When the obits announced the January 19 death of James Dickey, Henry Hart, working on a biography of Dickey to be delivered to Picador by September 1998, wasn't surprised to see that many of them mentioned that the poet, novelist and one-time actor (he appeared as the sheriff in the movie version of his novel Deliverance) was also a great football player, hunter and pilot.
"He loved to embellish and invent," Hart told PW. "Dickey was trying to make his life conform to a kind of American ideal. He mythologized his life, treating it as a p m or a novel. He was making it up. For instance, one of the accepted myths is that he was a decorated pilot in the Korean War. The truth is he went up in the planes, but as a radar observer."
Hart, himself a poet who has written previously on Seamus Heaney and Robert Lowell, began working on Dickey's biography in 1993, even though his query letters to Dickey (who had in the early 1980s written to him, praising his Oxford thesis) went unanswered. "I heard from his friends," says Hart, "that he was leery, feeling that people were already concentrating too much on his life, rather than on his work."
About a year ago, when the biographer was interviewing one of his subject's friends, Dickey changed his mind. "You tell Henry Hart to give me a call," he said. Hart did, and at Dickey's invitation, went to stay with him for a week last August.
"I had compiled a list of 500 to 600 questions. We worked for five or six hours every afternoon, going through them. He answered very generously and was bothered by nothing that I asked. We covered his work first, which I think comforted him. He told me, 'You know, Henry, I'm a Southerner, and I don't trust people right away. But I do trust you.' "
Hart earned that trust partly through the prodigious amount of research he'd already accomplished, poring through Dickey archives at such places as Washington University in St. Louis and Emory in Atlanta. Much of this effort was fueled by faith, for Hart had not found a publisher who thought a Dickey bio was a viable venture. Jacques de Sp lberch, who had been the final editor on Deliverance at Houghton Mifflin, took the proposal to George Witte at Picador.
Hart hasn't decided on a title for his book, but he said his subject offered a suggestion before he died. "Dickey, who defined p try as a creative lie, said, 'Henry, we've got to stir them up with this book. We should call it James Dickey: The World As a Lie.'"