Bronwen Dickey, the poet’s daughter,rnColumbia, South CaroUna, 1984.rnwhen he was only 18 years old and hadrnno visible means of support. His father,rnwith the girl’s parents, provided for thernyoung couple for five years. Dickey evenrnbought his son a Jaguar XKE. None ofrnthis seemed enough, however. “I wantedrnto believe him when he said he admiredrnme for whatever it was he claimed I’drndone well. But every bit of praise was justrnthat bit off target, as if he were talkingrnabout somebody else.” Nothing will satisfyrnthe spoiled first-born.rnThere is, of course, a reconciliafion atrnthe end of the memoir. James Dickey isrndying, and Christopher’s second wife (anrnItalian-American who understands family)rnurges her husband to see his father.rnIn the midst of Jim’s terrible second marriagernand his illness, Christopher, withrnhis brother Kevin, steps in and helps putrnthe house in order. There is no gainsayingrnthis, nor do I wish to. His fatherrnneeded help, as did his young half-sisterrnBronwen, and Christopher gave it.rnThis is a book, I think, that shouldrnnever have been written. But it has beenrnwritten and must be looked at for what itrnis, and not as a work of the imaginationrnby which writers licitly transmute familyrnexperience into art. Christopher Dickeyrnallows praise for his father, but somehowrnthe words are undercut â€”taken awayrnsometimes subdy, sometimes not so subtly.rnAn opening sentence tells us, “My fatherrnwas a great poet, a famous novelist, arnpowerful intellect, and a son of a bitch Irnhated.” Nothing subtle there. Later inrnthe book, Christopher calls him a “crackerrnbard.” Part of this hatred comes fromrnthe way he says his father treated hisrnmother. Fair enough. A son ought torndefend his mother. And his father.rnAdultery is a cruel business, a betrayal.rnAs he tries to come to terms with his fatherrnand mother, Christopher Dickey admitsrnhis mother could have left. After all,rnit was her second marriage. Christopherrnblames his mother’s drinking on his father’srndrinking. But Maxine’s motherrnwas a big drinker. The two womenrndrank together.rnFor a tell-all expose to carry authority,rnthe writer must tell all he knows,rnunless what he really wants to do is an axrnjob disguised as praise. ChristopherrnDickey admits that he committed adulteryrnhimself while married to his firstrnwife, drank excessively, and put his careerrnahead of his second marriage, stayingrnoverseas for months. Why didn’t he,rnto be fair, provide the sordid details of hisrnown marital fights, the seamy specifics ofrnhis own adultery? Probably because theyrnwould embarrass him by making himrnlook bad. He may have even wanted tornprotect members of his family, to be loyalrnto them.rnOn a car trip from Louisiana to Washington,rnD.C., in 1984, my wife and Irnstopped in Columbia, South Carolina,rnto visit with Jim. During dinner the firstrnnight, he mentioned that Christopherrnwas in El Salvador as a journalist. I madernan idle remark that, as far as the governmentrnwas concerned, journalists andrnCatholic priests were considered the enemyrndown there. At first, misunderstandingrnwhat I had said, he thought Irnintended something negative aboutrnChristopher. Leaping to his son’s defense,rnhe protested, as I recall, that hernknew which side he was on and affirmedrnwhat he would do if the governmentrndared to mess with his son. His fiercernloyalty was touching. But Christopherrnwould call this “an excuse for his overplayedrnemotions.”rnThe next morning at breakfast, whichrnwas to have been fixed by Jim’s secondrnwife, Deborah, (who would not, however,rnemerge from the bedroom), Jim readrnhis long, rhymed poem about Bronwen,rnhis young daughter. This was the onlyrntime I ever saw her. She was quite arncharmer at three or four, and I photographedrnher. Her father died when shernwas 15, and she wrote a one-page memorialrnto him in the March 24, 1997, issuernof Newsweek that is precociously brilliant.rnIt is hanging for all the writing studentsrnto see at the University of Arkansas.rnSeeing him dying in the hospital,rnBronwen broke into tears and thought:rnHere was the man that changedrnmy diapers, made me peanut-butterrnsandwiches (with the crusts cutrnoff), showed me how to throwrnknives and to shoot a bow, read mernpoetry, stayed up with me all nightrnwhen I was sick, taught me to playrnchess, came to all my recitals,rnbraided my hair, watched moviesrnwith me, checked my homework.rnShe is left, she says, with memories ofrngreatness, the greatness of a father. Bronwenrnconcludes, using some of Jim’s favoriternquotations,rnI will live blindly and upon thernhour. I will catch the dream inrnflight, though I do not know therncolor of the sky. And my father’srneyes, though they will not see myrngraduation, my marriage or myrnchildren, will always be somewhatrnstrangely more than blue.rnI must say I think Christopher’s muchrnyounger sister has written the betterrnmemoir, even if it is only a single page inrnlength. Among Jim’s last words to Christopherrnwere, “Remember what I wasâ€”rnto you.” Yes, indeed: remember. Evenrntalk â€”among the family and closernfriendsâ€”about tlie bad times, if it seemsrnnecessary for you to do so. As for ridiculernand attack, there will be strangers aplentyrnto volunteer for the job. Especiallyrnto “demythologize.” What we needrnmore of are mythmakers to take the debrisrnof the banal and commonplace andrnfashion stories to lift our eyes from thernground to the horizon, “to catch therndream in flight”â€”more people who understandrnthe meanings of the myths.rnIf one is going to criticize one’s parentsrnin public, one should have therncourage to do so while they are alive torndefend themselves. Otherwise, the secretsrnshould be kept among the family asrnthe magic itself is honored, by the confidantsrnof blood.
January 1975April 21, 2022By The Archive
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