James Dickey

Start Free Trial

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 his discharge from military service in 1952, Dickey returned to Rice for two more years and began writing poetry. A Sewanee Review fellowship in 1954 helped him support his family for a year in Europe, after which he returned in 1955 to teach at the University of Florida. His academic career proved a disappointment when he found himself loaded down with composition classes, and the final blow came when his reading of “The Father’s Body” to a Gainesville audience led to demands for an apology. Rather than apologize, Dickey resigned from the university.

Dickey continued to write—and publish—poetry, but he did it while living in New York City, where he took a job writing advertising copy for the McCann-Erickson agency. In 1958, still with McCann-Erickson, Dickey returned to Atlanta; he soon switched to Liller Neal, a smaller firm, and then to Burke Dowling Adams, where he was creative director and vice president.

His poetry accumulated during these years, and he published two collections, Into the Stone, and Other Poems (1960) and Drowning with Others (1962). He was awarded the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize (1958), the Vachel Lindsay Prize, and the Longview Foundation Award (both in 1959), followed in 1961 by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Dickey at this...

(This entire section contains 987 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

time left the advertising business to become a full-time poet and took his family to Italy, where he traveled and wrote for a year before taking up poet-in-residence appointments at Reed College (1963-1964) and San Fernando Valley State College (1964-1965).

Dickey’s reputation as one of the United States’ ranking poets was solidified by the publication of Helmets and Buckdancer’s Choice. Buckdancer’s Choice won the National Book Award for poetry, the Melville Cane Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. With these honors in 1966 came a brief stint as poet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an appointment as consultant in poetry for the Library of Congress (1966-1968). In 1969, Dickey became Carolina Professor of English and writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he remained until his death.

Although he continued to publish poetry in the 1970’s and 1980’s, some of which was well received, it was Dickey’s early work in Helmets and Buckdancer’s Choice that critics valued most highly. His first novel, Deliverance (1970), was both a popular and a critical success, and it was made into a successful film starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds, with Dickey himself writing the script and playing the sheriff. His second novel, Alnilam (1987), on which he worked for more than a decade, was not so well received.

Besides fiction and poetry, Dickey has written some notable criticism, especially in Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (1968). An outspoken critic, he gave poor grades to such major figures as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams and judged Allen Ginsberg an absolute failure. Among the poets he prized are Theodore Roethke, Rainer Maria Rilke, and D. H. Lawrence.

In 1974, Dickey published Jericho: The South Beheld, a sumptuous coffee-table volume in which his prose poems were accompanied by illustrations by Hubert Shuptrine. It was a commercial success, but it seemed to his critics to be a diversion from a serious literary career. The children’s book Tucky the Hunter (1978) and another volume of poems, The Strength of Fields (1979), rounded out another decade of diverse and generally well-received accomplishment. The 1980’s were most conspicuously marked by the second novel, Alnilam, and Puella (1982), a collection of poems about a young girl’s maturing. Dickey published two poetry collections and a novel in the early 1990’s. He died in 1997.


Critical Essays