Poet, novelist, educator. Considered in the 1960s to be the chief rival to Robert Lowell as the major poet of the generation, James Dickey spent almost thirty years as resident poet and Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Dickey was born on February 2, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift. He graduated from North Fulton High School in 1941. After an unhappy preparatory year at Darlington Academy in Rome, Georgia, he enrolled for the fall semester of 1942 at Clemson College to play football. He performed well only in one game, but his Clemson experience established a basis for a myth of Dickey as sports star. At the end of the football season, he left Clemson to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served in the Pacific as a radar observer.
After the war Dickey moved on to Vanderbilt University. He received a bachelor’s degree with high honors in 1949 and an M.A. in 1950. He married Maxine Webster Syerson on November 4, 1948. The marriage produced two sons. Dickey taught at Rice University until he was recalled for the war in Korea. After the war he returned to Rice until l954, when he received a Sewanee Review fellowship to spend a year in Europe writing poetry.
On his return, Dickey accepted an instructorship at the University of Florida but resigned in response to verbal flack received from reading a poem in progress, “My Father’s Body.” After six years as a copywriter and director in advertising firms in New York and Atlanta, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961. This permitted a return to Europe, where he, like many other southern writers, wrote about the South from a faraway country. He abandoned his moneymaking advertising career to go “barnstorming for poetry.” Dickey performed well as poet-in-residence at Reed College (1963–1964), San Fernando Valley State (1965), and the University of Wisconsin (1966), climaxed by his appointment as poetry consultant (1966–1968) at the Library of Congress, where he was successful at setting up readings.
In 1968 Dickey was appointed the first Carolina Professor at the University of South Carolina and settled in Columbia, beginning thirty years of distinguished teaching there. Maxine Dickey died on October 27, 1976. Shortly thereafter, on December 30, 1976, Dickey married a student, Deborah Dodson. The couple had one daughter.
Dickey published widely, including books of poetry, novels, essays and criticism, children’s books, and a few expensive coffeetable books. Two of the three volumes of literary criticism, The Suspect in Poetry (1964) and Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Today (1965), were published during the 1960s. Dickey identified the “suspect” in poetry as a failure to involve the reader. His readings of the Cambridge anthropologists, his discovery of Theodore Roethke, and a friendship with the poet James Wright led to an interest in “country surrealism,” a blending of nature and fantasy. Dickey also mastered an empathetic exchange of identity, as with his dog sleeping on his feet, or with a dead soldier whose helmet he donned, or with a flight attendant falling to her death. “The String,” a poem from his first book, Into the Stone (1960), introduced the theme of the survivor, beginning with Dickey’s view of himself as a replacement child for a dead brother. A plenitude of like poems appeared in Drowning with Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer’s Choice (1965), which won the National Book Award. A climax came with his novel Deliverance (1970), followed by a powerful film version highlighting the naturalism and primitivism of both novel and poetry. His “energized” protagonist or persona “beholds” nature, regains an original relationship, and experiences deliverance from the bonds of civilized life.
Success encouraged Dickey to take greater risks with two big, overly complex novels: one about flying, Alnilam (1987); and one about war and killing, To the White Sea (1991). Some critics found in Dickey little more than a pretentious “more life school” yearning, while others such as Harold Bloom credited Dickey with a contribution to the American sublime. One thing is clear: the earlier Dickey was largely successful with long lines that advance both the narrative and the lyric. After the summer of Deliverance, the lines “loosened,” a split line experiment largely failed, and the dramatic became rhetorical. Most of the “good” poems were written in a decade from the 1960s into the 1970s, with the exception of a few good lyrics in Puella (1982) and some good narrative moments in The Eagle’s Mile (1990). Randall Jarrell said that for a poet to be major, lightning had to strike a dozen poems. It struck enough for Dickey to deserve consideration as South Carolina’s best resident poet since Henry Timrod.
The final word on Dickey was “decline”—decline from his reputation as a major poet in the 1960s, decline from his status as a brilliant performer to unseemly public behavior, and decline in health. Dickey died in Columbia on January 19, 1997, and was buried in the All Saints Waccamaw graveyard on Pawleys Island.
Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Dickey, James. The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992. Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992.
Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador, 2000. Kirschten, Robert, ed. “Struggling for Wings”: The Art of James Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.