James Dickey, born on February 2, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia, was the second son and third child of Eugene and Maibelle Swift Dickey. His full name, James Lafayette Dickey, III, honored his grandfather, James Lafayette Dickey; the first son, Eugene, Jr., had died of meningitis. An Irish family who immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 17th century and moved on to North Carolina, the Georgia Dickeys became established by James Dickey’s great-great grandfather who settled in the area of Mineral Bluff, Fannin County, Georgia. Dickey Mountain is near Mineral Bluff, and the Dickey Cemetery at nearby Hogback Mountain testifies to the poet’s past with its family stones and those of the Dickey slaves. The North Georgia mountain influence, especially the rivers, was conveyed especially by his father. A river, Dickey stated, is “the most beautiful thing in nature.”1 The mountain rivers, trees, and creatures provided such elements to Dickey’s work that, in present-day vocabulary, he might be termed a naturalist or an ecologist.
Especially in the earlier work, Dickey’s family—Eugene Dickey, Maibelle Swift Dickey, his absent older brother, and his two siblings—inspired his poetry. Maibelle Swift’s ancestors emigrated from England; her father, Charles Thomas Swift, married Lena Burckhardt, a young woman whose own father at age 20 had emigrated from Germany. “Buckdancer’s Choice,” title poem of the collection, celebrates Maibelle Dickey’s ability to overcome illness and warble “…all day to herself / The thousand variations of one song.” The dedication of Buckdancer’s Choice is to “lifegivers”—his parents.
Dickey grew up in Buckhead, a bedroom community of Atlanta, and attended North Fulton High School, an adolescence immortalized in his poem “The Buckhead Boys.” To ready him for college, Dickey was sent to a prep school, Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, for a year before enrolling in 1942 at Clemson A & E College (now Clemson University) in Clemson, South Carolina. After one semester, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. As navigator with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, he flew almost 100 combat missions in the South Pacific. Flight training gave him a lifelong obsession with sextants and other instruments of navigation. The defining influence in his life, Dickey maintained, was his service in wartime.
A veteran on the G. I. bill, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University, majoring in English and minoring in philosophy. In 1949, he received the Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Vanderbilt University, graduating magna cum laude. One year later he completed the Master of Arts degree, with his thesis entitled “Symbol and Image in the Short Poems of Herman Melville.”
In 1950 Dickey began teaching at Rice University (then Rice Institute); however, after only four months he was recalled into the Air Force during the Korean War, serving two years of active military duty in the training command of the Air Force. Afterward, he resumed teaching at Rice. In 1954, the Sewanee Review, the first major periodical to publish his poems, awarded Dickey a fellowship; the stipend allowed him to travel in Europe and to write poetry for a year. When he returned, he secured a teaching position at the University of Florida. Two years later, in spring 1956, Dickey resigned after a reading of his poem “His Father’s Body” drew a controversial reaction. Deciding to “become a businessman” (43), where more money could be made, he left the academic life for advertising.
Dickey found work with the McCann-Erickson agency in New York City, handling the Coca-Cola account, and subsequently transferred to Atlanta. As senior writer and associate creative director, he found that work demands absorbed his time and the energy to write. Moving to a smaller agency (Liller, Neal, Battle and Lindsey) as copy chief, he soon realized that his writing curtailed his ability to do even this work. Nevertheless, thanks to his growing success in advertising, he was offered and accepted the position of creative director of Burke Dowling Adams, one of Atlanta’s largest agencies, one that handled the Delta account. Soon, though, he received his “escape hatch from the ad business” (48). On the strength of Into the Stone and Other Poems, published in 1961, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and left the advertising business.
Although he had been able to complete Drowning with Others, published in 1962, during the advertising years, his spare time – and sometimes his working hours – had been spent writing poetry. As he noted in Self-Interviews, “I was selling my soul to the devil all day and trying to buy it back at night” (34). With the Guggenheim award, he traveled, mostly in Italy, and he completed many of the poems in Helmets (1964), continuing to work on the volume during his tenure as the first poet-in-residence at Reed College (1963-1964).
Other poet-in-residence positions followed: San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge) (1964-1965); University of Wisconsin at Madison (1966); University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee (1967); and Washington University (1968). During these visits, Dickey’s reputation grew, especially as a result of Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer’s Choice (1965). In “Barnstorming for Poetry,” an essay which first appeared in New York Times Book Review on January 3, 1965, Dickey describes his many reading appearances throughout the United States. The readings were not only for the purpose of increasing his income; they also allowed Dickey to promote his heart’s interest: to require that poets be paid on the same level with other speakers on the college circuit. He drew the youths into his performance, revealing himself as a macho man, a bow-and-arrow hunter, a handsome big guy to whom poetry was the center of life. Dickey had the stamina, the charisma, and the poetry to capture his audiences. Though he was paid for his appearances, he also rejoiced in reading his poems. “For better or worse,” he says in “Barnstorming,” he had been “moving and speaking among his kind.”
While he was in Wisconsin, Buckdancer’s Choice won the 1966 National Book Award. Renowned in mid-career, Dickey was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, serving from 1966 to 1968 as consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress. His Poems: 1957-1967 appeared during this time (1967).
In 1968, Dickey was appointed poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, and in 1970 was named First Carolina Professor of English. He wrote and published extensively during the 1970s: The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy appeared in 1970; The Zodiac in 1976; and The Strength of Fields in 1979. Two essay collections appeared: Sorties in 1970 and Self-Interviews in 1971 His widely acclaimed novel, Deliverance, appeared in 1970, and was soon made into a movie, bringing Dickey celebrity status far different from that achieved by his poetry.
In the 1980s, Dickey published the Puella poems (1982, and Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (1983). A last volume of poetry, The Eagle’s Mile, was published in 1990, and The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92 in 1992.
Dickey’s second novel, Alnilam, appeared in 1987 and his third, To the White Sea, in 1993. Post-World War II novels, Deliverance, Alnilam, and To the White Sea encompass the author’s poetic as well as his fictional themes. In the poet’s shift to prose, war and the nature of man in war combine with philosophies of man’s being in nature and his extinction.
See the Annotated Bibliography for a complete listing of the works.
Dickey stated that the most “fortunate event” of his life was his marriage to Maxine Syerson on November 4, 1948 (39). In addition to her two children, she managed their household and his schedules. The dedication in Helmets is “To Maxine: light and warmth.” They had two sons: Christopher in 1951 and Kevin, seven years later. The marriage ended with Maxine’s death in late October 1976. In the same year, he married Deborah Dodson. Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981. Dickey remained at the University of South Carolina until his death on January 19, 1997, of fibrosis of the lungs.
1. Citations of pages herein, unless otherwise noted, are to James Dickey, Self-Interviews. NY: Doubleday, 1970.