that he was saying these things because he liked the sound of the words, but he didn't believe what he was telling you. And that was fairly disturbing.

GROSS: So it was like failure to be honest with who you really were and to like you for that?

DICKEY: Well, I have the feeling that he didn't know at all who I really was. I had that feeling, sort of unconsciously, most of the time I was growing up. I think a lot of people have that. I don't think that was unique to me. But then I had it confirmed again and again as I got older and he was writing things like "Aldulam" (ph) and I would read books that he'd done or poems that he'd done and see that they really didn't bear any relationship to me.

They bore a profound relationship to a vision that he had had of me from before the time I was born -- as an extension of himself; as a sort of a mythical extension of himself. I mean, he may have been a football player. He may have been an intercept officer during World War II. But his vision of me was much less a conventional vision than something out of the golden bough. I mean, he described -- he wrote a poem just before I was born describing the parasital vision from the loin. And this is the way he saw me. It was very strange, and it's the way he continued to see me all through my life and all through our life together.

GROSS: You were married for the first time in 1970 at the age of 18. You had a child shortly after that. When you were married, your father said to you: "You've thrown away your youth." How did you interpret it at the time? And does what your father said mean something different to you now that you're older?

DICKEY: Well, it sounds like it could be a conventional remark. I mean, you say "you've thrown away your youth" to an 18-year-boy who's getting married, that may seem fairly obvious. But I didn't feel that way at the time, and in fact I don't feel that way now, because on the one hand I wanted my youth to be my youth, not his. And he had tried so hard to impose his vision of his life and his priorities on me that I wanted desperately to get away from all of that.

So I felt in some ways as if I was reclaiming my youth. Sure, as a father myself, if my son had come to me when he was 18 and said he was going to get married, I'd have been a little upset. I don't blame my father for being upset, but his motivations and what was behind his feelings -- that's what got to me, and still does. I think that it was very, very self-centered.

You know, I just listened to the other day, the "New York Times" has a website where they have a long poetry reading by my father, where he describes me and my brother before he reads a poem about us. And the poem that he wrote about me is almost entirely about him. I sleep all the way through the poem, while he contemplates a skeleton, death, the future -- all kinds of things. And that is very much the way he saw me -- as an extension of him and his -- as a -- his protection against mortality.

GROSS: An object for him to meditate about himself.


HICKEY: Yeah -- no, absolutely. That was -- that was part of the game.

GROSS: Christopher Dickey -- his new memoir about his father, the late poet and novelist James Dickey, is called "Summer of Deliverance." Christopher Dickey will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Christopher Dickey. His new memoir, "Summer of Deliverance," is about his relationship with his father, the late poet and novelist James Dickey, who is best known for his novel "Deliverance" and for writing the screenplay for the 1972 film adaptation which starred Burt Reynolds.

You read "Deliverance" right after you were married. That's when "Deliverance" was completed. What did you think of it as a book?

DICKEY: I couldn't put it down. I thought it was a great novel. I was amazed. I didn't know that my father would be able to tell the story quite so effectively and beautifully, and keep you into it the way -- keep me in it, the way I keep my attention in it; the way that he did.

And this despite the fact that I had virtually grown up hearing him tell the story of "Deliverance" and I remember very vividly when I was a little boy, and he had come back from a canoeing trip with a couple of friends, and had been really shaken up, not by anything as dramatic as what happened in "Deliverance," but just by having gotten into a lot of trouble that he was afraid he and his friends might not have gotten out of.

GROSS: You worked as an extra on the movie adaptation of "Deliverance." And one of the things you did is that you were the stand-in for Ned Beatty in the rape scene, when he's told to squeal like a pig. And you write about how much that experience troubled you. What -- what was so troublesome about it?

DICKEY: Well, it was hard for me to address what was troublesome at the time. I wondered why the scene even existed in the movie.

GROSS: We should, just for people who haven't read the book or seen the movie, just say that it's about three middle-aged suburban guys who go on this little weekend adventure together, canoeing down a river. And they run into some kind of ...

DICKEY: Well, they go straight to redneck hell is what happens.

GROSS: There you go.

DICKEY: They ...

GROSS: Trying to find a nice way of saying this.


DICKEY: Yeah, it's -- what happens, of course, is that they -- it's actually four guys -- only three survive -- who start down this river in north Georgia thinking that they're going to just have a kind of a guys weekend. You know, it's what they did instead of playing golf. And they get into a situation where they're confronted by men who really don't obey any laws, and who kill one of them and rape another one.

And it becomes a very ugly fight for survival, just a few hours drive from their suburban homes. It's a pretty dramatic story and it was a pretty dramatic novel and movie, that I think touched on a lot of basic fears that existed among men in America -- people in America -- then and now; whether the fear that lurking outside the calm perimeter of your yards in suburban Atlanta is something really very hostile and frightening; or the fear of -- sort of primal fears like homosexual rape.

GROSS: So again, getting back to being a stand-in for Ned Beatty, what was that like for you?

DICKEY: It was humiliating. I didn't have to do what he had to do, God knows. I didn't have to take off my clothes. I did -- nobody rode me like a sow and made me squeal like a pig. But I did have to pose in the various positions that he would take during the shooting of the sequence so that they could set up the lights and camera angles correctly, including leaning over the log with another stand-in behind me. And it was, you know, it was just one of those essentially disturbing experiences, even though it didn't come as a surprise. I guess it came a little bit as a surprise to me that I was the one who was asked to do that particular job as a stand-in.

GROSS: Who asked?

DICKEY: Boorman, the director. There were four or five stand-ins. It could have been any one of them, but I was the one who wound up doing that. And I guess that once he asked me, I couldn't beg off very well. So.

GROSS: You were afraid that the rape scene was going to take -- take on too much significance in the movie; that it would be all that people really remembered.

DICKEY: Well, I think it is the main thing that people remember. It's the thing that people talk about. I mean, there's a whole kind of series of redneck jokes around "squeal like a pig" and that's the sort of iconic image from the film. It's not the central image of the book. It happens in the book, but in the book, the central part of the narrative focuses on Ed Gentry, who has to climb the cliffside at night to try to kill the last of the rednecks with a bow, and who has to confront his own fears and find his own depths of courage in order to do that. That's what happens in the book.

It happens in the movie, too, but that's not what you remember in the movie. What you remember most vividly is that rape scene, and it is one of the most kind of fundamentally horrifying scenes I think in all of cinema.

GROSS: Now, you thought that your father, the great artist, had allowed himself to make compromises in the film adaptation of "Deliverance." Like what?

HICKEY: Well, the film was not his film. He had written the original script and he got full credit for the script. But in fact, a lot of the dialogue was rewritten. A lot of very bad dialogue was put in it -- some of it memorable, some not. "Squeal like a pig," for instance, is not in the script.

But he went along with all of these things not because he was convinced these were the right decisions -- in fact, he had been barred from the set and didn't contribute to those -- but because ultimately he just liked having that extra bit of adulation; that extra bit of praise that was heaped on the film and it was heaped on him personally after the film came out. He liked that a lot. And he came back, and of course played the role of the sheriff in the movie, which was another tremendous boost to his ego.

Which is all fine, except that my father as a teacher and as a father was tremendously demanding of everyone around him. He insisted on all kinds of perfection in work, particularly in art, particularly in whatever you would write -- whatever you would try to do. I have a number of friends who were students of his and who basically have found it hard to write all of their lives, not least because they felt they could not live up to his standards.

And here's an example of him failing his own standards rather conspicuously in order to take all of the praise that would be heaped on him. It's not an unforgivable sin. It's understandable enough. But especially when I was 19 or 20, it was very hard for me to forgive.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Christopher Dickey, and he's written a memoir about his father, the late writer James Dickey, and the memoir is called "Summer of Deliverance."

You write that you clung to the idea that you and your father were very different, but that you were somehow living a pale imitation of his life. In what way did your life strike you as that?

DICKEY: Well, at the time that I felt that, I was trying to write movies. I was trying to -- I was going to film school. I was doing a lot of things that I thought were interesting, but that also fit into a pattern of the kinds of things that he had started doing. And I thought that I could do a pretty good job at them, but when I would write anything; when I would even write in my own journals, I realized to some extent then, and especially when I was working on this book and went back and looked at the journals, how much I was just parroting things that he had already told me.

I would cite quotations from poets that he had cited to me -- not that I had read originally by myself. That sort of thing -- it just was very much living in the shadow of somebody and not knowing how to get out of it; thinking you were going off on your own way, and yet never getting very far.

GROSS: You write this about your early writing -- you say that your father created myths, but you weren't a genius, and demythologizing was becoming your obsession.

HICKEY: That's right. Maybe that's why I became a journalist. I felt that I needed to get -- get to the truth of things. The myth didn't interest me. The facts did interest me. And there was a time when I think, in my early 20s, where that made me probably very cynical and more often pretty snide and probably fairly unpleasant to be around. But later on, I think that manifested itself in my commitment to reporting and to trying to get to the truth of matters, whether I was reporting in Washington or overseas.

GROSS: What did it mean to you to not be a genius?

HICKEY: Well, genius -- genius is almost a spiritual experience for the person who has it, and also to be around. You're in touch with somebody, if you're around a genius -- I can't tell you what it's like to be one, but I can tell you what it's like to be around one -- you're in touch with somebody who -- who is -- who imagines things and thinks of things in ways that you never could yourself.

And although we've talked a lot about the negative things about my father, the truth is that when you were around him and when he was on a roll -- when he was really thinking -- it was like being around some incandescent intellectual power. It was very stimulating, very exciting, and he could convey that to other people.

And so he was a genius. I can't do that. I don't know -- I've known almost nobody else in my life who could do it the way my father could. And I'm happy to say that in the last couple of years of his life, he could do it again. For a long time, the drinking dulled all that, but after he got sick and when he quit drinking, that old incandescence was back and it was probably the happiest time we ever, ever had together.

GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey. He's written a memoir about his father, the late poet and novelist James Dickey. It's called "Summer of Deliverance." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


Christopher Dickey is my guest. He's a journalist whose now written a memoir called "Summer of Deliverance" about his father, the late writer James Dickey -- the poet who also wrote the novel "Deliverance."

You say in your book that you think a good reason -- one of the reasons why you became a foreign correspondent was you wanted to get away from your father. You wanted to get away from his life. But in some ways, I'm sure a lot of people saw you as kind of living out an extension of his life in the sense that you were doing something, you know, really virile -- you know, writing -- a war correspondent in El Salvador, which is what you did early in your career; taking a lot of great risks. Even if you were minimizing your risks, you were still taking big risks.

So is that kind of paradoxical for you -- to be perceived as being an extension of what he was doing, when in so many ways, you were trying to get away from it?

DICKEY: It was a little bit paradoxical, but the best thing that happened was especially once I began to cover Central America and the Middle East, people just didn't associate me with him. Most people -- even people I knew fairly well had no idea that I was any relationship -- I had any relationship with James Dickey the poet and author of "Deliverance."

And after 15 or 20 years of doing that, I felt very much that I had become my own man. So it didn't bother me. It's easy to say, and it is probably true, that my father told me about his war -- World War II -- and he made it up. And I went out to cover wars, where I couldn't make anything up. And ultimately, no matter how cautious I wanted to be, had to go out into combat and see -- see what was happening if I wanted to tell the truth about the experience.

So sure, it was reflection of some of the kinds of things that my father was interested in, but he had no idea what I did. He had no idea what it was like gathering the truth and going out and experiencing these things first hand; seeking out combat and looking for confrontations, and then trying to find the truth behind what caused those situations. That just wasn't his metier.

GROSS: Your mother died when she was 50. That was in 1976, and she basically drank herself to death, for which you blame both your parents. Shortly after your mother died, your father remarried, and he married a woman who was younger than you and was half his age -- a former student of his. What was your reaction to your father marrying a woman younger than you were?

DICKEY: Well, my ...

GROSS: And you were -- what? -- in your mid-20s then?

DICKEY: Yes, I guess I was 25. I had a very mixed reaction, in fact. I was horrified that he was marrying another woman -- a young woman -- a woman I didn't know at all, two months after my mother died. I saw that as the most profound kind of disrespect for my mother's memory. I thought that he would bring a lot of shame on himself and on the family for doing that, and I think to some extent he did.

At the same time, I knew that he needed a lot of taking care of. My father was not an independent sort of man. He couldn't write a check himself, and wouldn't. He couldn't cook his own dinner, and wouldn't. Somebody was going to have to do for him. And when I saw that he wanted to marry this woman, I thought: OK fine, she can do for you because I'm not going to.

There was another thing in there, too, which was that I had pleaded with him to quit drinking. I'd just seen my mother drink herself to death, and I was desperate for him to stop. And he promised me he would, but of course he didn't.

And the same night that he told me he was going to marry this woman was the same night that he was so drunk that he could barely -- well, he couldn't even answer the door of his hotel room. And then he decided to reenact my mother's rather ugly death in the hospital for me, to try and gain my sympathy for his new marriage. It was really, I would say, the lowest -- the lowest point in our relationship.

GROSS: Your father continued to drink after the second marriage, and it turned out that his second wife had a drug habit. And you say that this habit introduced the family to a world of criminals. Did you try to intervene in any way at that point? Or try to just keep clear of them as they got more and more troubled?

DICKEY: I just wanted to stay clear of it. Occasionally, I would get called from family friends in Columbia, South Carolina where they were living, to tell me horror stories about what was going on. And I would say there's nothing I could do. And there wasn't anything I could do, I think. And that's not a rationalization. That's just a fact. I couldn't have addressed my father. I couldn't have talked to him. And as long as he was drinking, there was really no way to deal with him or to intervene.

The relationship that he had with Deborah, who by the way now is like a completely different woman -- completely straight. She's in wonderful shape. But the relationship he had with her then was mutually and absolutely destructive, and there was no way for me to get in-between them, and that was in any case the last thing that I wanted to do.

GROSS: Your father got very sick with hepatitis. Shortly before his death, you returned to be with him. He was sober by then, and I think you were able to start a new kind of relationship with him.

DICKEY: Yes, he was sober and it was magnificent to be around him. And I was enormously lucky. We were all enormously lucky that he had not died from the hepatitis. The particular condition that he had has a mortality rate of about 80 percent. And it was almost a miracle that he lived through it.

After that, he was -- he was shrunken. He was weak. But his mind was completely unaffected, and now that he wasn't drunk anymore, you were in the presence of a genius again, and it was just about exclusively the good part of being in the presence of a genius again. And that enabled us to do all kinds of things, including sort of putting his life back together. And we were able to help Deborah get much better treatment -- to get out of the house. My sister was able to go away to school where she thrived.

It was wonderful. It was wonderful. And I don't -- I can't -- I'll always thank heaven that we had that time together.

GROSS: Did you think a lot about what kind of reconciliation you wanted before your father passed?

DICKEY: Well, I thought, when I went back for the first time -- I didn't want to go back at all, frankly. I wanted -- my wife, Carol, insisted, I think partly because she saw that as I got older, there was more and more something missing in my life. There were all kinds of things I couldn't address, couldn't talk about. And I think she felt that -- I know she felt that if I could go back and at least begin to have some kind of rapport again with my father, who'd played such a big role in my life as a child, that -- that things would be better.

But when I went back, you know, he was able to hold out for about a day and a half without really getting drunk, and then he drank himself silly and so did his wife. And we just sort of thought, well, we've done our duty. We'll just move on. But there was a little girl -- his daughter, who's 30 years younger than me -- my sister. And we couldn't just leave her.

So we began trying to make arrangements to see more of her and to try and give her a little more security in her life. And that, in itself, started to bring us together. And then when he got sick a couple of months later and quit drinking, then we had the beginnings of a new relationship.

But it was nothing that I was able to plan. It was luck. I think -- I think this kind of reconciliation after so much pain is very hard -- is very hard. And you can say you want it and everybody can have the best intentions in the world, but unless you're very lucky, it's very hard to do.

GROSS: Did you father have any objections to you writing a book about

DICKEY: Well, I sort of broke it to him gradually. He knew that -- he knew from the start that I was going to make a -- write a book about the making of "Deliverance." And that we -- and we would talk about that. And then I gradually expanded, as we would talk, and we would tape record long conversations about this. I would gradually expand the subject matter.

So that by the summer of '96, I think he had, not an explicit idea, but a pretty clear idea of what I was doing. Which is why there's a scene fairly early in the book where I'm helping him up and down the stairs at our house down on the coast. And we're talking, and he knows exactly what I'm thinking and what I'm working on, and we have a whole discussion about truth and lies, poetry and making things up.

And he says that he wants me to remember what -- what he was to him, to me. And that he wants me to remember what -- what he says is: "Remember what I was to you." And that really is what the book is about. And I think that he would understand that.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Dickey, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

DICKEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Christopher Dickey's new memoir about his father, the late poet and novelist James Dickey, is called "Summer of Deliverance." Christopher is "Newsweek's" Paris bureau chief.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward profiles the Delmore Brothers.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Christopher Dickey
High: Journalist Christopher Dickey has written a new memoir about his relationship with his father, the late poet and novelist James Dickey. It's called "Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son." Dickey writes that his father was "a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated." But Dickey writes that he also loved his alcoholic, abusive father. And as an adult, he picked up his relationship with his father again, after a 20 year absence. One reviewer writes: "A heartbreaking, eloquent memoir by the son of the heartbreaking, eloquent poet."
Spec: Christopher Dickey; James Dickey; Art; "Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son"; "Deliverance"
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Summer of Deliverance"

Date: SEPTEMBER 15, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091502NP.217
Head: The Delmore Brothers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Singing brothers once occupied a major spot in country music, mostly singing wistful songs of mother and home. But one of the best of them, the Delmore Brothers, got rhythm well before Elvis Presley burst on the scene.

Rock historian Ed Ward profiles the duo.


I like to travel when I'm heading for home
Way down in Dixie where I'll never more roam
I know a girl who's been a-waiting around
She likes to boogie-woogie when I'm in town

I'm Mobile
Da na na na bound
Where the breeze is blowing
That's where I'm bound

Reach out and get it (unintelligible)
Yes, yeah
Now play me a little boogie

ED WARD, ROCK HISTORIAN: If the history of American popular music resembles a tree, then the Delmore Brothers occupy a crucial position on it, even though they're all but forgotten today.

They represent a moment where a long-standing country music genre, the brother group, suddenly plugged into boogie and got hot. Brother groups came into fashion in the 1930s with Bill and Earl Bolick, the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe Brothers, the Dixon Brothers, and others, and Alton and Raybon Delmore were right there with them.

Born in Elkmont, Alabama -- Alton in 1908 and Raybon in 1916 -- they started performing as kids in 1926. Five years later, they got their first recording contract and managed to record for three different labels, but the Depression got in the way and sales were indifferent.

Still, they joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1931, so they managed to get by on live performances. But in 1944, they signed with King, a newly created label in Cincinnati, with ties to one of the region's top radio station, WLW, which gave them a show.

With Alton on his four-string tenor guitar and Raybon on a standard one, they were a powerful combination. As one of their first records for King, a remake of "Brown's Ferry Blues," one of their earlier hits, makes plain.


Our little papa
Can't stand me down
Lord, Lord, we got them Brown's ferry blues

Our little papa
Standing in the rain
With the (unintelligible)
And he couldn't by grain
Lord, Lord, we got them Brown's ferry blues.

Well, sing, boys

Two old maids...

WARD: But when a job at WMC in Memphis came up, they took it, and there they met Wayne Rainey whose harmonica work made their sound even "bluesier."


Trouble, trouble ain't nothing but the blues
Trouble, trouble ain't nothing but the blues
Worries are so dog-gone hard to lose

WARD: They also started working with electric guitars, like Jethro Burns, who played on "Freight Train Boogie."


Casey Jones, he was a mighty man
But now he's resting in the promised land
The kind of music he could understand
Was an eight-wheel under his command

He made the freight train boogie
All the time
He made the freight train boogie
As he drove down the line

WARD: Their big hit came in 1949, when Henry Glover, one of King's black songwriters, found one of his songs overshadowed by a competing performance. He sat down, reworked it and offered it to the Delmores.


Blues stay away from me
Blues, why don't you let me be
Don't know why
You keep on haunting me


WARD: "Blues Stay Away From Me" should have been their ticket to the big time, but Raybon, the younger brother, went on a binge after his youngest daughter died and wound up in debt and with a drinking problem. They drifted from radio station to radio station, and finally Raybon died of lung cancer in 1952.

Alton, for his part, retired from music. He tried a few comebacks, but spent most of his time working on his charmingly titled biography, "Truth is Stranger Than Publicity," which was unfinished when he died in 1964.

Even if Raybon hadn't died when he did, it's unlikely the Delmore's career would have lasted much longer. The hillbilly boogie craze died down not long afterwards, but their impact was felt for decades in the work of the Burnett Brothers, the Everly Brothers and even progressive bluegrass duos like Jim & Jesse, not to mention all the guitar players who owe them a debt of gratitude.

GROSS: Ed Ward currently lives in Berlin.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ed Ward
High: Rock historian Ed Ward remembers the Delmore Brothers.
Spec: The Delmore Brothers; Entertainment; Movie Industry
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Delmore Brothers
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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