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James Dickey: Biography, Poems & Novels

Instructor: David Mitchell

David has an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts, where he worked as a writing coach. He has been published in various literary journals.

In this lesson, you will get a brief overview of the life, work, themes, style, and influences of the esteemed Georgian poet, novelist, and essayist James Dickey. You will then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Who was James Dickey?

James Lafayette Dickey (1923 - 1997) is considered one of the most important Georgian poets of the 20th century. His style is rather distinct from his more influential modernist predecessors, and has been described as lush and visceral, violent and surreal, passionate and maximalistic. His poetry and fiction alike explore themes of alienation from nature, of memory and identity, often with a highly personal and sometimes confessional tone.

James Dickey

Biography

Dickey grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, inspired at an early age from the works of Byron and his father's reading of famous speeches. In 1942, he enrolled at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, though he left after one semester to enlist in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and later in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Between both wars and combat missions, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University and continued his study of modern poets such as Conrad Aiken, Louis Untermeyer, Dylan Thomas, and Kenneth Patchen. Determined to continue developing his craft, he pursued graduate degrees at Vanderbilt and Rice University in Houston. He taught at Rice from 1950 until 1954 before taking up a career as a copywriter for agencies in New York City and later Atlanta.

In 1960, Dickey published his first poetry collection, Into the Stone and Other Poems. He soon abandoned his advertising career to devote himself to poetry, publishing his second collection, Drowning With Others in 1962, for which he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. His fifth collection, Buckdancer's Choice, earned him a National Book Award for Poetry. In the following year, he became the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress until 1968. After publishing collected volumes of his work, he continued to talk, lecture, and write, being named writer-in-residence and first Professor of English at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

In 1970, Dickey wrote his best-selling novel, Deliverance, for which he is best known. His popularity soared soon afterwards. Deliverance was adapted into a film in 1972, directed by John Boorman and starring John Voight and Burt Reynolds. Dickey himself makes an appearance in the film as a suspicious sheriff. Both the novel and the movie were well-received by critics, and Dickey experienced a significant spike in his popularity.

In 1977, Dickey read The Strength of Fields at President Carter's inauguration. Dickey continued to teach in South Carolina, publishing his second novel The Alnilam in 1987 and his third, To the White Sea in 1993. His health began to fail around 1994, during which he was hospitalized for jaundice. Dickey spent his remaining three years teaching and writing, though during much of this time he was in and out of the hospital. He eventually died in January of 1997, succumbing to liver disease and fibrosis of the lungs.

Poems

The poetry of James Dickey often features the south and Georgia, yet he mainly uses this familiar setting as a backdrop to explore universal themes. There is almost always a narrator at the center of each poem, struggling to affirm his relationship with the natural world, and with larger transcendent truths.

Some of his poems, such as Looking For the Buckhead Boys, explore memories of specific places of his youth. Even while the poem is focused on finding people from Dickey's home neighborhood, there are lamentations that echo the mistrust of modernity and lamentations for the natural world that pervade in his fiction as well. The opening lines to this poem ruminate about the house he grew up in being torn down and cleared away for further development. Even the titular wolverine in For the Last Wolverine is treated in existential terms. Though melancholy, the struggle for survival itself is a triumph.

Some poems, such as The Firebombing and A View of Fujiyama after the War are semi-autobiographical meditations on Dickey's personal experiences during his wartime bombing missions. Others, like May Day Sermon and Cherrylog Road, are fictional narrative poems.

After the publication of his collection Buckdancer's Choice, Dickey began to experiment with his style, writing more split line and free verse styles, in addition to experimenting with form and syntax.

Novels

Deliverance is Dickey's most acclaimed novel and famous work, though it is less characteristic of his writing. Compared to his poetry and later fiction, the prose is relatively sparse and stripped of poetry. The novel tells the story of four Atlanta businessmen who spend a weekend canoeing down the dangerous (fictional) Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia, which is soon to be flooded and turned into a lake with the building of a dam. The trip becomes a brutal and harrowing fight for survival when the party discovers that the truest threat to their lives comes from themselves and the degenerate mountain men they encounter in the wilderness.

Deliverance contains thematic echoes of the likes of Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness and the general machismo of Ernest Hemingway. Dickey shares a similar ethos concerning man's alienation from nature and the suffocating effects of modern technology and civilization in general. The title refers not to deliverance from the ordeal the men have found themselves in, but from the demands of their everyday lives.

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