blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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Room for Only One Cowboy Hat: George Garrett, Ramblin’ Man

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  George Garrett at UVA

In the spring of 1962, his contract at Rice about to expire and with no prospects of an extension, thirty-three-year-old George Garrett was looking for jobs as the conclusion of his time in Houston drew near. It was a reading and interview at the University of Virginia that same semester that landed him surely one of the best positions he could have hoped for. Accepting the post of Writer-in-Residence most recently held by Katherine Anne Porter, but also, earlier, by William Faulkner, Garrett would begin working at the university in fall of 1962 as an associate professor of English. A number of other writers had wanted the job, and in obtaining the coveted position, he had beaten out an assortment of talented scribblers, including James Dickey (a fact that would later prove significant).

At the time of Garrett’s arrival in Charlottesville, the University of Virginia was a conservative place, even by the standards of that time: it still was a males-only institution and the men wore coats and ties, the rebels in their midst electing not to wear socks. The English department was run by Fredson Bowers, an authoritarian administrator and brilliant textual scholar. Non-tenured faculty members were terrified of him and it was reported he had threatened one of the less productive in their number with banishment to the university’s extension campus in distant southwest Virginia. On occasion he had been known to deliver on such threats.

One of Bowers’s plans to get extra work—something he apparently was very good at—out of his new creative writer was to have him invite to campus for week-long visits nationally-known writers for a measly $400 stipend. As Bowers’s writer wife, Nancy Hale, published stories in the New Yorker, naturally Bowers suggested Garrett should begin by contacting New Yorker writers, with John O’Hara at the top of the list. When Garrett informed Bowers that no writer he knew of would come to the university for the sum in question, he was told—ordered—to go ahead with the attempt anyway. What followed was an invitation letter to John O’Hara, read and approved by Bowers prior to its mailing, which was sent back in two days time with “a huge ‘FUCK YOU’ scrawled across it.” True to form, however, Bowers remained nonplussed and Garrett continued on down The New Yorker list, receiving rejections not so potent as O’Hara’s, but nonetheless firm in their disinterest.

It was a non-New Yorker writer, Shelby Foote, who had written several novels and just completed his second volume of The Civil War, who Garrett eventually snared on account of the fact Foote would be en route to Washington and thus would not mind something of an academic layover in Charlottesville. Never having heard of the southern novelist and historian, Bowers was disappointed. As Garrett recalled, he was told, “I am sure this person—Foote, did you say his name is?—is a fine writer and all that. But nobody ever heard of him. Nobody will come to the McGregor Room to hear him. It’s a complete waste of money.”

Departing the chairman’s office in barely disguised fury, Garrett employed his literary connections to muster publicity regarding Foote’s visit from Richmond to Houston to San Francisco. He then offered extra credit to football players in one of his survey classes to attend with their teammates and booked a student Dixieland band to perform in front of the library prior to Foote’s arrival. He also took out an ad in The Cavalier Daily which read simply, “Something important will happen in front of the library” at the time of the reading. The result of Garrett’s efforts was as much a party as a literary reading, with the band marching through the Alderman Stacks, playing as it went, hulking football players and curious students in tow. Next day, however, Bowers was furious at the uproar rather than pleased with the unprecedented turnout. It would not be their last misunderstanding.

Even as he struggled beneath the autocratic yoke of Bowers, Garrett continued to go about his work, completing his next collection of short fiction and writing a third novel, the subject matter of which eventually would appear in a number of different forms: Do, Lord, Remember Me (1965); the title story in his third collection of stories, Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night (1964); and, under the title “Noise of Strangers,” in a collection of three novellas, The Magic Striptease (1973). He was also beginning to attract critical attention of note in recognition of his ever-growing body of work. Writing in 1963, critic James Meriwether declared, “If George Garrett never writes another word he will have already left his mark upon the literature of his generation.” Having only been publishing his work in literary magazines for eight years, Garrett found the praise baffling. Yet it was nonetheless accurate, f or in that time Garrett had published seven books, each of which had been celebrated (by Wallace Stegner, Walter Sullivan, Richard Wilbur, and others) for its high literary standards and innovation.

Having bounced around the country and taught only periodically, Garrett finally was able to settle into a teaching routine at the University of Virginia, and in 1963 he published in the journal College English the piece “One Kind of Anarchy,” which stands as one of the first important essays on the teaching of creative writing. “My own pedagogical method,” Garrett wrote:

[F]or what it is worth (I know of a number of others which are worthwhile but don’t suit me), is to allow any student to have his work examined and criticized by the rest of the class only if it is his idea, freely and voluntarily submitted. He can make this request at any time, in advance (in which case his work can be duplicated and read in advance by the class), or at the beginning or even during any given class session. You may already have noticed a certain permissiveness in my methods. It is deliberate.

Garrett went on to elaborate that in class he depended largely on his impromptu wit, “lighthearted ‘official’ assignments” (such as the analysis of the current issue of Playboy or, for less intellectual fare, Newsweek), trips to see movies, and free time to allow students to create. The real help, he maintained, occurred in the tutorial sessions in which student aims were identified and aided to the best of his ability and often at great expense of time and energy. Though even by 1963 Garrett had mentored a number of published writers, he maintained, “I am teaching, not producing writers.” This stated philosophy is all the more remarkable when one considers all the writers Garrett—to varying degrees, both in the classroom and outside of—would help mentor and develop over the course of half a century. A hopelessly incomplete list would include the likes of R.H.W. Dillard, Kelly Cherry, Henry Taylor, David Huddle, Michael Mewshaw, Thomas McGonigle, the Bausch brothers, Allen Wier, Ben Greer, David Havird, Susan Tyler Hitchcock, Madison Smartt Bell, Wyn Cooper, Carrie Brown, Denise Giardina, Jeb Livingood, Michael Knight, Murray Dunlap, Thorpe Moeckel, and many others. As hard and as consistently as Garrett wrote, he appears to have taught even more so.


As if writing and teaching were not enough, Garrett began taking leave in the mid-1960s in order to perform work in Hollywood for Sam Goldwyn, Jr. According to Garrett, he was less interested in film writing per se than in learning something about the popular medium which he could share with his students. Yet the lingering image of success accompanying his uncle, H. P. Oliver (who had written screenplays for A Farewell to Arms, Moby Dick, Sanctuary, and Gone with the Wind) leads one to wonder at his real motivations.

The first film Garrett wrote which was actually produced was The Young Lovers (1964), which, among other things, was Peter Fonda’s first starring role. His character, Eddie, is a college art student who meets and falls in love with a fellow student named Pam. When Pam becomes pregnant, the film’s social commentary comes to the fore as the couple navigates a minefield of pregnancy, abortion, the Vietnam draft, and the early signs of free-spirited counter culture. The film subtly references other movies and its screenplay has been described as “deceptively sophisticated.”

“Deceptively sophisticated” was the state a writer generally was reduced to if he were seeking to make serious points in a Hollywood film. By way of example, the first agent Garrett met in Hollywood took him for a long car ride in the hills for the purpose of gauging, no doubt, his prospects as a film writer. “One thing you gotta learn,” the career representation man informed Garrett as they curved their way from one scenic view to another, “this is a business. Art is for kids.” It was a lesson Garrett learned quickly on the West Coast, yet one he absorbed inwardly with his characteristic shrug of laughter and cynicism.

Garrett fared well enough in Hollywood. As he and others were fond of saying at the time, a “Goldwyn” future loomed before him, and, indeed, Sam Goldwyn, Jr.—whom Garrett had roomed with at Princeton—would grace the University of Virginia in March 1964 as an Emily Clark Balch visiting artist. The fact of the matter remained, however, Garrett’s Hollywood work was neither glamorous nor artistically fulfilling for him. As he later told it, not without some bitterness, his time on the West Coast consisted almost entirely of “a lot of hard work. No orgies, nothing, just hard work.”

But the hard work was productive work, and in 1965 The Playground appeared—the movie of which Garrett would remain most fond. He described it as “a strange film, an absurd comedy about American attitudes towards death and dying . . . elegantly photographed and edited, by Richard Hilliard.” Parts of the movie were close to his heart and also literally close to home, some of the final editing performed on a Moviola in Garrett’s garage at 1309 Rugby Road, Charlottesville.

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As is sometimes the case in the film world, it was the movie that was most distant from Garrett’s heart and most farcical in nature that wound up defining his film legacy and has stayed in print via VHS and DVD format up through the writing of this essay. That movie is Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1966), which is now something of a cult classic complete with its own line of collectible posters and action figures. Oddly enough, the idea of working on the film was suggested by the serious filmmaker Hilliard, and, following Garrett’s shrugging agreement, spare instructions arrived consisting only of the movie’s title and a directive to keep the production cheap so that it could be filmed in Florida, which was nonunion, and Puerto Rico, which possessed, like Florida, a number of free shooting locations.

To join him in the fiasco, Garrett recruited two movie-loving University of Virginia graduate students, R.H.W. Dillard and John Rodenbeck, to aid him in writing the thing, the composition of which mostly took place at Garrett’s kitchen table on Rugby Road. The poet Henry Taylor contributed some material, as did other writers (Fred Chappell, for example) via late night phone calls and dispatches. Later, no one recalled, or at least admitted recalling, what their exact individual contributions to the film had been. It was as if various members of a group in close proximity had broken wind simultaneously and then casually dispersed so that none might identify the true culprit(s).

The core trio of Garrett, Dillard, and Rodenbeck communicated with two shady New York producers via mailed audio tapes. In the hands of these ribald intelligent writers, the script quickly became a joke they all had difficulty reigning in. Yet the comical interpretation of the material was met with firm disapproval from New York. “Stick to the horror,” one of the producers commanded from the tape recorder, unimpressed by the proposed dance sequences and slapstick. Temporarily at least, the writers had violated the second part of Faulkner’s cinematic rule delivered to Garrett by Shelby Foote: “Don’t take the work seriously, but you take those people very seriously.” Yet, the trio had succeeded in cheerfully adopting—despite, or perhaps because of, their film world boonies location in Charlottesville, Virginia—the gospel of Hollywood film teams uttered when under duress: “Hey! It’s only a picture.”

Critics, both upon the film’s release and long after, were nearly unanimous in declaring the end result an interesting cinematic disaster. Michael Weldon panned it, yet nonetheless advised, “Don’t miss. It’s the worst.” Ed Naha labeled it simply “the pits,” while the magazine Fangoria exhibited moderation, calling it “a minor legend in the annals of bad movie making.” It fared better overseas: in Britain, where it was titled Duel of the Space Creatures, and among the French, who believed it unmasked American cultural decadence and thus lauded it as “a triumph of vulgarity.” Garrett, himself, didn’t think much of it. As he was fond of saying, it was one of the few movies he knew of “greatly enhanced by regular commercial interruption.” At one showing of the film in Virginia, it was reported that the facility staff mixed up the reels, but no one seemed to notice, so incoherent was the story line. At other shows, it was booed, subjected to audience rage and/or slumber, and—occasionally—a wrathful viewer demanding their money back.

Yet the film was not without its perks, especially as it concerned its writers. For instance, there are few greater joys for an author in the academy than mocking one’s bumbling writer colleagues—a tradition that spans back through Kingsley Amis and E. B. White to Dryden and beyond. And though humor had been cut for horror, Garrett et al. did still manage to sneak some inside references and jokes into the film. The name Princess Marcuzan, for example, was based on that of a beautiful graduate student at the University of Virginia, while the space monster’s name, Mull, was shared by a dandyish Henry James scholar in Virginia’s English department. The film’s American military man in charge, Fred Bowers, was named of course for the equally in-charge department chair Fredson Bowers. Though such inside ploys may seem parochial now, some enjoyed long lives; the word Mull, for example, going on to become a popular name with other screen writers who would slip it into their writing for good luck.

Although he earned only fifty dollars for co-writing the movie, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster ultimately proved a more advantageous accomplishment for Dillard, a horror aficionado, than Garrett or Rodenbeck, likely fueling his appointment to the board of governors for the Count Dracula Society, known later as the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films. And though Garrett may have been cheerfully contemptuous of the movie, it would remain the only film of his consistently available and shown on television in the ensuing decades.

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  George Garrett

Though his films proved quite disparate from each other, Garrett did manage to build—sneak—some linked elements into his trio of produced movies. In every film, for example, the male protagonist rides a motorbike at some point and also utters the line, “I’m not laughing now.” In addition, as Dillard has remarked, the movies are all fabliaux which consciously make their artificiality “part of the work’s surface texture.” Ultimately, however, even with these disguised artistic conventions, Hollywood did not afford Garrett enough aesthetic license to keep him. As he would dramatically note shortly after his return to college teaching, “The academy may not pay much and the groves of academe may not be the best soil and climate for a writer, but at the moment at least, Hollywood is Death Valley.”


Also in 1965, Garrett had managed to publish his third and finest novel up to that point—Do, Lord, Remember Me—though the book did not receive the critical attention it clearly deserved, and the slight would lead to blunter assessments of the literary establishment by Garrett in subsequent interviews and criticism. Assessing a new book in 1966, for example, on the Faulkner-Cowley correspondence, Garrett took time to describe the “New York game of ‘drop-the-handkerchief’ which is known out in the boondocks as The Publishing World [Garrett’s italics],” remarking, “It is easy to see that the nineteenth century men of letters have been replaced by the literati. It is painfully clear why Faulkner found it for his own art, his sanity and integrity, to avoid the company and context of the literary establishment, much as our ancestors in the middle ages once avoided lepers with little bells.” Of course, this was less bitter jealousy and more the simple fact of the matter at the time, and in saying the obvious Garrett spoke for scores of other writers who found themselves fighting similar battles.

Remarkably, such cynicism did not spill over into Garrett’s other views and professional responsibilities. Instead, if anything, the corruption in commercial publishing appears to have deepened his already marked compassion and empathy for writers—particularly younger ones—struggling against such forces and odds. For instance, in what must rank as one of the most powerful acts of literary generosity in the twentieth century, Garrett withdrew “his own manuscript of poems from consideration for publication by the Louisiana State University Press when he learned that it was one of only two being considered—in order to assure that it would not block the publication of [Henry] Taylor’s first book, The Horse Show at Midnight (1966).” There exists today much talk and writing on the subject of professors being “student-centered,” yet I remain unaware of a more stellar example of student-oriented generosity than Garrett’s removal of his own book from consideration for publication in order to ensure the success of his student’s manuscript.

The book Garrett had taken out of contention at LSU Press eventually would appear with the University of Missouri Press in 1967 as For a Bitter Season: New and Selected Poems. Whereas the older poems in the collection served to provide balance to Garrett’s poetic output up until then, the handful of new ones, true to form, were a mixed bag of subject matter and approach. “Old Man Waking” and “Salome,” for example, are contemplative in nature, whereas “Rainy Day” and “Rugby Road” record the everyday goings-on of college settings. There are poems which disparately serve as interpretations of Roman history, Apollo, Salvatore Quasimodo, and American celebrities. A sensuality less apparent in the earlier books pervades nearly all the newer pieces in the volume. One never knows what is coming next, and is often delightfully surprised, as the page turns.

The publication of such new and selected poems, favorably reviewed, should have marked a defining, celebratory period in Garrett’s career; however, working conditions at the University of Virginia, still under the leadership of Chairman/General Bowers, had been deteriorating for some time—so much so that in spring 1967 Garrett finally resigned. The official explanation he offered The Cavalier Daily was that he needed more time to write—an odd excuse for someone then on sabbatical. In reality, his departure had more to do with the pressures exerted by the English Department on a group of junior faculty, at least three of whom—David Bevington, Joseph Blotner, and William Robinson—would go on to enjoy distinguished scholarly careers elsewhere. Questions also had been raised by the Department leadership—that is, Chairman Bowers—regarding Garrett’s lack of a PhD (ironically, he would earn one from Princeton in 1985, a year after returning to the University of Virginia for a second go-round). The combination of negative developments was enough to make firm Garrett’s resolve to depart.


When he left Charlottesville, Garrett would not move far, assuming the lengthily entitled position of “Director of the Sequence of Undergraduate and Graduate Creative Writing and Literary Criticism” at Hollins College, near Roanoke, in the fall of 1968. The job had opened up when Louis D. Rubin, Jr. departed Hollins for the University of North Carolina, and though its title suggested a significant workload, Garrett reported to the The Cavalier Daily that in fact it would allow “a lot of free time to write” and keep him “from minor administrative duties.” Yet he also admitted, “It’s rather vague and I’m not too sure what it all means.”

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Though teaching did indeed keep him busy at Hollins, Garrett found the circumstances generally favorable, and he both intensified work on what would become Death of the Fox and brought out a short story collection entitled A Wreath for Garibaldi and Other Stories (1969), which—like For a Bitter Season—constituted mostly a fictional retrospective. Included in the book was the novella from Cold Ground Was My Bed Last Night, one story from In the Briar Patch, three previously uncollected stories, and a section from Do, Lord, Remember Me. Part of what made use of all this previously published work possible was the fact that the book was brought out only in England by the publisher Rupert Hart-Davis.

Among the fresh material in the book was the short story “And So Love Came to Alfred Zeer,” a strange tale of a man’s obsession with the shadow of a woman that appears nightly in the window of an apartment across from his own. Succumbing to “powerful and inscrutable forces,” Zeer watches the shadow regularly and begins making assumptions about the woman’s habits and personality, which ultimately generate grotesque implications for himself. Setting fire to his apartment and standing in a windowsill in a sad, extreme bid to attract the shadow woman’s attention, Zeer loses his balance and plummets to his death. The identity or reality of the shadow remaining veiled to the reader, one is left uncertain whether or not the image was actually the ghostly form of a woman or some manifestation of Jung’s feminine shadow visited upon a lonely, middle-aged bachelor. Just as Zeer is preoccupied by a compellingly unusual image, so the reader is left wondering at the story’s absurdly tragic and comic implications, haunted by the bizarre vision of Zeer’s final attempt to make contact with his idealized ghost.

A similar fairy-tale quality informs another previously uncollected story from A Wreath for Garibaldi. In “My Pretty Birdie, Pretty Birdie in My Cage,” Henry Monk and his beautiful wife Ilse become the brunt of their provincial community’s perversity and self-hate. Garrett’s long, wonderfully vivid description of Henry associates him with:

[A] grotesque dwarf, thick-torsoed, powerful-shouldered as big men twice his size with long loose arms dangling down and ending in huge, hopelessly awkward hands . . . He had a dented cannonball of a head with short curly hair clinging to it like some kind of fungus, squint eyes, red-rimmed and muddy, forever blinking . . . His lips were pouting, nearly colorless, and formed in bold exaggerated curves like those trick ones made out of wax that people put on for a joke. And his nose was peaked and warped and broken. Legs? They were incredibly short and thin and frail. . . . 

Henry’s abnormal physical qualities are countered or balanced by the limited intellect of Ilse, whose beauty conceals “the mind of a young child . . . as inwardly deformed as he is outwardly.” Condemning this varied modern retelling of the beauty-beast fable are the outraged townspeople, who hate the fact that Ilse is beautiful and believe that Henry instead should have married an appropriately disfigured counterpart who would produce for him “a whole family of genetic clowns.” The “clownish” quality of Henry’s prospective family is preceded by the narrator’s remark, “When you looked at Henry Monk you had to laugh.” Though physically repulsive, Henry inspires neither fear nor disgust in the townspeople, but comedy, which further aligns him with the spirit of the grotesque. Yet, for all their difference, Henry and Ilse are not inherently perverse, but rather are constructed as such by their neighbors, who together constitute a kind of collective grotesque. At one point a townsman sneaks over to listen at Henry’s and Ilse’s window and then shares what he hears with everyone else. Furthermore, the narrator remarks that if Henry were gone, there would be “plenty of others to take his place—the strange, the weak, the drunk, the over- and undersexed, the feebleminded, the diseased, dwarfed, deformed, and dispossessed—to be offered up in propitiation, in true and perfect sacrifice, that the safe, the sane, the whole might preserve at least some fragile notion of their self-esteem and human dignity.” Convenient and replaceable victims in an ongoing archetypal ritual of demonization, Henry and Ilse allow their fellow citizens to feel good about their own bland normality and the homogeneous rules by which they live, which channel all of the community’s evil and perversity onto the Monks.

Just as For a Bitter Season had book-ended Garrett’s poetic achievement up through the time of its release, so A Wreath for Garibaldi celebrated the range and variety of his fiction through 1969. Notwithstanding its transatlantic release, the book was reviewed positively in English and American newspapers and periodicals. Though his three novels remained largely neglected, Garrett, it seems, had successfully garnered a strong critical reputation, though not a wide readership, for his poetry and short fiction. In that, his fortieth year, he was, without a doubt, a writer to be reckoned with.


As we have seen, the decade of the 1960s had been intensely productive for Garrett: he had written three novels, three short story collections, three poetry collections, two plays, and three scripts which had been made into Hollywood films. In addition, he had edited books (including the legendary The Girl in the Black Rain Coat) and journals (including complementing his Transatlantic Review work with becoming co-editor of The Hollins Critic in 1965). On the professional service front, he had performed many kindnesses for scores of writers and worked with R. V. Cassill in nursing along a little organization of creative writing programs, administered out of Cassill’s Providence, Rhode Island basement—with the help of Cassill’s tireless wife, Kay—called the Associated Writing Programs (AWP), for which Garrett would serve as president from 1971 to 1973. As Garrett later noted, “By the end of that confused and confusing decade there were creative writing courses and programs springing up everywhere like dandelions and crabgrass. AWP was a busy enterprise, a growth stock.” Impressive as all this activity on so many different fronts was, it must be noted that Garrett’s prodigious output was fueled, in addition to his boundless passion and talent, by amphetamines (which he would overcome by decade’s end), two or three packs a day of cigarettes (which he also eventually would quit), and alcohol (which stubbornly would remain a periodic problem over the course of the ensuing decades). He had thrived in a unique, all-encompassing fashion across numerous fronts in a way perhaps no American writer has before or after. The broad nature of his activities camouflaged their depth and distinction, yet what he was accomplishing was truly remarkable by any measure. On many more fronts and with greater aplomb, he was a “force” in American literature in a way his better-known contemporaries were not.

Following a momentous writing conference held at Hollins College and a growing recognition of the limits that came with teaching at a small liberal arts college, Garrett found himself moving on to the University of South Carolina in 1971. It would be an interesting change in both workload and prestige. At his last two institutions—the University of Virginia and Hollins—he had taught hard and performed administrative duties while also functioning as the clear writer of stature in the program at hand. However, in Columbia he was joining James Dickey, fresh off the success of his novel Deliverance, and still mindful of the fact that Garrett had been awarded the Virginia job over himself in 1962 (Dickey could be generous on occasion, but also was not one to forget).

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  George Garrett

Garrett had already established the particulars of his deal and accepted his position when he journeyed out to see Dickey at Lake Katherine during his job interview in Columbia. Their meeting was cordial but did not veer far from business. Dickey pledged more than once he would do what he could to get Garrett the best possible salary, but that he hoped Garrett wouldn’t invite his “wild and wooly buddies to come on down here and visit. If you do they’ll hop on some kind of a damn psychedelic bus and come and raise hell.”

By “wild and wooly” friends, Dickey was referring to writers he recalled from the previous summer’s Hollins Conference at which much merrymaking—including plenty by Dickey himself—had transpired. Naturally, writers that to his mind apparently were amok literary barbarians—R.H.W. Dillard, Henry Taylor, and the like—were a concern and a threat to his social status in Columbia, at least as he conceived it. The warning of course was absurd in substance and insulting to Garrett’s friends, but Garrett characteristically smiled it off as best he could and made his farewell, asserting how much he looked forward to working with Dickey the following autumn.

As it turned out, Garrett would not see much of Dickey during his time at South Carolina due to the fact that he had been hired largely to fill in for him as Dickey basked in the success of Deliverance, took leaves to work on the film version, and embarked on lengthy reading tours. One memorable event, however—a defining one, in many respects—was the “hat incident” in which Garrett and Dickey stepped into the same campus elevator, each wearing gaudy, custom-made cowboy hats. Genuinely surprised, they eyed each other, Dickey the more unpleasantly, as together they rose, fidgety and clearing their throats. Arriving at the floor of Dickey’s departure, he stopped and held the door open for a moment, turning back to admonish his junior colleague.

“George,” he counseled, “there should only be one cowboy hat in this department. And I was here first.”

So went the showdown of the hats, though the literary fireworks of both writers (they would remain respectful, though not close, friends) were far from over. As Dickey settled into a decade of uneven work, Garrett was about to release a book every bit as distinguished as Deliverance in Death of the Fox. But even that distinction would not keep him in Columbia. It was still in his nature then to ramble on.  end

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