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Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) Paperback – September 10, 1994

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Editorial Reviews


"A novel that will curl your toes...Dickey's canoe rides to the limits of dramatic tension."—New York Times Book Review

"A brilliant and breathtaking adventure."—The New Yorker

"A novel stunning power."—The Nation

"A tour de force."—New Republic

From the Publisher

"A novel that will curl your toes...Dickey's canoe rides to the limits of dramatic tension."--The New York Times Book Review

"A brilliant and breathtaking adventure."--The New Yorker

"A novel stunning power."--The Nation

"A tour de force."--The New Republic

See all Editorial Reviews

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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library 100 Best Novels
  • Paperback: 278 pages
  • Publisher: Delta; Reprint edition (September 10, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780385313872
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385313872
  • ASIN: 038531387X
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (172 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #18,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Widely regarded as one of the major mid-century American poets, James Dickey is known for his sweeping historical vision and eccentric poetic style. Joyce Carol Oates described Dickey's unique perspective as a desire "to take on 'his' own personal history as an analogue to or a microscopic exploration of twentieth-century American history." One of Dickey's principal themes, usually expressed through direct confrontation or surreal juxtaposition of nature and civilization, was the need to intensify life by maintaining contact with the primitive impulses, sensations, and ways of seeing suppressed by modern society.

Born in 1923 in Buckhead, Georgia, Dickey spent a year at Clemson University before enlisting in World War II. As a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, Dickey flew more than 100 combat missions in the Pacific Theater, and it was during this time that he began to experiment with poetry. After the war, he finished his degree at Vanderbilt University. Although he started writing poetry in 1947, Dickey did not become a full-time poet until thirteen years later.

After earning a master's degree in 1950, he taught and lectured for six years, but when some of his poems were construed to be obscene, he decided to forsake academic life for the advertising business. "I thought if my chosen profession, teaching, was going to fall out to be that sort of situation," he said in Conversations with Writers, "I'd rather go for the buck...I figured that the kind of thing that an advertising writer would be able to write, I could do with the little finger of the left hand, and they were getting paid good dough for it. I happened to have been right."

Writing ad copy for much of the 1950s, Dickey secured a place for himself in the world of advertising and business. However, after the publication of his first book, Into the Stone, and Other Poems (1960), Dickey left his career to devote himself to poetry.

"There could have been no more unpromising enterprise or means of earning a livelihood than that of being an American poet," he admitted in Conversations with Writers. "It's different now. They're still having a relatively rocky road, but it ain't like it was..." Dickey's emotional attachment to his craft surfaced early in his writing career. "I came to poetry with no particular qualifications," he recounted in Howard Nemerov's Poets on Poetry. "I had begun to suspect, however, that there is a poet--or a kind of poet--buried in every human being like Ariel in his tree, and that the people whom we are pleased to call poets are only those who have felt the need and contrived the means to release this spirit from its prison."

In Poets on Poetry, Dickey admitted that he considered style subordinate to the spirit of poetry, the "individually imaginative" vision of the poet. Dickey recalled that the subject matter of his early poems came from the principal incidents of his life, "those times when I felt most strongly and was most aware of the intense reality of the objects and people I moved among. But despite the many autobiographical allusions, Dickey's work often assimilates, even as it reports, the experiences of others. In poems like "Drinking from a Helmet" and "The Firebombing," Dickey's self-conscious speaker is often transfigured into a sort of visionary observer, fully aware of his own perspective and the fleeting nature of the event, however catastrophic.

Extreme conditions permeate Dickey's work. "To make a radical simplification," wrote Monroe K. Spears in Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry, "the central impulse of Dickey's poetry may be said to be that of identifying with human or other creatures in moments of ultimate confrontation, of violence and truth. A good example is [the poem] 'Falling,' which imagines the thoughts and feelings of an airline stewardess, accidentally swept through an emergency door, as she falls thousands of feet to her death" in a field in Kansas.

Many of Dickey's poems also explore the perspective of non-human creatures such as horses, dogs, deer, bees, and hybrid animal forms. Such poems attempt to fuse human and nature into a transcendental vision of wholeness. As Benjamin DeMott wrote in the Saturday Review, "A first-rate Dickey poem breathes the energy of the world, and testifies to the poet's capacity for rising out of...habitual, half-lived life."

Dickey's acclaimed novel Deliverance (1970) continues and extends the preoccupations central to his verse. Exposing the primitive urges at work in even "civilized" men, the novel tells the story of four Atlanta suburbanites on a back-to-nature canoe trip that turns into a terrifying test of survival. Dickey, who made a number of canoe and bow-hunting trips in the wilds of northern Georgia, told Walter Clemons in the New York Times Book Review that much of the story was suggested by incidents that had happened to him or that he had heard about through friends. All those experiences, according to Dickey, shared the feeling of excitement and fear that "comes from being in an unprotected situation where the safeties of law and what we call civilization don't apply..."

Much more than a violent adventure tale, Deliverance is a novel of initiation. As a result of their experience, the two men who survive come to a realization of the natural savagery of man in nature, said C. Hines Edwards in Critique. "In three days they have retraced the course of human development and have found in the natural state not the romantic ideal of beauty in nature coupled with brotherhood among men but beauty in nature coupled with the necessity to kill men, coolly and in the course of things." In line with this view, Samuels and other critics noted that Deliverance alludes to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Still other critics made comparisons to Hemingway and even Homer. Dickey wrote the script for the blockbuster movie of the same name, and even made a cameo appearance.

In addition to Deliverance, Dickey also wrote criticism, including the National Book Award-nominated Sorties (1971), a collection of journals and essays, and published a retelling of several biblical stories, God's Images: The Bible, a New Vision (1977). He also wrote Jericho: The South Beheld (1974), an exploration of the American South. "Like Whitman or [Mark] Twain," said Michael Dirda in the Washington Post Book World, "Dickey seems in a characteristic American tradition, ever ready to light out for new territories."

Dickey's next novels Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993) were not as well-received as Deliverance, though Dickey alleged he spent thirty-six years working on the former. Largely viewed as a "poet's novel," Alnilam did not fare well critically. However, in his final novel, To the White Sea, Dickey returned to the themes of survival and primitivism. As with Alnilam, critics praised Dickey's poetic style, even as it clouded the plot. "Dickey takes language as far as it will go and sometimes overdoes it," remarked John Melmoth in the Times Literary Supplement, who added that "some of the writing has an eerie brilliance."

Dickey died of a lung ailment early in 1997. Critical appreciation of his work focused on both his interest in primitivism and the use he made of his Southern background. Reviewing two posthumous volumes, Crux: The Letters of James Dickey (1999) and The James Dickey Reader (1999), in the New York Times Book Review, J. D. McClatchy noted that "by the time Dickey died in 1997, at the age of 73, his public had thinned out...His writing, with its lust for excess, its fascination with guts and grit, blood and soul, had long since grown bloated and undisciplined."

Though praising Dickey's early work, McClatchy contended that the publishers of his letters had "done him a disservice" in presenting letters without context that seemed to present Dickey as a self-serving careerist and hypocrite. Though considered a major figure of American poetry, Dickey was also criticized for his pursuit of celebrity and out-sized public persona. Bronwen Dickey, the poet's daughter by a second marriage, offered a countering view of Dickey in Newsweek. She noted that his was "not the greatness of the writer but the greatness of the father and the teacher."

Despite some critical reappraisal, Dickey's reputation as a major American poet seems assured. In a 1981 Writer's Yearbook interview, Dickey elaborated on his devotion to verse: "Poetry is, I think, the highest medium that mankind has ever come up with. It's language itself, which is a miraculous medium which makes everything else that man has ever done possible." -- This biographical sketch is adapted from one originally published by The Poetry Foundation.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 68 people found the following review helpful By A.J. on September 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
James Dickey's "Deliverance" is a study of how a civilized, peaceful, law-abiding man chooses a "kill or be killed" mentality when he is trapped in a life-or-death situation by an unforeseeable danger. The novel opens with four middle-aged white-collar men from Atlanta planning a weekend canoe trip down a river in northeastern Georgia. Lewis Medlock is the experienced outdoorsman and adventurer of the group; he seeks to conquer the wilderness and boasts of the injuries he's received and hardships he's overcome in his fishing and hunting excursions. Ed Gentry, the narrator, a graphic design consultant by profession, is an avid archer but does not quite share Lewis's love of the outdoors. Accompanying them are the sensible Drew, a sales executive for a soft drink company, and Bobby, indecisive, emasculated, and almost completely out of his element.
The river flows through rocky, mountainous terrain, one of those areas in which all the human inhabitants are presumably related to each other. Some of the locals try to discourage the men from tackling the river with canoes, but Lewis is resolute, and they set off down the river as planned. The trip goes smoothly the first day, but the next day, Ed and Bobby run into trouble -- a terrifying encounter with two murderous, animalistic backwoods goons. Lewis and Drew arrive in time to save Ed's and Bobby's lives, but not without a price. When the four men try to escape down the river, Lewis, the strongest and best hunter among them, breaks his leg in a passage through some vicious rapids. Trapped in a gorge and stalked by a vengeful assailant, the men must rely on Ed to save their lives.
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76 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Gary Griffiths VINE VOICE on October 9, 2004
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No doubt you've seen, and likely enjoyed, "Deliverance", the movie. And in many ways, that terrific film was a faithful rendering of James Dickey's classic. Yet, as with most successful films based on successful novels, the written form allows much more interest, more depth, more nuance. "Deliverance" the novel is so well written that a single sentence can conjure 1,000 frames of film, a paragraph an entire scene. James Dickey is better known for poetry than fiction, and the lyrical quality of his prose is well evident in this journey of four Atlanta businessman down a raging north Georgia river. Told in the first person by Ed Gentry (Jon Voight in the film), "Deliverance" is a gripping adventure story, but also of one humiliation, murder, tragedy, and ultimately a soul searching study of one man's struggle with courage, morality, and ethics. Dickey offers an unapologetic and unflattering portrait of the hill people of northern Georgia, yet without malice or prejudice - simply the necessary backdrop to serve as the physical manifestation from which there can be "deliverance". Fiercely told and every bit as suspenseful as the excellent film, this great classic should be read by all lovers of American fiction.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Schneider on June 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
Shocking when it was published in 1970, James Dickey's DELIVERANCE has become a classic on par with J.D. Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, or Kurt Vonnegut's SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5. It is the full, unflinchingly honest story of one man's observations, experiences, travails and---yes---horrors of going out into the natural world for a taste of the wild life. An odyssey for which he had never been even remotely prepared in his life.
It is the story of Ed Gentry, his born-to-be-wild, alpha-male best friend Lewis (we never do find out his last name), and two acquaintances, soft-bodied insurance salesman Bobby Trippe and banjo-playing sales manager Drew Ballinger, as they set out on a three-day whitewater canoe journey. A canoe journey that would bring them much, much more than any of them---including Lewis---had bargained for. One that would bring them face-to-face with the wild side of human nature. One which they might not survive.
Told from Ed's viewpoint, DELIVERANCE is a powerful study in what happens when two extremes meet each other; when one has to play the other's game in order to hope for any chance of survival. When raw masculinity is freely expressed in one moment, then cruelly stripped away in the next. When one's biggest fear was making it through the daily grind, and who now must rely on his own long-atrophied natural instincts to achieve his own needed deliverance. This is a study in suburban routine and complacency meeting the ugly rural face of chaos. This is the story of the weekend these men had when they didn't play golf.
This is a story that is unsuspectingly brutal, not for the squeamish and certainly not for children. Everyone else should experience it. Whether it turns you off or intrigues your senses, one thing's for sure: DELIVERANCE is a novel that will stay with you long after you finish the journey.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By suetonius on December 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
This remarkable book was James Dickey's first novel. The story is familiar to everyone who has seen the John Boorman-directed movie for which Dickey wrote the screenplay. I reread this recently after reading it over a decade ago and was stuck by how little action there actually is this the quintessential adventure story. Much of the novel is Ed Gentry's inner monologue. He thinks about his life and his dissatisfaction with his job. The canoe trip of this story is taken at the instigation of Lewis Medlock, the character played in the movie by Burt Reynolds. Ed regards it almost as a chore to be endured in order to please his friend. He goes through the motions without any passion until placed in a kill or be killed life threatening situation. You could say that Ed's ordeal is a rite of manhood. Despite being a man in his late thirties, he has not yet proved his own worth to himself. Like a manchild of a primitive tribe, he is sent out into the wilderness and must survive by his owns wits and courage or die trying.
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