When Burt Reynolds died last August, the obits recounted the strange life of an iconic American actor. Particularly weird was how Reynolds often lied about where he was born. He said he was born Waycross, Georgia. Why anyone born in Lansing, Michigan would want to be from Waycross, Georgia is a baffling question. What we do know is that Reynolds, who always identified as southern, and even affected a twang to fit the image, was, with this odd fib, participating in a cultural practice with roots dating back to nineteenth-century plantation culture. Burt Reynolds was “storying.”
To best understand storying one could do worse than turn to Kevin Young’s The Grey Album. Slaves, denied evidence of their heritage, resorted to counterfeiting tactics to recover a sense of identity and community. The trickster, separated from self, society, and family, storied his way to survival. It was a strategic embellishment, a move that allowed enslaved African Americans and their descendants to “forge their own traditions . . . even their own freedom.” Ultimately, it was a habit of mind, one most urgently cultivated in the hothouse of necessity—usually underground, down in the hole, trying to escape the master.
If Reynolds’ penchant for storying led him to identify as southern, his role in the 1972 movie Deliverance, based on the novel of the same name, allowed that penchant to intersect with art. Based on the novel by the Georgia writer James Dickey (who also wrote the screenplay), Deliverance is an underappreciated and misunderstood film, one in which Reynolds clearly thrived as a swarthy Lewis Medlock. The movie is typically characterized as a thriller, or (more generously) as a psychological and physical journey undertaken by four Atlanta suburbanites on a canoe trip down North Georgia’s Coossawattee River.
But it’s so much more than that. To start figuring why, one should recall that Dickey himself was notoriously well versed in the storying habit. According to a close friend, Dickey “believed in the creative potential of the lie.” His biography, by Henry Hart, is titled, James Dickey: The World as a Lie. The big lie, in this case, was that Deliverance was solely an adventure tale about four white guys trying to avoid being killed by a gang of horny hillbillies. Take the mask off that old storyline and Deliverance reveals something else altogether: an inverted slave narrative.
The novel is the better place to make this case. The book begins with Lewis convincing his three suburbanite buddies to leave their bourgeoisie lives and make the three-day trip into the hills and hollows as a chance to revive their wither
ing manhood. When they arrive, emboldened by the perceived primitiveness of the rural South, they act as arrogant conquistadors bent on exploiting natural resources for their own adventure. When Lewis sets up camp for the men on the first night, Ed, who narrates the novel, explains, “we had colonized the place.” Their venture, in Lewis’s prescient observation, hinged on the sense “that the whole thing is going to be reduced to the human body, once and for all.” This was a test—the resilience of the human body—they felt they needed.
Their attitude toward the locals reiterates the colonizing arrogance of the conquistador suburbanites. The nothing of a town where they put in their canoes—Oree (French for the edge of a forest)—is described by Ed as “sleepy and hookwormy and ugly . . . Nobody worth a damn could ever come from this place.” He then adds, “there is always something wrong with people in the country.” A deeper reading suggests that the Oree residents we meet represent something other than the illiterate drooling rednecks Ed first caricatures. These hillbillies, if only metaphorically, are slaves. They, too, need an escape—deliverance.
The first reference to slavery comes when Lewis and his men camp in the woods after their first day on river. Lewis, who otherwise shows no inclination toward being a naturalist, randomly launches into a speech on the linden moth larva populating the area’s trees. “You can see a mass hanging,” he says. “They let themselves down on threads. You can look anywhere you like and see them wringing and twisting on the ends of the threads like men that can’t die. Some of them are black and some are brown.” Ed follows up Lewis’s lynching suggestion with the thought that, “In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South, I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand [pun?], I had counted around twenty, at least.” This detail seems arbitrary, until you realize that plantation masters in the Deep South routinely cut off slave fingers to both punish and identify slaves should they escape.
Perhaps the best indication of the hillbillies’ enslavement to the suburbanite colonizers is the book’s (and more so the movie’s) second most remembered moment: the banjo scene. Easily misunderstood as an expression of Appalachian freakishness, the albino virtuoso (his extreme whiteness making the racial inversion complete) who rips through “dueling banjoes” (with Drew unable to keep pace) is ultimately belied by his instrument. The banjo as we know it originated on the southern slave plantation. Originally made in Africa with gourd heads and three or four vine strings, it was (according to The Birth of the Banjo by Bob Carlin) quickly modified by slaves in the South to have a wooden frame and a fifth string. This innovation altered the sound of the banjo enough for the Texas folklorists John and Alan Lomax to call it “America’s only original folk instrument.” Drew channels the spirit of his interaction with the albino by playing, among other songs, “Mr. Easy Tom,” a song made famous by the one black man whites (via John Lomax) consulted for a more raw version of the slave experience—Leadbelly.
The next day, as the suburbanites prepare to re-enter “the complicated urgency of the current,” it’s Ed’s turn to be portentous. “I was in a place,” he thought, “where none—or almost none—of my daily ways of living my life would work; there was no other habit I could call on. Is this freedom? I wondered.” The answer would come in the movie’s most famous scene.
Ed and Bobby disembark on a thickly wooded bank before Lewis and Drew arrive. They soon encounter two hillbillies whom they assume are bootleggers—a common slave underground activity. The hillbillies, armed with a rifle and knife, quickly have Ed fast up against a tree, gun at his chest. With a belt serving as a noose, Ed is secured to the tree and, with that, a reversal of power is underway. Then, in one of the most degrading scenes I know of in American literature, Bobby is bent over a log and raped. The hillbillies, power swelling within them, return to Ed and prepare to castrate him. The scene ends with the well-timed arrival of Lewis, who shoots the rifle-wielding hillbilly clear through the chest with a steel-tipped arrow, saving Ed from certain dismemberment and death. The other hillbilly escapes into the woods.
from Deliverance (1972)
With this scene, the carnival is on. The shift from master to slave is swift and complete. Freedom is now gone for the suburbanites. The colonizers are now more than murderers on the lam, they’re slaves on the run, following a river under moonlight to freedom. The lone hillbilly, if only through the fear he has instilled, owns them; and he now pursues them, patrolling the river from bluffs like an overseer on horseback. Dickey marks this radical transition in power with at least three references to slave brutality common in the South: rape, castration, and lynching.
Lewis soon breaks a leg after his canoe capsizes. Drew is shot through the neck and killed while rowing. This leaves Ed and Bobby—who now are the metaphorical slaves—to grope their way toward freedom. Lewis, flat on his back in the canoe, lectures Bobby and Ed about what exactly this means: “you’re wrong when you say that there’s nothing like a game connected with the position we’re in now. It may be the most serious kind of game there is, but if you don’t see it as a game, you’re missing an important point.” To escape, to avoid what will amount to two murder charges, they will, as Lewis says, have “to act it through.” They will, in other words, have to story their way out this trap.
On the next day, Ed leaves the river and rock-climbs out of a gorge to murder the hillbilly who killed Drew. This long stretch of story, most of which plays out in the woods that loom over the Coossawattee, mirrors what may be the most significant trope of the slave escape narrative: physical adroitness in an unknown wilderness. In Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature, Melvin Dixon quotes an old slave song to this affect: I found free grace in de wilderness / in de wilderness, in the de wilderness / I found free grace in the wilderness / For I’m a-going home. Dixon also quotes the runaway slave Henry Bibb, who recalled about the woods he escaped through, “I travelled all that day without any knowledge of the country whatever.”
Ed reacts similarly. Alone in the woods, he thought, “Nobody in the world knows where I am.” But this moment in “de wilderness” empowers him at the same time. “Something,” he thinks, “came to an edge in me.” Recall that Oree literally meant the edge of the woods. Ed crossed that barrier when he left Oree and, when he did, “the leaves glittered, all mysterious points, and the river and the light on it were nothing but pure energy.” He thought, “I had never lived sheerly on nerves before and a gigantic steadiness took me over.”
Likewise, Bibb, as an actual runaway slave, recounted how “I had nothing to travel by but the sun by day, and the moon and stars by night.” But, as Dixon explains, “the wilderness revealed man’s place in the natural harmony of the world,” an assessment confirmed by Bibb’s noting that, once in “my hiding place in the woods . . . I thought of all the fishes of the water, the fowls of the air, the wild beasts of the forest, all appeared to be free.” His deliverance, too, was imminent.
Eventually Ed, Bobby, and Lewis reach Aintry, their stopping point. They have a lot to answer for. The murdered hillbillies have been reported missing. In preparation for the inevitable interrogation, Ed and his trickster companions have arranged their lies with masterful coordination. They lie all over the place and they lie well. At one point Ed is so enthralled with his own storying habit that, as if feeling his repressed colonizer coming back to life, he winks at Bobby. He then thinks to himself, “My lies seemed better, more and more like the truth.”
The cop who hears this spell of storying is, in the movie, none other than the notorious storyteller himself James Dickey. He nods. But he knows. In the move he pleads with the men to leave, to go back to the big city and let “this town die peaceful.” In the book, the sheriff, who recognizes storying when he sees storying, looks at Ed and, as if with grudging admiration, says, “You done good.”
James McWilliams is an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. His books include The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (Thomas Dunne Books), Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His writings have appeared in The Paris Review daily, The New Yorker.com, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The American Scholar, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a contributing writer at Pacific Standard, and his literary non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, Quarterly Conversation, The New York Times Book Review, and The Hedgehog Review.