James Dickey launched his career as a poet surprisingly late in life. His first collection, Into the Stone and Other Poems, was published when he was thirty-seven years old. Dickeys experience in the military, academic, and advertising worlds before his emergence as a writer provided subjects and training for his art.
Born on February 2, 1923 in Buckhead, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, to lawyer Eugene Dickey and his wife Maibelle Swift Dickey, James graduated from North Fulton High School. In 1941 he entered Clemson A & M College, where he played wingback on the football team. The following year he joined the Army Air Corps and as a member of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron was involved in more than one hundred bombing missions in the South Pacific.
After World War II, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University, from which he received a B.A. in English magna cum laude in 1949 and an M.A. in English in 1950. While at Vanderbilt, he published four poems in the campus literary magazine, The Gadfly, and one The Shark at the Window- in the Sewanee Review. During his undergraduate years he married Maxine Syerson, with whom he had two sons Christopher, born in 1951, and Kevin, born in 1958.
Dickeys first teaching position, at Rice Institute in Houston, was interrupted when he was recalled by the air force for service in Korea. Following his discharge, he returned to Rice but left there in 1954 to travel and write in Europe on a Sewanee Review fellowship. A 1956 teaching appointment in the University of Florida English department was cut short when Dickey resigned because of a dispute over his reading of his poem The Fathers Body. In April 1956, he began a successful career as copywriter and executive for advertising agencies in New York and Atlanta. During his years as an ad man, Dickey continued writing poetry, for which he received several awards, including Poetrys Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize in 1958 and both the Longview Foundation Award and the Vachal Lindsay Prize in 1959.
During the 1960s, Dickey began to flourish as a poet-teacher. Following the publication of Into the Stone in 1960, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to spend 1961-62 writing in Italy. Drowning with Others appeared in 1962; Helmets and a collection of reviews and essays, The Suspect in Poetry, in 1964; and Buckdancers Choice in 1965. For Buckdancers Choice he received the 1966 National Book Award for poetry. During this period Dickey also served as poet-in-residence at several colleges and universities. He spent time at Reed College (1963-64), San Fernando Valley State College (1964-65), and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1966-67). From 1966 to 1968 he was Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress. Poems 1957-1967 was published in 1967 and Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now in 1968. In 1969 Dickey became professor of English and writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, a position he held until his death.
The 1970s saw Dickey experimenting with a wide variety of genres. In 1970 his novel, Deliverance, the collection The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, and a volume of essays, Self-Interviews, were published, followed the next year by Sorties, a journal and new essays. In 1972 he acted as scriptwriter and consultant for the movie version of Deliverance, which won several Academy Award nominations and in which he played the role of Sheriff Bullard. Jericho: The South Beheld, with text by Dickey and paintings by Hubert Shuptine, appeared in 1974. Dickey wrote the script for the television production of Jack Londons The Call of the Wild in 1975, and in 1976 he published the long poem The Zodiac. That same year his wife Maxine Dickey died, and he married Deborah Dodson, with whom he had a daughter, Bronwen, in 1981.
During 1977, he read The Strength of Fields, a poem he wrote for the ceremonies at President Jimmy Carters inauguration. That year he also published Gods Images, which included his text and Marvin Hayess engravings for Bible episodes. Tucky the Hunter, a childrens poem, appeared in 1978, and the collection The Strength of Fields in 1979. Puella, five poems of which had earlier won the Levinson Prize, was published in 1982, followed by Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords in 1983.
In 1990, USC awarded Dickey with an honorary Doctor of Literature. In 1996, he received the Harriet Monroe Prize for lifetime achievement in American Letters. Dickey died in 1997 while having complications from a lung disorder.
Baughman, Ronald. Understanding James Dickey, University of South Carolina Press; Columbia, South Carolina; 1985.
Doxey, William. Notes on Contemporary Literature, Carollton, Georgia; May 1989
The James Dickey Page. www.axs2k.net/goethe