James Dickey’s Fan Letters to Wallace Stegner

categories: Cocktail Hour


To feel like you haven’t gotten a fair shake, haven’t gotten your due, is pretty much a constant for 99 % of all writers writing at any time, aside from the luck-soaked few.  But within the writing community itself we kind of know who can write, really write. For those not blinded by fame (at last count about six people on planet earth), it isn’t hard to figure out: It takes a few sentences, a page, a book or two, but you can tell if someone can write.  It must be a little like being a great carpenter and watching someone sink a nail. You know.


When I set out to write a book about Wallace Stegner and Ed Abbey, I didn’t expect to find that this whole recognition thing was an issue that bothered these great writers, too, but then again I shouldn’t have been surprised.  They were just like the rest of us poor suckers.


Luckily, there are other ways of knowing you are good than having the world celebrate you as so. One way is this:  A great writer can tell you that you are a great writer.

 Last summer around this time I spent a few days with Wallace Stegner’s papers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I came across a lot of great stuff but one of the real pleasant surprises was to discover the letters that James Dickey wrote to Stegner. “This is the only fan letter I’ve written,” the first one begins on December 10, 1969.  (Dickey at that point had already been appointed Poet Laureate in [in 1966] but the film debut of Deliverance was still a couple of years away.)

            The letter continues: “You must feel awfully good about having advanced your talent to this particular level. Isn’t that what we all want, though? Now let us see just how far you can make it go. I would think a long way, surprising even yourself.”

            In another letter Dickey says of Stegner:  “What a very strong presence you have been.  What literary honors have come to you are deeply deserved, but the real point is the work itself, which is clearly and consistently among the best in the world of my time.”

            He then promises to trumpet Stegner’s work whenever he has the chance: “It is an act I am happy to perform, for after all I too am a member of ‘the community of letters’ at however humble a remove, and that gives me the chance I want to come out as I wish in favor of the best writers of my time. None is better than you.”

            Whoa. Most writers have a way  brushing off compliments, and Stegner in particular was uncomfortable with too much praise.

            But still.  That must have been a very nice letter to get.



  1. Bill writes:

    My freshman year at Ithaca College, 1971, James Dickey came over for a “tea talk” after his big visit to Cornell. I had never seen someone so drunk in the morning, or in an official capacity. I had also never been to a reading. He read a bunch of great poems and made us laugh a lot. Who knew poems could be so like stories, or so fun and smart? After, he said he had a son my age, but wouldn’t hold it against me. That son would have been Christopher, who wrote a really moving memoir of their complicated relationship called Summer of Deliverance a few years back. Meanwhile, I took the visit as permission thereafter to drink in the morning, and as we had a pub right in our dorm (the Towers), this was pretty easy. Whose idea was it to open the pub at 8:00 a.m., anyway?

  2. Rick Van Noy writes:

    Got to look at Stegner’s papers at Stanford for Surveying the Interior. There was a note from Wendell Berry, after reading Wolf Willow, October 1963: “I would like to do as well, sometime, with the facts of my own little neck of the woods.”