Near the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessentially American novel The Great Gatsby (1925), narrator Nick Carraway discovers that the book’s fabulous and mysterious main character began life as the much more prosaic Jay Gatz and, through sheer determination (aided not a little by luck) transformed himself into the radiant, elusive figure of Gatsby. The self-evolution of Gatz to Gatsby is one of the fundamental national myths of the United States: potential rebirth as the glorious, much-loved, and always successful Other one wishes to be—in fact, was meant to be, had not destiny and reality somehow failed to mesh at some critical moment in the past. However, the United States is literally a “new found land,” and in such a land transformations, however implausible, are always possible. It only takes imagination, discipline and a vision of that Other one wishes to become. Thus, on a flyleaf of a book titled Hopalong Cassidy, Nick Carraway finds the magical, transforming “schedule” of young Jay Gatz:
Rise from bed 6:00 a.m.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling 6:15-6:30 “
Study electricity, etc. 7:15-8:15 “
Work 8:30-4:30 p.m.
Baseball and sports 4:30-5:00 “
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5:00-6:00 “
Study needed inventions 7:00-9:00 “
Thus, early on in Henry Hart’s definitive biography of James Dickey, readers find a remarkably similar schedule from one of the United States’ preeminent poets, at the beginning of his career. Called up for military service in the Korean conflict and mired at a backwater airbase on the Gulf of Mexico, the young Dickey embraces change and ambition with all the fervor of Fitzgerald’s hero:
1. Thirty lines of poetry a day; either on one poem complete or part of another.
2. Two pages of the novel a day.
3. At least twenty pages of poetry read carefully every day.
4. Fifty pages of prose a day.
Like the schedule of Jay Gatz, this strict routine bespeaks a man determined to transform himself from what he is to what he wishes to be. In the end, the ultimate tragedy of both Jay Gatsby and James Dickey is that each man achieved more of his dreams than he ever could have thought possible, yet, in the end, neither could ever quite believe in his own accomplishments. For both men, the world they had created for themselves remained a lie and thus was constantly in need of re-creation and renewal. The lies proved at once too weak and yet too powerful for their creators. Gatsby died as his self-created world collapsed around him, while James Dickey’s instinctive and indeed only strategy to establish the truth of his personal lie was to plunge recklessly into ever greater and wilder mendacity.
James Dickey’s determination to remake his life and accomplishments began early and continued throughout his life. Born and raised in upper-middle-class comfort in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, Georgia, Dickey was a tolerably good athlete, an intelligent but sometimes indifferent student, and, strangely enough for a boy of his time and background, increasingly interested in writing, especially poetry. He began to write on a regular basis and even considered literature as a possible career. With the coming of World War II, Dickey left Clemson University to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps.
He never made pilot, becoming instead the equally important (but to him obviously less glamorous, less masculine) navigator, the “brains of the plane.” Dickey seldom let that inconvenient fact bother him: Until almost the end of his life he regularly claimed to have flown over one hundred combat missions as the pilot of a fighter-bomber during World War II and Korea; to have shot down enemy planes in dog-fights; and to have won the Purple Heart. At least once he broadly hinted that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, a lie so flimsily flagrant and so easily exposed that it argues a deep psychological divide in Dickey, if not outright contempt for his listeners and perhaps for himself.
That divide, between the world as truth and as a lie, is at the center of Henry Hart’s massive biography of a man who is at once one of America’s greatest and yet least important poets, a figure who fashioned some of the most enduring works in U.S. literature and some of the most inconsequential. During his ascent, the years from the end of World War...
(The entire section is 1815 words.)