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."