James Lafayette Dickey spent his childhood in Atlanta, where his father was a suburban attorney. He attended Clemson College before entering military service for World War II during his freshman year. After the war, he attended Vanderbilt University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and from which he graduated with honors. From Vanderbilt, Dickey received both an A.B. and an M.A. in English. He began a teaching career at Rice University in 1949. His teaching was interrupted, however, when he was recalled to serve with the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War. He resumed teaching and civilian life in 1952 at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
From 1963 through 1964, Dickey was poet-in-residence at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. He then taught at colleges in California, at the University of Wisconsin, and at the University of South Carolina. He became consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress in 1966. As a poet, he received many awards: the Union League Prize in 1958, the Vachel Lindsay Award in 1959, the Longview Award in 1959, the Melville Cane Award in 1965-1966, and the National Book Award in 1966 for the volume Buckdancer’s Choice. Dickey was a Sewanee Review Fellow from 1954 through 1955 and a Guggenheim Fellow from 1962 through 1963. His novel Deliverance was made into a critically and popularly successful film in which Dickey played the part of Sheriff Bullard.
As a poet, James Dickey avoided classification with a movement, even though for a time he and his guitar made the rounds of the poetry-reading circuit of U.S. campuses. Of his own poetry, Dickey said that he wanted what he wrote to mean something to people in the situations in which they find themselves, rather than to be a display of his own abilities as a poet. As a result, his poetry has a simplicity and a directness, as exemplified in “The Firebombing,” one of his best-known poems. Not surprisingly, one of James Dickey’s favorite poets was Richard Wilbur.
Dickey was married twice and was the father of a daughter and two sons. He was enthusiastic about field archery, hunting, and guitar playing as personal hobbies. Dickey died of complications from lung disease at the age of seventy-three.