Authors: James Dickey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet and novelist


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.{$I[AN]9810000624}{$I[A]Dickey, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Dickey, James}{$I[tim]1923;Dickey, James}

James Dickey

(Washington Star Collection, D.C. Public Library)

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.

BibliographyBaughman, Ronald. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. This collection of interviews covers Dickey’s career from the mid-1960’s to the late 1980’s. Baughman, who taught at the University of South Carolina with Dickey, has selected important and lively interviews. A useful chronology and a helpful index are included.Bowers, Neal. James Dickey: The Poet as Pitchman. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985. Focuses on Dickey as a public figure who was not only a successful poet but also a successful promoter of his work and of poetry in general. Bowers’s analysis of individual poems is sometimes thin, and his assessment of Dickey as “pitchman” for poetry is overly simplistic, but the study serves as a good introductory overview of Dickey as a media phenomenon.Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne, 1983. The first book-length study of Dickey’s work, this study covers his writing from Into the Stone, and Other Poems to Puella. The authors attempt to analyze virtually everything Dickey wrote during a twenty-two-year period, so that at times the discussions are rather sketchy. Still, this book provides a solid introduction to Dickey.Dickey, Christopher. Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. A biography of Dickey written by his son. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador USA, 2000. A narrative biography detailing the rise and self-destruction of a literary reputation. Little of Dickey’s prose or verse is quoted for analysis, and the book relies on Dickey’s interviews and those held by the power of his personality.Kirschten, Robert. James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth: A Reading of the Poems. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Provides one of the best readings of Dickey’s poems. Employs four hypotheses–mysticism, neoplatonism, romanticism, and primitivism–to identify Dickey’s characteristic techniques and thematic concerns. When a poem is analyzed extensively, long sections of it are reprinted so readers can follow the critic’s insights.Kirschten, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on James Dickey. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994. Provides early reviews and a selection of more modern scholarship. Authors include Robert Bly, Paul Carroll, James Wright, and Wendell Berry. Bibliography and index.Suarez, Ernest. “Emerson in Vietnam: Dickey, Bly, and the New Left.” Southern Literary Journal, Spring, 1991, 100-112. Examines controversial elements in Dickey’s poems and the adverse critical reaction to Dickey’s work. His complex metaphysics collided with the politics of a historic particular, the Vietnam War, generating a New Left critical agenda that could not accommodate the philosophical underpinnings of his poetry. The result was widespread misinterpretations of Dickey’s work.Suarez, Ernest. “The Uncollected Dickey: Pound, New Criticism, and the Narrative Image.” American Poetry 7 (Fall, 1990): 127-145. By examining Dickey’s early uncollected poems and his correspondence with Ezra Pound, Suarez documents Dickey’s struggle to move out from under modernism’s domination and arrive at his mature poetic aesthetic.Weigl, Bruce, and T. R. Hummer, eds. The Imagination as Glory: The Poetry of James Dickey. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. The best articles on Dickey up to 1984. Especially noteworthy is Joyce Carol Oates’s “Out of the Stone and into the Flesh,” which argues that Dickey is a relentlessly honest writer who explores human condition in a world of violence and chaos.
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