Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

James Dickey (1923-1997)

A brilliant, eccentric, and complex man, James Dickey was not afraid to express his opinion and step outside the traditional creative boundaries of writing to explore new and unique forms. His fascination with nature and exploring the beast within man became an essential part of his legacy.

Dickey was born in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to Eugene and Maibelle Dickey. He had a very close relationship with his father, a lawyer whom Dickey referred to as “the grand old man of American cockfighting.” Dickey’s love of poetry did not truly develop until he was in the Air Force, where he flew more than 100 combat missions in the Philippines as a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron. In 1946, Dickey left the military to enroll at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, majoring in English and Philosophy with a minor in Astronomy. In 1948 Dickey married Maxine Syerson and published his first poem, “The Shark in the Window,” in The Sewanee Review. He graduated magna cum laude a year later with his B.A. in English. After receiving his M.A., Dickey taught at the Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, until the Air Force recalled him to serve in the Korean War, where he earned five bronze stars and was promoted to Second Lieutenant.

Following the war, Dickey accepted a position at the University of Florida, but resigned a year later after controversy of his poem, “The Father’s Body,” which many considered offensive. In remembering that period of his life Dickey said, “I thought if my chosen profession, teaching, was going to fall out to be that sort of situation, I’d rather go for the buck…I figured that the kind of thing that an advertising writer would be able to write, I could do with the little finger of the left hand…” Dickey’s prophecy proved true and he worked as an advertising copywriter and executive for various agencies until he published his first book, Into the Stone and Other Poems, in 1960. By this time Dickey had celebrated the birth of two of his sons and received numerous awards, including the Longview Foundation Award and the Vachel Lindsay Prize.

Dickey was not only prolific in his writing but also where he worked, serving as poet-in-residence in four different locations, before becoming Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress for two years. Previous to serving in this honored position, Dickey published Buckdancer’s Choice, which won the National Book Award in 1966. His use of free, blank, and split verse in his poetry is noted as an art form in itself. Paul Zweig of the New York Times Review said, “Dickey’s style is so personal, his rhythms so willfully eccentric, that the poems seem to swell up and overflow…” Occasionally criticized for his obsession with death and destruction, Dickey’s poems essentially focus on nature itself and the reaction of humankind when faced with extreme circumstances. Monroe K. Spears in Dionysus and City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry reinforces this consensus, proposing that “the central impulse of Dickey’s poetry may be…indentifying with human or other creatures in moments of ultimate confrontation…A good example is [the poem] ‘Falling’, which imagines the thoughts and feelings of an airline stewardess, accidentally swept through an emergency door, as she falls thousands of feet to her death.”

Although a renowned poet, Dickey is best known for his 1970 novel, Deliverance. The book was so successful that a year after its publication it was adapted for film; Dickey wrote the screenplay and played the role of Sheriff Bullard. Deliverance is aptly named for that is exactly what the novel is about: being rescued from captivity, hardship, dominating over evil and seeking deliverance from imprisonment. The novel follows the story of four men who decide to take a backwoods canoeing trip. Two of the men are subsequently attacked by locals. One of the men is raped while the other is spared after the rest of the group show up and kill one of the natives. The rest of the story concerns the men’s escape and the struggle to avoid being murdered by vengeful locals. The novel is ultimately about the men finding themselves through each other; together they are complete. As the character Lewis says, “Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything.”

Through the following years Dickey continued to teach and write, publishing more novels and numerous poems. He also wrote the screenplay for the television production of Jack London’s Call of the Wild in 1976. That same year his wife passed away. Two months past, not able to bear being alone, Dickey married a former student, Deborah Dodson. In 1977, Dickey was asked to read his poem “The Strength of Fields” at President Jimmy Carter’s inaugural celebration. Four years after this honor, Dickey’s daughter Bronwen was born. Shortly following this happy event, Dickey won the Levinson Prize for five of his poems from Puella and in 1995 he was featured in a World War II Writers Symposium. A year later he published Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey, and received the Harriet Monroe Prize for lifetime achievement in poetry.

Dickey was still teaching when he died on January 19, 1997, from fibrosis of the lungs. He will always be known for his exploration of human nature and the brute within, for putting these traits into perspective, but what few realize is that he also wanted his readers to know that his writing was about reconciliation with these animalistic traits and finding eternal happiness. In an interview shortly before his death, Dickey quoted Beethoven: “He who truly knows my music can never know unhappiness again,” saying, “I would like to think [my work] had some effect to that.”

Selected Bibliography

Into the Stone and Other Poems, 1960
Helmets (poetry), 1964
Buckdancer’s Choice (poetry), 1965
Deliverance (novel), 1970
Exchanges (poetry), 1971
The Zodiac (poetry), 1976
Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49, 1978
The Strength of Fields (poetry), 1979
Puella (poetry), 1982
Alnilam (novel), 1987
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92, 1992
To the White Sea (novel), 1993

Selected Links

James Dickey at

James Dickey at the Poetry Foundation:

Interview with James Dickey in The Paris Review:…

The James Dickey Newsletter:

James Dickey at the New Georgia Encyclopedia: