James Dickey Biography

James Dickey Biography

James Dickey, though he published an astounding amount of poetry throughout his lengthy career, is most closely associated with the line “Squeal like a pig!” Ironically, it is a line he never wrote. Its fame comes from the harrowing and iconic rape scene in the film version of Dickey’s first novel, Deliverance. The film was critically lauded and received numerous Academy Award nominations, and the novel itself was in many ways emblematic of Dickey’s other works. In all his writing, Dickey focused on the poetic and the metaphysical, with a particular emphasis on nature. In 1987, he published his second novel, Alnilam, a large, challenging book that never managed to achieve the success of Deliverance.

Facts and Trivia

  • As a young man, Dickey served in both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force during World War II and the Korean War, respectively.
  • For two years in the mid-1960s, Dickey was the poetry consultant to the National Library of Congress.
  • Dickey received a National Book Award for his 1966 poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice.
  • In 1973, he was nominated for an Academy Award for adapting his first novel, Deliverance, to the screen.
  • Dickey was the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina and taught there for nearly thirty years, right up until his death in 1997.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226223-Dickey.jpg James Dickey Published by Salem Press, Inc.

James Lafayette Dickey was born on February 2, 1923, in Atlanta, son of Eugene Dickey, a lawyer, and Maibelle Swift Dickey. The Dickeys’ firstborn son, Eugene, died four years before James was born. Eugene’s death from spinal meningitis at the age of six is the subject of Dickey’s poem “The String,” in which the poet’s guilt feelings appear in the refrain “Dead before I was born.”

Dickey was an excellent athlete who played football at North Fulton High School, from which he graduated in 1942. He then enrolled at Clemson Agricultural College in South Carolina, where he played football before quitting school after one semester to join the Army Air Force. Dickey spent four years, 1942-1946, in military service, flying about a hundred missions for the 418th Night Fighters in the South Pacific. The poem “The Firebombing” and many of the other poems in Helmets (1964) and Buckdancer’s Choice (1965) raise questions prompted by his participation as a pilot in the devastation of Japanese cities. Dickey has remarked that he first began reading poetry while in the Air Force. He frequented the library stacks, he says, while waiting for the librarian he was dating to finish work.

In 1946, his military service completed, Dickey transferred from Clemson to Vanderbilt University. He also gave up football for track and set the Tennessee state record for the 120-yard high hurdles. Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt in the wake of three significant literary movements at that university: the fugitive period of the 1920’s, the agrarianism of the 1930’s, and the blossoming of the New Criticism in the 1940’s. Although he sympathized with the Vanderbilt writers in their skepticism about industrialization, he kept literary movements at arm’s length throughout his career and is not identified with any school.

Dickey married Maxine Syerson in 1948, and they had two sons: Christopher Swift, born in 1951, and Kevin Webster, in 1958. Maxine died in 1976, and later that year Dickey married Deborah Dodson. Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981. Dickey received his A.B. degree from Vanderbilt in 1949 and the next year was awarded an M.A. after writing a thesis on Herman Melville’s poems. He was able to complete the fall semester as an instructor at the Rice Institute in Houston, Texas, before being called back into the Air Force to serve in the Korean War. Following...

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James Dickey Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The importance of nature and the inherent struggle for survival in a hostile, or just indifferent, world runs all through Dickey’s work; the need for physical communion with the substantial world outside the all-consuming ego appears everywhere. Deliverance’s Ed Gentry scaling a two-hundred-foot cliff, embracing the solid earth of north Georgia, is emblematic of this longing for merging in Dickey’s sensibility. With this spiritual yearning goes an acceptance of the violence that is built into natural selection and is a given fact of existence that is better acknowledged than suppressed. Dickey was a writer of considerable breadth of learning, although his work is never literary and allusive in diction and symbol.

James Dickey Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born and reared in Atlanta, Georgia, James Lafayette Dickey attended public schools and experienced a typical twentieth century boyhood and adolescence. He excelled in sports and became a notable football player at Clemson University. During World War II and the Korean War, Dickey flew more than one hundred night combat missions. Returning to the United States after World War II, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University. There the subjects of his compositions for a writing course, based on his war experiences, made Dickey stand out from other students, who were writing about their summer vacations.

At Vanderbilt, Dickey absorbed the literary tradition established by the Fugitive poets, such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, and discovered himself to be a poet. He graduated with honors and went on to finish a master’s degree before taking a job teaching English in college. He left teaching for immediate success in advertising, first in New York and later in Atlanta. A grant allowed him to retire from advertising in his mid-thirties and pursue writing full time. He became convinced of the absolute necessity and worth of writing, of writing as a calling demanding total commitment and absorption. His poems were the narration of intense experiences both imaginary and real, whether the dreamlike falling of a flight attendant into a midwestern cornfield or the shark-fishing experience of young boys. As he wrote his poems as extended narratives, it was natural for Dickey also to write novels. Like his poems, his novels deal with human intensities on a visceral level, where the limits of human vulnerability and endurance are explored.

James Dickey Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Born to lawyer Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift Dickey in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, James Lafayette Dickey was a mediocre high school student who preferred the athletic field to the classroom. After becoming an acclaimed football player at North Fulton High School, Dickey went on to play wingback at Clemson College in 1941 before joining the Army Air Corps the following year. Dickey was assigned to the 418th Night Fighter Squadron because of his exceptional night vision. He flew more than one hundred combat missions in the South Pacific, for which he was awarded several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. After World War II, Dickey enrolled at Vanderbilt University with the intention of pursuing a career as a writer. In 1949, he earned a B.A. in English magna cum laude; he stayed on at Vanderbilt to take an M.A. in English, writing a thesis titled “Symbol and Imagery in the Shorter Poems of Herman Melville.” While at the university, he also joined the track team and won the Tennessee State High Hurdles Championship. He published several poems in the campus literary magazine and one in Sewanee Review; he also married Maxine Syerson, with whom he had two sons.

In 1951, Dickey began teaching at Rice University before being recalled by the Air Force to fight in the Korean War. Following his discharge, Dickey returned to teach at Rice briefly, before earning a fellowship from Sewanee Review, which he used to travel and...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

James Dickey Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

James Dickey Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Anyone who assumes that the biography of a poet is bound to be filled with a list of mundane academic positions and descriptions of a lofty,...

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James Dickey Biography

(Novels for Students)

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