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  • Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Ed Gentry
  • Betina Entzminger

In his controversial essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" (1948), Leslie Fiedler sees in tales of men alone in the wilderness an archetype of American experience. If in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and other nineteenth-century American classics "the mythic America is boyhood" as Fiedler claims (5), James Dickey's 1970 novel Deliverance presents middle-aged men trying unsuccessfully to reclaim this lost authentic self. Like Twain's novel, Deliverance centers on men floating down a river, but in this twentieth-century version, the environment refuses to restore an uncorrupt identity. Fiedler sees Twain's river as a mythic conception of American identity as well as a metaphor for the Self. While drawing on themes, structures, and symbols similar to those in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Deliverance reveals a more complex conception of society and the self, one more closely resembling a post-structuralist model, particularly with regard to gender and sexuality. Whereas Huckleberry Finn heads out to new territory in order to free himself of the scripts of his society, Dickey's novel suggests that there is no free territory and, as Judith Butler would confirm with regard to identity, perhaps there never was.

In Deliverance the others through whom the protagonists consciously or unconsciously confront hidden aspects of themselves are not African [End Page 98] American, like Jim in Huckleberry Finn, but poor white mountain folk. The novel links these hillbillies to their natural setting; they are, in a sense, violated nature responding with violation. The violation the mountain men enact is a violent homosexual rape, suggesting that modern man has raped the land and is now suffering nature's retribution. However, extending the metaphor further with the aid of Fiedler, nature (including the hillbillies) becomes a part of the protagonist's self, a violated self responding with violation. The rape is the violent eruption of homosexual desire that, despite the protagonists' refusal to acknowledge it, underlies the trip from the beginning; Deliverance, therefore, presents a more overtly sexual dynamic that replaces the mainly homosocial bonds Fiedler sees underlying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other texts. Deliverance reveals that the psyche has been violated through the repression and denial of homoeroticism that becomes glaringly obvious to readers but to which the characters seem either oblivious or openly hostile.

Dickey does not allow his protagonist to successfully embrace the alienated Other/unaccepted Self the way Fiedler believes that Twain does. The novel's suggestion that there is no time of innocence, no unscripted self, to which one can return, carries with it an implied criticism of the naïve optimism of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, especially as read by Fiedler, most likely a criticism that Dickey did not consciously intend. As the author said when discussing literary interpretations of his work, "I can't say that these things that they [critics] see in my work aren't there. I didn't intend some of them—. . . I didn't consciously intend a lot of them. But sometimes I did. . . . But when a thing is gone, when it's on paper and goes out into the public domain, then it's gone" (Davis 20–21). In the same interview, Dickey adds, "When somebody says that he loves somebody else, a man loves a woman, say . . . , for somebody to cut in on that and tell me why I do, and analyze my motives for doing it, what I hope to gain by it, and what I hope to compensate for, overcompensate for, what degrees of guilt there are in connection with it and so on—I get very uneasy and also a little bit angry" (Davis 22). Dickey would no doubt disapprove of the following reading of Deliverance, but the uneasiness and anger he admits resemble some of the unconscious regulatory devices discussed herein.

Most readers likewise do not believe that Twain intended the homoeroticism that Fiedler points out in his novel. In nineteenth century canonical pairs like Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumpo and Chingachgook, Fiedler sees: [End Page 99]

an essential aspect of American sentimental...


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