I first met James Dickey in January 1969 at the beginning of spring semester at the University of South Carolina. We had adjacent offices in the new high-rise humanities building. In those days we never closed our office doors and I’d see him walk by to his office most every day. Sometimes he’d say hello in passing. He was a friendly, genial 46-year-old and at the top of his game. He’d won the National Book Award for Buckdancer’s Choice and came to Columbia from his post as American Poet Laureate, which he held from August 1966 to June 1968. This was his first semester of teaching at Carolina. In those days when he was walking by my office, he was deep in the writing of his novel Deliverance.
I had no idea. Other more pressing concerns occupied my mind, like studying for prelims and preparing to write a dissertation. When Mr. Dickey would say hello, I’d speak back, but only then. After all, he was National Poet Laureate and a celebrity writer nationwide. There was much talk about town concerning his coming to Columbia.
No, I had no idea he was writing a novel. I was only aware of his armloads of books and the parade of guitars and bows and arrows that passed by my door. He seemed always to be carrying something big. He was a 6-foot-3 large fellow and filled the narrow hall. He always seemed to fill up whatever space he occupied — and most especially the tight humanities elevator shared with guitars and bows and where he was as likely as not to break into song or declaim a poem by A. E. Housman, Ezra Pound, or William Butler Yeats. Life was never boring when he was around. He always seemed happy and invited those around him to share the feeling.
As I remember, I stared out of my cubicle’s tiny sealed office window a lot. The sheet rock walls had no character; the ceilings were low with air circulating from unseen ducts. Outside I could see trees, and the window looked in the direction of where I was born and raised and where my people lived.
Mr. Dickey must have noticed. On one rare occasion, he stopped short, seeing my outdoor reverie, and abruptly — and loudly — proclaimed, “Hotel de Dream!” I looked up, startled, and replied that Jacksonville was a long way off. I could see this pleased him and, somewhat taken aback that I caught the reference, he went on without comment, unlocked his office door with the usual loud clanging jangle of keys, and broke into song.
Ah yes, Hotel de Dream. As luck would have it, I had recently been in a Stephen Crane phase and had read a biography of Crane’s wife, Cora. It was Cora who operated Jacksonville’s “Hotel de Dream,” where she was the madam of the famous brothel. There is where young Stephen met her at about my age.
Neither Mr. Dickey nor I followed up on the brief exchange as days passed with the passing of guitars and bows and arrows, a glance, a nod, a hello. Mr. Dickey was never aloof, always ready to joke and engage in conversation. We never did.
The sheet rock walls were paper thin, and he left his door open, so I took pleasure in eavesdropping on his classes. He had a large corner office, so his poetry students had ample space to gather there, where he kept a guitar ready to illustrate a point. Mr. Dickey was not a quiet man. His voice equaled his energy and enthusiasm, so I could hear his classes, which were always more discussions than lectures and actually more long-running soliloquies than either. His enthusiasm led him to try to pack it all in. As his son Christopher remembered, “Father felt poetry was the finest calling for a man or woman.” I can say that even a casual acquaintance proved that assertion. Dickey venerated poetry, and he passed that veneration on by example. In retrospect, I think he knew I was listening to his classes. Poetry was too valuable not to share.
On another occasion, passing by, Dickey noticed on my metal institutional bookcase a copy of Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ novel A Buried Treasure. He stopped in his tracks and declared how much he admired this Kentucky fiction writer. He then concluded, “I don’t have that one.” “You do now,” I said and handed the book to him. He was still standing in the door. He thanked me and off he went. Later, there were notes sounding from his guitar.
Dickey was a great collector of books. I did not know it, but his home on Lake Katherine had 17,000 volumes in bookshelves that stretched on a wall from floor to ceiling for 40 feet or more.
A few days after the episode of A Buried Treasure, Dickey brought in a gift for me either from that wall or more likely from his desk. It was certainly a book that must have been on his mind. He seemed to glow with the genuine pleasure of giving someone something of great value and handed it to me, as I recollect, with real eye contact, perhaps for the first time. “Here,” he said. “You might like this. You keep this!”
The book was a 1933 first printing of Conrad Aiken’s novel Great Circle. I penciled on its flyleaf that it was given me by Mr. Dickey on July 23, 1969. This date was squarely in the middle of his writing Deliverance, which was published early the following year. I remember being puzzled by the selection. The book had nothing to do with Roberts, was not one of Dickey’s, or even by an author I knew.
I thanked Mr. Dickey and went back to my concerns. Great Circle got shelved but was kept as Mr. Dickey requested. Looking back now, I should have stopped whatever I was doing and read it.
The book moved with me at least five times. As chance would have it, recently I was browsing my poetry shelves and found Great Circle, still unread half a century after it was given me, and exactly a hundred years after Dickey’s birth in 1923. The earnest look in Mr. Dickey’s eyes came to mind as he said “You keep this,” and I decided it was time to read the novel. What I found astonished me.
Great Circle was one of the first novels to make use of Freudian psychoanalysis. Both Great Circle and Deliverance are psychological journeys from boredom and sterility to health and wholeness. Both begin with the tedium of urban life as seen in interior monologues that become dreamlike.
Both novels are novels of deliverance. Both middle-aged narrators move from the darkness of not knowing to the light of what Aiken’s narrator calls “the white sea.” Aiken’s “white sea” is the wild river of Deliverance. In 1993, 23 years after Deliverance, Dickey would publish his novel entitled To the White Sea, perhaps another nod to Great Circle.
The recent biography of Dickey by Gordon Van Ness explores Dickey’s lifelong feelings of guilt over his having been born only as a result of the death of his 6-year-old brother, Gene. The Dickeys were not planning on having another child until they lost Gene. In other words, Gene had to die for Dickey to be born. Van Ness describes the supersensitive young Dickey’s resulting neuroses in ways that sound very much like Aiken’s narrator’s guilt he experienced as a child over his mother’s death.
In Great Circle, as it was in Dickey’s life, facing the source of that guilt by going back in the great circle to childhood, provides deliverance from the shadows. The white sea of recognition illuminates and does not blind. Aiken’s narrator’s one green eye of imagination leads to whole sight and restored vision. As Aiken’s narrator explains, and as Dickey’s novel uses it, the eye is the inward-looking eye of the imagination. The eye image is thus a dominant symbol in both novels. Appropriately, a large eye in a green circle appears on the dust jacket of Deliverance.
In Sorties, Dickey writes, “I am a haunted artist like the others. I know what the monsters know, and shall know even more than any of them if I can survive myself.” Dickey had that same struggle of knowing before him in Great Circle. Dickey’s comment itself sounds as if it was spoken by Aiken’s narrator. And Van Ness’s new biography portrays a James Dickey whose “love of masques and deep insecurities that necessitated their use” describes perfectly Aiken’s narrator. The biography’s depiction of Dickey’s “complexity in layers of deceptions” is likewise a good description of the Aiken narrator — and both working toward the white sea of recognition.
Reflecting back, yes, I should have taken the time to read Great Circle when Dickey gave it to me. I am now convinced Mr. Dickey meant the gift to be more than a book trade between book collectors. Life is filled with missed opportunities, and this may have been one of them. In giving me Great Circle, I think Dickey was conferring a key to the novel he was intensely engaged in composing at the time, and even more importantly, something touchingly personal.
As Pat Conroy, who traveled many miles to sit in on Dickey’s classes, wrote, “A whole city of men lived in that vivid, restless country behind Dickey’s transfixing eyes.” Those eyes illuminate as Aiken’s one-green-eyed narrator’s eye finally does into vision, a vision that is near complete.
Yes, now, with hindsight, I believe Mr. Dickey was presenting me a gift whose value was much greater than I could imagine. I wouldn’t put it past him to have repaid my gift of Roberts’ A Buried Treasure with a buried treasure of his own. That play on words would have pleased him, and he’d have probably gotten a chuckle out of it. At any rate, he tossed me the ball and I dropped it. Only now, 50 years later, do I pick it up on the very centenary of his birth. Coincidence? Perhaps. My conclusion, however, is that if you keep the channels open, nothing occurs by chance and only happens when it is supposed to.
It is left now to pass that ball to adept literary critics who may wish to explore further the relationship of Great Circle to the life and work of one of the 20th century’s greatest men of letters.
James Kibler received his doctorate in English at the University of South Carolina. A new edition of The Classical Origins of Southern Literature as well as his latest book, William Faulkner the Southerner and the Continuity of Southern Literature, have just been published in 2023.