115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Waiting for the Flood: Class, Geography and the Control of Nature in James Dickey’s Deliverance and Scott Russell Sanders’ Staying Put

John D. Schwetman, University of Minnesota, Duluth

James Dickey’s Deliverance and Scott Russell Sanders’ Staying Put are literary works that mark two discrete moments in ecological thinking, and the shift between these two moments becomes evident in the way each work dramatizes the damming of a river and its impacts on the people who live near it.

Proposal: 

In James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, the imminent flooding of the Cahulawassee River provides the backdrop for the action of the novel, adding to the mystical allure of the wild river while also providing a cause of the latent hostility that the novel’s shadowy rural characters feel for the novel’s professional-class main characters. Dickey’s novel was enormously successful and became the basis for John Boorman’s 1972 film. Both works dramatize the simmering violence of a conflict between the transient, wealthy residents of America’s growing urban areas and the more settled, traditional country dwellers occupying separate regions on the map and holding separate value systems. Whatever the short-term harm the novel’s urban characters suffer at the hands of rural men and the whims of nature itself, the damming of the river at Aintry eventually proves that the project of urban expansionism will be ultimately victorious.

Twenty-three years later, Scott Russell Sanders likewise uses the anthropogenic flooding of a natural area as the origin of his own reflections on development and placelessness in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Where one encounters a sense of resignation to the destruction of natural settings in Dickey’s earlier works, Sanders’ essay is in the spirit of protest, making the flooding of the Mahoning River in Ohio into an icon of a larger movement to domesticize and exploit the natural world, “the sort of acts we have been repeating from coast to coast as we devour the continent” (4). Like the main characters in Deliverance, Sanders is of the professional class, but, unlike them, he regards the flooding the landscape as an unnecessary, wasteful assertion of human folly.

In the span of time that divides Sanders’ work from that of Dickey, readers can identify a steady shift in the politics of ecology and development, and this shift has continued on into the twenty-first century as theorists attempt to undo the damage to the human-scale, lived environment that resulted from car-oriented suburban sprawl and other trends built upon a belief that technology would enable people to transcend the limitations of distance and place. From the critical perspectives of Sanders and other ecological writers, Dickey’s Deliverance comes across even more potently as a muscular assertion of an ideology of automobility that transformed America in the twentieth century and that a new generation is slowly beginning to undo.