Matthew Bruccoli Recalls “The Jim I Knew”


In his 1978 memoir And I Worked at the Writer's Trade, the late critic and editor Malcolm Cowley thoughtfully pondered the age-old question of whether being a jerk is an occupational hazard of being a good writer. Decent, faithful, and responsible writers do exist, he testified, but they are hardly the norm. “One learns in the course of years that artists and writers, as a tribal group, have certain defects of character. To be quite simple, they drink too much; all the older ones drink except the reformed alcoholics.” Also, “Their sexual drives are probably stronger than those of the population as a whole and their inhibitions are weaker; I am far from the first to suspect that there is a connection between literature and libido.” They are always egocentric and sometimes manic-depressive. “A special weakness of imaginative novelists and poets is that they often project fantasies with themselves as heroes. Some of them boast and lie, to put it bluntly, and by so doing they create immense difficulties for their biographers.”

Among the many sterling examples Cowley cited was Robert Frost, whose sagacious and grandfatherly reputation had taken a serious hit from Lawrance Roger Thompson's 1970 biography. Cowley quoted one critic who said that no one who reads the book would ever again buy into the “Frost myth”; instead, they'll see him for the “small-minded, vindictive, ill-tempered, egotistic, cruel, and unforgiving man he was until the world deigned to accept at face value his estimate of himself.”

The critic was James Dickey, not for the first time pronouncing a harsh judgment that could just as easily have been said of himself. The difference is the type of myth. While Dickey always fancied a heroic stature, his messy personal life has largely been a matter of public record. He wrote about his own extra-marital liaisons in his poetry. At least one of his ex-lovers, Rosemary Daniell, recounted her affair with him in a feather-headed memoir. Locally, stories abounded regarding his drinking and his domestic troubles with a drug-addict wife.

In the three years since his death, we have learned a good deal more. His son Christopher Dickey's Summer of Deliverance showed a man who was a frequent embarrassment to his family. (“My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect, and a son of a bitch I hated.”) The subject's own testimony, released last fall in Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, was hardly a corrective; his brilliance was on display, but so was his pettiness and cruelty. (“A sad and off-putting spectacle,” the New York Times called it.)

Now comes Henry Hart's new biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie, which goes into unsparing and unavoidable detail on Dickey's drinking, women, racism, bitter literary battles, and endlessly embroidered lies about everything from his military record to his advertising career. “There were a lot of sides to Jim,” said Matthew Bruccoli of his friend for nearly 30 years. Bruccoli, the esteemed publisher and teacher who is Dickey's literary executor as well as the co-editor (with Judith Baughman) of Crux, took a few questions by phone last week about a man who was a great friend, great poet, and a “great bother.”

Free Times: When did you first encounter James Dickey?

BRUCCOLI: I came to Columbia in 1969 and I think I met Jim and [his wife]Maxine at the first cocktail party I attended in Columbia.

Free Times: What was your immediate take on him?

BRUCCOLI: I was crazy about Maxine and I had reservations about Jim. Maxine was my friend before Jim was. [Henry Hart] does not do justice to Maxine. It's my belief that much of Jim's early success was a result of Maxine's commitment. Jim's career would have been very different had he not been married to Maxine, who was a combination of wife, mother, agent, who took care of him and made it possible for Jim to get his work done. She put Jim's work ahead of everything, and with all of that, she was smart, resourceful, and tough. She was an extraordinarily determined, able woman. Hart presents her as an abused wife who didn't have the spirit or spunk to resist her domineering, brutal husband's behavior. It wasn't that simple. In certain ways, Maxine had what she wanted. She wanted to be married to a great man and she was married to a great man, but she paid the price that wives of great men pay.

Free Times: You say Maxine was smart --

BRUCCOLI: Shrewd, savvy, resourceful. She was not highly educated, but she was not ignorant either. She read a great deal. She made no pretensions of being a scholar or a critic. She was a good judge of the writing of Jim's friends. Maxine has not received justice -- not just from Hart but from all the people who have commented about Jim, his life and his work. Maxine was largely responsible for Jim's early success. Maxine is not well represented in [Crux]. I couldn't find adequate letters from Jim to Maxine.

Free Times: In the letters he did write to her, he would discuss what he was reading, his feelings about particular writers, the style and so forth. I found myself wondering whether he just needed someone to talk to, or if he had a truly receptive audience in Maxine.

BRUCCOLI: Based on the hours in their company, my feeling is that Maxine was not just an audience. He relied on her judgment.

Free Times: To put it bluntly, Hart's biography paints Dickey as a great poet, based largely on his early years, and an all-round son of a bitch. Is that a fair assessment?

BRUCCOLI: That's too simple. He could be a great bother, and a great nuisance, but he was also capable of loyalty and generosity to those he liked and trusted. I was in and out of Jim's house for almost 30 years and, drunk or sober, Jim was never abusive or nasty to me. He wasn't, to use your phrase, an all-round son-of-a-bitch. He was a poet who was spoiled, terribly spoiled, by people who made a game of trying to see what kind of outrageous behavior, on the part of Jim, they could trigger. People delighted in feeding him drinks, because they didn't want to be around Jim sober. They wanted to be around drunken Jim, so they could tell everybody the next day how drunk Jim was and what he said and what he did when he was drunk. Jim was terribly spoiled by what I call “the Goddamned groupies.” That was another Jim. There were a lot of Jims. He was a complicated man; there were at least a half-dozen Jims, maybe a dozen. The Jim I knew best was the Jim I spent time with. I used to go over there on Sunday afternoons, when the groupies weren't around. It was like a graduate seminar. Jim and I would talk books for hours. Sometimes he'd been drinking, sometimes he hadn't been drinking. But I repeat: Jim was never hostile, unfriendly, or nasty with me. He was my friend. We got along very well.

[Bruccoli returned to this subject later in the conversation.]

I've been very fortunate in being able to know, and in some cases work for, or with, a lot of writers. Jim was by no means the worst to be around.

The Sunday afternoons -- when Jim and I just sat around and played “Have you read this?” -- were among the most fortunate experiences of my life. Of course, he always won. There's no way to top Jim. Not only had he read everything, he could recite to you hunks of what he read twenty years ago and thirty years ago. He had the best literary mind, in terms of when he read a book it was his forever, that I've ever had the joy and stimulation of being around.

Free Times: Reading the biography, there's such a great deal about his womanizing and drinking, you wonder how he ever got any work done, yet he obviously did get a lot of work done. What were his work habits?

BRUCCOLI: He read all the time. Drunk or sober, he read. His writing habits, like most writers, consisted of working intensely in bursts of creativity. Usually, he wrote in mornings. He once said to me jokingly that his problem was to figure out what to do with the other 23-and-a-half hours a day. He was joking, but there was a point, and the point is you can't write poetry eight hours a day. Being a poet requires intense short bursts of work, and the rest of the time is creative brooding, or creative drinking.

Free Times: While you were putting together the letters in Crux, what did you discover about him that you didn't already know?

BRUCCOLI: I was surprised to discover what a manipulator he was, how he was manipulating people to advance his career, and how hard he worked at being a successful poet. And who can blame him? The odds against being a successful poet are greater than the odds against being a successful centerfielder in big-league baseball. One out of several million aspiring poets achieve the reputation, the success, and the readership that Jim did, and therefore, I don't think the successful poet can be faulted with doing whatever it takes to be successful. But even I was surprised at the manipulation that Jim performed in the early years.

If you're foolish enough to embark on a career as a poet, then pretty much anything you do to establish that career is understandable. Maybe not forgivable, but understandable.

Free Times: One thing I noticed from the letters, and from Hart's book, is that the great fear of his early years was to become a middle-class mediocrity; to buy into the good life, whether it's offered by the Air Force or advertising.

BRUCCOLI: Young gifted people know they are different, virtually from infancy. They hear voices we don't hear, us hopeless failures. And they feel they have a duty, an obligation to fulfill their genius. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us ordinary people to understand the compulsion, the drive young geniuses have. And that was the difference between Jim and me, and Jim and almost everybody else. He was a genius, and they weren't.

Free Times: With a lot of his excesses, I got the feeling he just always seemed to be at war with being acceptable, at war with being ordinary. Drinking, grabbing the random asses of other people's wives -- maybe that's what distinguishes you from the herd.

BRUCCOLI: Jim set about finding out what he could get away with, and it was amazing: he could get away with anything. And it was partly Jim's fault that he behaved the way he behaved, and it was also partly the fault of people who let him get away with it. He knew goddamned well that if he put his hands on my wife I would have laid his head open with a poker, or a baseball bat. But other people were delighted to have Jim fondle their wives' asses! They could say “Oh, Jim handled my wife's ass last night!” I don't blame Jim as much as I blame these people who dearly love to gossip about Jim, and encouraged him in his outrageous behavior.

Free Times: So Jim was pretty much of a high-maintenance friend, like a car that gives you a lot of trouble.

BRUCCOLI: There were phone calls at two and three in the morning, yes.

Free Times: Did you ever tire of the chore?

BRUCCOLI: No. But you have to understand that you're talking to a hero-worshipper. My heroes are writers. I really truly believe that writers matter more than anybody else. I don't think anybody matters much, except writers. So, therefore, it didn't upset me or irritate me that Jim required a lot of looking after. Again, by the time we became friends, he had been ruined by other people. He expected to be picked up, to be delivered, to be driven here, to be driven there. He expected to be forgiven for being chronically late. But that took years of teaching by bad teachers to develop all these habits. Jim required a lot of taking care of, but to me at least it seemed to be worth it, because I regarded it as doing something for literature.

Free Times: It's a hundred years from now, in the fall semester at USC, and kids are wandering into an American Literature survey course. Is James Dickey's name on the syllabus?

BRUCCOLI: Yes. For the poetry. I don't think he'll be listed for the novels. I think his final stature will be based on his early poems. He was also probably one of the best critics we've ever produced. But critics don't achieve lasting stature. Jim was perhaps as good a critic as he was a poet. He was more important to me as a critic than he was as a novelist.

Free Times: Because of the feedback he would give you on different writers?

BRUCCOLI: His published criticism is superb. As a practicing writer he was able to understand better than civilians. Most criticism is written by people who've never published anything. Most critics are practicing either a form of wish fulfillment or a form of revenge. That's true, by the way. Jim, as a critic, was writing from the standpoint of one who could do it, and in many cases could do it better than the writer he was writing about. So he approached the process of assessing other writers work with a knowledge of it, a familiarity with the profession of literature that civilians can't have.

Free Times: Will Deliverance last?

BRUCCOLI: No. I think his poetry is more important than his fiction.

Free Times: It was interesting to me that, 30 years after it was published, it wound up on last year's Modern Library list of the hundred best English novels of the 20th century. I was kind of stunned to see it there.

BRUCCOLI: That's scarcely a badge of pride -- a cockamamie list that's somewhere between a marketing gimmick and a fraud. Whether it was on it or not means nothing.

Free Times: Well, don't you think it means something that --

BRUCCOLI: No! I just said no. Don't you pay attention?

Free Times: I'm paying attention.

BRUCCOLI: I said no -- it doesn't mean a goddamned thing. The list was so irresponsibly prepared.

Free Times: Let me phrase it this way. Obviously that book was on the minds of critics; it still had enough impact that, over 30 years later, it was still remembered.

BRUCCOLI: The list wasn't made by those people. They just lent their names to it. It was cooked up in Random House, the whole thing was kindly a fraud. The word “hoax” also occurs to me. Somebody at Random House had read Deliverance.

Free Times: Okay, well, suppose a random listing of the best writers and critics -- would they choose it?

BRUCCOLI: Impossible to say. It depends on who the voters were. It is possible, yes, it is possible that a seriously constituted panel that seriously attempted to come up with a canon might well include Deliverance. Yes, it is possible.

Free Times: But you don't think it's likely?

BRUCCOLI: I don't think it's overwhelmingly probable.

Free Times: I was just trying to get a read on whether that book stays on people's minds or not. I read it again recently. It's very gripping.

BRUCCOLI: It's never been out of print. It's still selling, year in and year out. There are many people who regard it as one of the best novels they've ever read, and I don't mean to disparage it, it's just not one of the best novels I ever read. But then I've read more novels than most people. I have a larger field.

Free Times: What about Jim's lying? His fabrications? Were you able to just blow that off?

BRUCCOLI: It didn't matter. He lied about everything except writing. That was the only thing that mattered about Jim. I figured out pretty early that his war record was largely imaginary. It doesn't matter. James Dickey, World War II ace, wasn't important as James Dickey as a writer. He didn't lie about writing.

Free Times: So when you talked to him were you able to filter out what you thought was typical James Dickey bluster?

BRUCCOLI: I suppose. It didn't matter to me. I wasn't trying to catch him in lies, or to set traps for him. We were very relaxed with each other. We didn't play games, of me trying to impress Jim or Jim trying to impress me. I wasn't a groupie. I didn't suck around him because he was a famous writer. The three o'clock in the morning phone calls I could have lived without, but that's okay. Mainly, we were bookish together.