Dickey, James (Vol. 109)
James Dickey 1923–1997
(Full name James Lafayette Dickey) American poet, novelist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
For further information on Dickey's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 15, and 47.
A prominent figure in contemporary American literature, Dickey is best known for his intense exploration of the primal, irrational, creative, and ordering forces in life. Often classified as a visionary Romantic in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke, Dickey emphasized the primacy of imagination and examined the relationship between humanity and nature. He frequently described confrontations in war, sports, and nature as means for probing violence, mortality, creativity, and social values. In his poetry, Dickey rejected formalism, artifice, and confession, favoring instead a narrative mode that features energetic rhythms and charged emotions. Dickey once stated that in his poetry he attempted to achieve "a kind of plain-speaking line in which astonishing things can be said without rhetorical emphasis." In addition to his verse, Dickey authored the acclaimed novels Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987) as well as the less well-received To the White Sea (1993), symbolic works that explore the extremes of human behavior.
Dickey, who died of complications of lung disease on January 19, 1997, commonly drew upon crucial events in his life for his subject matter. His early poetry, for example, is infused with guilt over his role as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, ruminations on his older brother's death, and reflections upon his Southern heritage. In his first three volumes of verse—Into the Stone, and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964)—Dickey explored such topics as war, family, love, death, spiritual rebirth, nature, and survival. These poems are generally arranged in traditional stanzaic units and are marked by an expansive and affirmatory tone. James Schevill observed such characteristics of Dickey's early verse as "a unique unmistakable tone, an awareness of the physical forces of the world that flow beyond time, beyond history." These volumes also contain several poems about the wilderness in which Dickey stressed the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believed are suppressed by civilization. Buckdancer's Choice (1965), which won the National Book Award, signaled a shift in Dickey's verse to freer, more complex forms. Employing internal monologues, varied spacing between words and phrases in place of punctuation, and subtler rhythms, Buckdancer's Choice investigates human suffering in its myriad forms. Dickey expressed ambivalence toward violence, most notably in "The Firebombing," a long poem that juxtaposes the thoughts of a fighter pilot as he flies over Japan and his memories twenty years later. Poems, 1957–1967 (1968) encapsulates what most critics consider Dickey's strongest phase as a poet.
In the novel Deliverance, which was adapted into an acclaimed film, Dickey reiterated several themes prevalent in his verse, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. This work concerns four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. The characters encounter human violence and natural threats, forcing them to rely on primordial instincts in order to survive. Many initial reviews assessed Deliverance as a sensational adventure story that exalts violence and machismo. Subsequent evaluations, however, noted Dickey's skillful use of myth, biblical references, and Jungian archetypes, and several critics compared Deliverance to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Despite growing belief in the book's value as legitimate literature, however, many schools refuse to include Deliverance in curricula. William G. Tapply, in a highly favorable analysis of the work, recounted being denied permission to teach to his high-school English students "a book in which the plot pivots on a scene where a man is sodomized at gunpoint, in which the heroes 'get away' with murder, in which verboten vocabulary words appear." Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, is an ambitious experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death. The man's son had been a charismatic leader of an elite corps of army pilots who held vaguely sinister revolutionary aspirations. While the book celebrates the pleasures of flying with vivid imagery, it denounces the misuse of power, becoming what Robert Towers described as "a vast, intricate work distinguished not by its forward momentum but by its symbolic suggestiveness and its bravura passages, some of which rise to visionary heights."
Dickey's To the White Sea, the story of a seemingly sociopathic soldier forced to parachute into Japan during World War II, received less favorable critical attention than his earlier novels. Greg Johnson reported that Dickey, "long acknowledged as one of our finest contemporary poets, with Deliverance … produced one of the most celebrated novels of its decade. Although his hefty second novel, Alnilam, garnered a mixed response, its ambitious scope and often dazzling use of language furthered his reputation as a novelist of considerable powers. Dickey's new work of fiction, To the White Sea, probably will not harm that reputation, though it is less ambitious and in some ways less accomplished than his previous novels." Thick with overtones of primitive survival and the natural world, To the White Sea follows Sergeant Muldrow on his trek from Tokyo to Japan's northern wilderness. Muldrow's desire to commune with nature as he travels is frequently interrupted by unwelcome human beings, most of whom he murders in cold blood and with sadistically creative techniques. This unsettling and central element of To the White Sea was frequently cited by critics as the basis for the book's lukewarm reception among readers, who found themselves unable to muster any sympathy toward the story's protagonist. "Any reader approaching To the White Sea in the hope of finding a traditional war story or an adventure novel will be sharply disappointed," Johnson concluded. "But the book will surely please admirers of Dickey's poetry and of his harsh, unsettling vision of natural savagery."
Into the Stone, and Other Poems (poetry) 1960
Drowning with Others (poetry) 1962
Helmets (poetry) 1964
The Suspect in Poetry (criticism) 1964
Two Poems of the Air (poetry) 1964
Buckdancer's Choice (poetry) 1965
Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (criticism) 1968
Poems, 1957–1967 (poetry) 1968
∗Deliverance (novel) 1970
The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy (poetry) 1970
Self-Interviews (monologues) 1970
Sorties: Journals and New Essays (essays) 1971
The Zodiac [based on Hendrik Marsman's poem of the same title] (poem) 1976
The Strength of Fields (poem) 1977
Tucky the Hunter (children's poetry) 1978
The Strength of Fields [poetry collection; title poem published separately in 1977] (poetry) 1979
Scion (poetry) 1980
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1981
Puella (poetry) 1982
The Central Motion (poetry) 1983
Alnilam (novel) 1987
The Eagle's Mile [poetry collection; title poem published separately in 1981] (poetry) 1990
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992 (poetry) 1992
To the White Sea (novel) 1993
∗Dickey also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie.
(The entire section is 138 words.)
James Dickey with Ernest Suarez (interview date August 1989)
SOURCE: "An Interview with James Dickey," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 117-32.
[In the following interview, conducted in August, 1989, Dickey discusses his work, his life, and his political and literary ideas.]
At the age of thirty-five, James Dickey, in the poem "The Other," wrote of building his body so as to "keep me dying / Years longer." When I arrived at his house on Lake Katherine in Columbia, South Carolina, on August 8, 1989, Dickey asserted, with both eagerness and desperation in his voice, "There is so much I can write, if life will give me the time." An acute awareness of mortality and of its counterpart—the desire to create the illusion that death can be conquered—is never far from the heart of Dickey's work, which is pervaded by thoughts of a brother who died before Dickey was born, the deaths of his parents and friends, the carnage he witnessed in World War II and the Korean War, and his own bouts with serious illnesses.
The death of Dickey's close friend Robert Penn Warren in October 1989 leaves Dickey as the last living member of a long line of influential poets to emerge from Vanderbilt University in the first half of this century. During his often spectacular and always controversial career, now in its fifth decade, Dickey's achievements have been...
(The entire section is 6775 words.)
Albin Krebs (obituary date 21 January 1997)
SOURCE: "James Dickey, Two-Fisted Poet and the Author of Deliverance, is Dead at 73," in The New York Times, January 21, 1997, p. C27.
[In the following obituary, Krebs presents a detailed review of Dickey's life and career.]
James Dickey, one of the nation's most distinguished modern poets and a critic, lecturer and teacher perhaps best known for his rugged novel Deliverance, died on Sunday in Columbia, S.C. He was 73.
He died of complications of lung disease, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Dickey, a big, sprawling, life-loving, hard-drinking man once described as "a bare-chested bard," was a prolific poet whose work was admired for its "intense clarity," its "joyous imagination" and its "courageous tenderness."
His poems often sang the praises of fighter pilots, football players and backwoods Southerners, but, as one critic put it, they were also "deceptively simple metaphysical poems that search the lakes and trees and workday fragments of his experience for a clue to the meaning of existence."
In addition to books of essays and what he called self-interviews, Mr. Dickey turned out some 20 volumes of poetry, many of them vividly muscular and passionate, almost always composed in a solidly purposeful English. He avoided the affected, and he...
(The entire section is 2096 words.)
Reviews Of Dickey's Recent Works
Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 10 May 1991)
SOURCE: "Mumbling and Clanging," in Times Literary Supplement, May 10, 1991, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, Mackinnon condemns Dickey's The Eagle's Mile as "a clanging, overweening collection."]
[I]n the title poem, "The Eagle's Mile", in memory of Justice William Douglas, theoretically welcome as a public elegy and especially as one about such a man, Dickey invites the addressee to reappear in landscape and "power-hang in it all now, for all / The whole thing is worth: catch without warning / Somewhere in the North Georgia creek like ghostmuscle tensing / Forever, or on the high grass bed / Yellow of dawn, catch like a man stamp-printed by God- / shock, blue as the very foot / Of fire." All the words work like pistons in a museum engine, flailing, rhetorical and futile.
A quieter poem like "The Olympian", in which Dickey races "the Olympian, / Now my oldest boy's junior / High school algebra teacher" round his garden, reads better. The teacher trips "and on a bloated blessed doughnut-ring / Of rubber rolled" and laughs in a way Dickey "maybe" hears "all over the earth, where that day and any and every / Day after it, devil hindmost and Goddamn it / To glory, I lumbered for gold." "Lumbered" merits the epical overwriting that precedes it, but such touches of poetic self-awareness are too rare to redeem a...
(The entire section is 43596 words.)