Thursday, April 29, 2010


West Neck Woods, 2003

I was fortunate when I was in school to be taught by a number of instructors who’d studied with some of the big names in their respective fields. This was especially the case with English teachers. One of high school English teachers, for example, had studied with William Faulkner. Another had been the college buddy and, later on, fellow professor with poet Randall Jarrell.

I was thinking of them last night as I recalled one of the most enjoyable moments of my freshman year of college. I attended a small private university that was just starting to shake off the ties of its Baptist roots when I arrived. The men’s and women’s colleges were still separated by a long lake. Dorms and dining facilities were separate, and there was a still a really nice indoor pool on the women’s campus that was, by the mandate of the alumna who endowed it, forever off limits to male students. But we were making strides. And one should never underestimate the inventiveness of boys and girls determined to find each other. (Who knew there were underground steam tunnels connecting the two campuses?)

I made some good friends that first year in college. But I didn’t finish the year with a good taste for the school itself, especially after I learned from my faculty advisor just before the year ended that I had just spent a whole school year taking classes I’d tested out of before I ever got there. All the advisor could say as he nonchalantly tossed across his desk the letter that announced that I could skip over almost all of the freshman classes, was, “Oh, I thought you knew about that.”

But there were some good experiences buried in that year. One of the most memorable was when my English professor recommended that we go hear a talk being given the next morning on the women’s college campus by his old friend, fellow writer and drinking buddy, poet and novelist James Dickey.

I’d heard of Dickey before and knew of him mostly as a poet. Like Faulkner and Jarrell, Dickey was afflicted with an unhealthy affection for alcohol. One of his sons would later write about how his father’s drinking made chaos of their relationship. (Our professor, by the way, was an excellent teacher, but would die of complications related to alcoholism before the year ended.)

The next morning, though, James Dickey still had the command to draw the small group of students who came to hear him in close and captivate us with his use of words. There were probably only about twenty of us there, along with a few faculty members. We pulled our chairs together so that we formed a circle.

Dickey read poetry and talked about his inspirations and work methods. (Essentially this: kick everybody out and shut the door; get a clean glass and a fresh bottle of Jim Beam; put some paper in front of you and let the words flow out.)

But what really captivated the group was Dickey’s readings from a story, really more of a novella, that was about to be published. It was about some suburban neighbors from Atlanta out for a guys’ weekend canoeing on the Chattahootchee River. Only things went wrong. There was a death. And the final scene in the story involved a hand sticking up out of a newly flooded reservoir, washing clean not only everything in its path, but also, metaphorically speaking, the sins of man. I have to tell you, our little group of students was spellbound when he described that hand reaching up out of the water.

A few weeks after Dickey’s appearance at our school, Dell Doubleday Publishing released “Deliverance.” It was an immediate best seller. Two years later a blockbuster movie version of the book starring Burt Reynolds and John Voight was released. As happens with these film adaptations, the book was far richer than the movie. Some of the details were changed in the movie. But again, back there in Keller Hall we had no idea what it would sound like to hear Ned Beatty squeal like a pig.


  1. I didn't want this post to end.
    Thank you.

  2. Agreed. That must have been quite the experience. I had a professor in grad school who was extremely close to Eudora Welty, and some of the stories she shared were just priceless. I'd have loved to have met EW.

  3. Let me guess, University of Richmond? By the time I went there, it had mellowed somewhat, but still was pretty weird with the dual campuses.