The Engraver’s Delicate Hammer


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James Dickey, who would be ninety-four today, contributed a handful of poems to the Review throughout his career. In our Fall 1985 issue, he also published, most anomalously, a remembrance of Truman Capote, whom he’d only met once. “Indeed,” the editors wrote then, “his only firm recollection was a chance meeting in New York’s Gotham Book Mart at which—as Southerners tend to do—the two talked about relatives: Capote had an aunt ‘up ’round Buford way.’ ” Be that as it may, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters had asked Dickey to eulogize Capote at their annual meeting, and he rose to the occasion, determined “to pick up the gauntlet, get up there, and try. I worked on it right hard, because I wanted to say some things about Capote that people would not have thought about him … to go in there along with what everyone did think about him.” What he wrote was so evocative that the Review picked it up for publication. He lauds Capote’s “lenslike detachment,” which suggests “things wrought by the engraver’s delicate hammer”:

This small childlike individual, this self-styled, self-made, self-taught country boy—what did he teach himself? To concentrate: to close out, and close in: to close with. His writing came, first, from a great and very real interest in many things and people, and then from a peculiar frozen detachment that he practiced as one might practice the piano, or a foot position in ballet. Cultivated in this manner, his powers of absorption in a subject became very nearly absolute, and his memory was already remarkable, particularly in its re-creation of small details. He possessed to an unusual degree this ability to encapsulate himself with his subject, whatever or whoever it might be, so that nothing else existed except him and the other; and then he, himself, would begin to fade away and words would appear in his place: words concerning the subject, as though it were dictating itself.

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