Bio ethics

James Dickey: The World as a Lie
By Henry Hart
Picador, 811 pages, $35

Biography may be the last bastion of literature as yet untouched by postmodernism. Boy, do I wish that would change.

Let's face it: Novels have been completely overtaken by hip, insiderish pomo. Even old fogies like Paul Theroux and Philip Roth write fictional narratives in which characters possess the same name as the author and real-life events expand and contract to form fun-house-mirror images of modern existence. Poetry went postmodern long, long ago; in fact, poets may have created literary postmodernism. They've been writing self-referential, achingly clever verses since long before anyone coined a term to describe them.

But biography hasn't fully absorbed postmodernism yet. Given what biographers purport to do, that's ridiculous. In our hopelessly pomo age, reinventing yourself is a requirement for remaining relevant. Our culture is all about improving on your own reality, whether that requires plastic surgery or psychoanalysis. We appreciate the persona more than the person, and we love a subject who can make us see the world around us in more colorful terms.

Even when a biographer uses the tools of the postmodernist trade--as Edmund Morris did when he inserted himself into the narrative of the Ronald Reagan bio Dutch--the exercise simply serves to pump up the book's tiresome pomposity and elevate the biographer to a position he doesn't deserve. Inserting yourself into the story because you don't know what else to do is not being postmodern. Where's the cynicism? Where's the creativity? Where's the sense of humor?

Take, for example, the new doorstop-sized biography of James Dickey, the highly gifted poet much better known as the author of the novel Deliverance. As written by academic Henry Hart, James Dickey: The World as a Lie has no subtlety, no attitude, no appreciation for the finer points of the literary personality. The biographer is equal parts self-righteous schoolmarm and gossipy naysayer: Dickey made things up! Dickey used real-life situations as the basis for his poems! Can you feel the outrage? Can you spot the contradiction?

Considering the book's subtitle, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Hart expends most of his energy revealing Dickey to be a world-class prevaricator. By starting at the absolute beginning, with Dickey's birth, the biographer is able to disprove many of the poet's more fabulous lies--that he was recruited to play in the National Football League, that he flew combat missions as a pilot in World War II--as well as more subtle fibs that Dickey reinforced throughout his life, such as his intimation that he grew up in a working-class family rather than his own wealthy, Depression-immune Atlanta clan. Hart shows that Dickey lied in every possible way, from cheating on his wife to padding his résumé.

But Hart can't stop there. His sense of outrage over Dickey's falsehoods determines the book's tone and conflates his subject's propensity for tall tales into a sinister shortcoming that makes Dickey's art itself suspect. As the biographer rails against the poet for drawing on real-life incidents in his poetry, he reveals a basic misunderstanding of the creative process. According to Hart, Dickey's great sin as a writer is that he's not a reporter.

In his discussion of Dickey's poem "The Bee," Hart complains that the poet inflated a simple incident to an event of almost mythic proportions. Of course, that's what poets do, but Hart isn't having any of it. In Dickey's poem, the narrator (ostensibly Dickey) chases his son as the boy runs toward traffic to evade a bee. The father, a former football player, discovers physical speed he didn't know he still had and catches his son before the boy gets hit by a car. Dickey dedicated the poem to his college football coaches, which seems to infuriate Hart, who reveals that Dickey and his son Kevin experienced a much calmer version of the incident:

While the obeisance smacks of the sort of sentimentality evident in Dickey's Clemson letters to his parents, other parts of the poem smack of exaggeration (at the Litigo Canyon archery range, his son Kevin had seen one pickup truck on the narrow mountain road, and his father had taken only a few steps to prevent him from moving towards it).

Gosh, Henry, it's a poem, not a news report. Whether or not Dickey told lies in his personal and public life, in his artistic life he was under no obligation to make sure his poems and novels conformed to the "truth" of any incident.

The biography is filled with many such episodes: Hart complains that "The Zodiac," which Dickey hoped would do for his career what "The Waste Land" did for T.S. Eliot's, resulted from Dickey attempting to "rewrite rather than translate" Hendrik Marsman's "Zodiac." Hart does nearly a line-by-line explication of the two poems, consistently showing that Dickey veered from Marsman's intent. He can't see that Dickey was inspired by Marsman's poem, that the imitation might be a tribute rather than a desecration.

Hart isn't unusual among contemporary biographers, although his work is more ham-handed than most. The seriousness and labor involved in chronicling someone's entire life seems to drain biographers of all wit and sophistication. When Deirdre Bair performed vivisection on Anaïs Nin's reputation with her 1995 biography, she affected the same sanctimonious tone as Hart, even as she reveled in Nin's many untruths. Bair revealed that Nin's famous diaries were highly edited and some incidents within them completely fabricated. An inspired, thoughtful biographer might have seen that Nin did something rather sophisticated and daring, something rather postmodern: She was reinventing the world around her to make everyday life into art. She no doubt hurt people by calling her writing nonfiction, but Bair could not see Nin's work as anything other than self-centered lies. If James Dickey: The World as a Lie is any indication, Hart feels the same bitterness toward his subject.

Besides being unsophisticated, Hart's approach to biography necessitates seeking out "witnesses" to the events Dickey recounted in his writing. That means tracking down old army buddies, sometimes finding only one alive and giving credence to his account above all others. The biographer never considers that the difference between Dickey's account and that of an old friend might be a matter of perspective or attitude. Hart is too literal-minded for that sort of thinking.

So are most biographers, and that's what's wrong with contemporary biography. Maybe it's all of the facts and figures, maybe it's all of the public records and private interviews, but there are no gray areas in most of today's biographies. Once Hart branded Dickey a liar, his biography became nothing more than a search for more and more lies.

Lying isn't a trait we seek out in our friends, and it's no more admirable in Dickey than in any other schmo, but Hart seems to miss the point of why the poet's story warrants telling. Dickey was an artist, an extraordinarily gifted one. He saw in real life the possibility of art. He viewed the events around him as opportunities to examine the big questions of life, and in 15 books over a 35-year career, he rose to the challenge again and again. His writing would give a fact-checker fits, but it gave his readers a glimpse of greatness.

Eileen Murphy writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to
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