James Dickey

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James Dickey
James Dickey (cropped).jpg
BornJames Lafayette Dickey
(1923-02-02)February 2, 1923
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
DiedJanuary 19, 1997(1997-01-19) (aged 73)[1][2]
Columbia, South Carolina, United States[1][2]
  • Poet
  • novelist
  • critic
  • lecturer
PeriodContemporary literature
Notable works
Notable awards
  • Maxine Syerson
    (m. 1948; died 1976)
  • Deborah Dodson
    (m. 1976)
Military career
Allegiance United States
Years of service
  • 1943 (1943) – 1946 (1946) (Army)
  • 1952 (1952) – 1954 (1954) (Air Force)

James Lafayette Dickey (February 2, 1923 – January 19, 1997) was an American poet and novelist.[3] He was appointed the eighteenth United States Poet Laureate in 1966.[5] He also received the Order of the South award.

Dickey is best known for his novel Deliverance (1970), which was adapted into the acclaimed 1972 film of the same name.

Early years[edit]

Dickey was born to lawyer Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift in Atlanta, Georgia, where he attended North Fulton High School in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood.[2] After graduation from North Fulton High in 1941, Dickey completed a postgraduate year at Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. Dickey asked to be dismissed from the Darlington rolls in a 1981 letter to the principal, deeming the school the most "disgusting combination of cant, hypocrisy, cruelty, class privilege and inanity I have ever since encountered at any human institution."[6]: 47–51 In 1942, he enrolled at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina and played on the football team as a tailback. After one semester, he left school to enlist in the military. During World War II, Dickey served with the U.S. Army Air Forces, where he flew thirty-eight missions in the Pacific Theater as a P-61 Black Widow radar operator with the 418th Night Fighter Squadron, an experience that influenced his work, and for which he was awarded five Bronze Stars.[4]: 2. He later served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Between the wars, he attended Vanderbilt University, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in English and philosophy (as well as minoring in astronomy) in 1949. He also received an M.A. in English from Vanderbilt in 1950.


Dickey taught as an instructor of English at Rice University (then Rice Institute) in Houston, Texas in 1950 and following his second Air Force stint, from 1952 to 1954, Dickey returned to academic teaching. Dickey then quit his teaching job at the University of Florida in the spring of 1956 after a group of the American Pen's Women's Society protested his reading of the poem called The Father's Body; he quit rather than apologize. This incident some critics believe he manipulated to his advantage, he became a successful copy writer for advertising agencies selling Coca-Cola and Lay's potato chips while in his free time writing some of his best poetry. He once said he embarked on his advertising career in order to "make some bucks." Dickey also said "I was selling my soul to the devil all day... and trying to buy it back at night." He was ultimately fired for shirking his work responsibilities.[7]

His first book, Into the Stone and Other Poems, was published in 1960. Drowning with Others was published in 1962, which led to a Guggenheim Fellowship (Norton Anthology, The Literature of the American South). Buckdancer's Choice (1965) earned him a National Book Award for Poetry.[8] Among his better-known poems are "The Performance", "Cherrylog Road", "The Firebombing", "May Day Sermon", "Falling", and "For The Last Wolverine".

He published his first volume of collected poems, Poems 1957-1967 in 1967 after being named a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. This publishing may represent Dickey's best work. After serving as a visiting lecturer at several institutions from 1963 to 1968 (including Reed College, California State University, Northridge, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Washington University in St. Louis and the Georgia Institute of Technology), Dickey returned to academia in earnest in 1969 as a professor of English and writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, a position he held for the remainder of his life. It was there that he was also inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa, the National Leadership Honor Society, in 1970.

Dickey wrote the poem The Moon Ground for Life magazine in celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing. His reading of it was broadcast on ABC television on July 20, 1969.[9]

His popularity exploded after the film version of his novel Deliverance was released in 1972. Dickey wrote the screenplay and had a cameo in the film as a sheriff.

On January 20, 1977, Dickey was invited to read his poem The Strength of Fields[10]: 378-379 at the inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

Personal life[edit]

In November 1948 he married Maxine Syerson, and three years later they had their first son, Christopher; a second son, Kevin, was born in 1958.

Christopher Dickey was a novelist and journalist, providing coverage from the Middle East for Newsweek. In 1998, Christopher wrote a book about his father and Christopher's own sometimes troubled relationship with him, titled Summer of Deliverance. Christopher died in July 2020.[11]

Kevin Dickey is an interventional radiologist and lives in Winston-Salem, NC.

Two months after Maxine died in 1976, Dickey married one of his students, Deborah Dodson.[12][13] Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981. Bronwen is an author, journalist, and lecturer. Her first book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon,[14] was published in 2016.


Dickey died on January 19, 1997, aged 73, six days after his last class at the University of South Carolina, where from 1968 he taught as poet-in-residence. Dickey spent his last years in and out of hospitals, afflicted with severe alcoholism,[12] jaundice and later pulmonary fibrosis.




  • — (10 September 1994) [1970]. Deliverance (Reprint ed.). Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-38-531387-2. LCCN 71100100. OCLC 472816545. OL 7439054M – via Internet Archive.
  • — (5 May 1987). Alnilam (First ed.). Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-38-506549-8. LCCN 86019699. OCLC 751299075. OL 2725934M – via Internet Archive.
  • — (1 September 1993). To the White Sea (First ed.). Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-39-547565-2. LCCN 93001247. OCLC 1132264321. OL 1394042M – via Internet Archive.


  • Into the Stone and Other Poems (in Poets of Today VII) (1960)
  • Drowning with Others (1962)
  • Two Poems of the Air (1964)
  • Helmets (1964)
  • Buckdancer's Choice: Poems (1965) —winner of the National Book Award[8]
  • Poems 1957-67 (1967)
  • The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems (1968)
  • The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970)
  • Exchanges (1971)
  • The Zodiac (1976)
  • The Owl King (1977)
  • Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49 (1978)
  • Tucky the Hunter (1978)
  • Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish (1979)
  • The Strength of Fields (1979)
  • Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (1981)
  • The Early Motion (1981)
  • Puella (1982)
  • Värmland (1982)
  • False Youth: Four Seasons (1983)
  • For a Time and Place (1983)
  • Intervisions (1983)
  • The Central Motion: Poems 1968-79 (1983)
  • Bronwen, The Traw, and the Shape-Shifter: A Poem in Four Parts (1986)
  • Summons (1988)
  • The Eagle's Mile (1990)
  • — (15 March 1992). The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992. Wesleyan Poetry. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 978-0-81-952202-3. LCCN 91050811. OCLC 767498572. OL 1566756M – via Internet Archive.
  • The Selected Poems (1998)
  • The Complete Poems of James Dickey (2013)
  • Death, and the Day's Light (2015)

Illustrated prose[edit]




  1. ^ a b c d e f g Krebs, Albin (21 January 1997). "James Dickey, Two-Fisted Poet and the Author of 'Deliverance,' Is Dead at 73". Section D. The New York Times (National ed.). p. 22. eISSN 1553-8095. ISSN 0362-4331. LCCN sn00061556. OCLC 1645522. Archived from the original on 14 January 2022. Retrieved 31 January 2022. Mr. Dickey's first wife, Maxine, died in 1976, and two months later he married Deborah Dodson, who was one of his students. He is survived by his wife; two sons, Kevin and Christopher, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Bronwen Elaine.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Oliver, Myrna (21 January 1997). "James Dickey; Prolific Poet, Author of 'Deliverance'". Los Angeles Times. eISSN 2165-1736. ISSN 0458-3035. LCCN 2011267049. OCLC 3638237. Archived from the original on 8 March 2021. Retrieved 31 January 2022. During World War II, Dickey flew more than 100 combat missions in the Pacific. He later reenlisted to fly in the Korean War.
  3. ^ a b Garner, Dwight (24 August 2010). "'Deliverance': A Dark Heart Still Beating". Section C. The New York Times (New York ed.). p. 1. eISSN 1553-8095. ISSN 0362-4331. LCCN sn00061556. OCLC 1645522. Archived from the original on 14 January 2022. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g — (30 May 2005). Van Ness, Gordon (ed.). The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997. Vol. 1. University of Missouri Press. ISBN 978-0-82-621572-7. LCCN 2005002500. OCLC 57577371. OL 8166470M – via Internet Archive. p. 2: Dickey's entrance into World War II immersed him in that element which would transfix his imagination. He was a P-61 navigator, part of the 418th Night Fighter Squadron stationed in the Philippine Islands, then in the process of being turned from a defensive unit into a squadron whose sorties would be primarily offensive, flying intruder missions to bomb and strafe
  5. ^ "James Dickey | U.S. Consultant in Poetry, 1966-1968". United States Poet Laureate. Library of Congress. n.d. Archived from the original on 19 April 2021. Retrieved 1 February 2022.
  6. ^ Hart, Henry (1 April 2000). James Dickey: The World as a Lie (First ed.). Picador USA. ISBN 978-0-31-220320-7. LCCN 99054788. OCLC 247859178. OL 50392M – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ Currey, Mason (2 May 2013). "Is the Key to Becoming a Great Writer Having a Day Job?". Slate. eISSN 1091-2339. ISSN 1090-6584. OCLC 1010591826. Archived from the original on 16 June 2021. Retrieved 31 January 2022. James Dickey attempted a similar balancing act between writing and advertising, only he flagrantly deceived his bosses in order to work on his poetry in the office (and eventually got fired for his obvious disregard for his advertising duties).
  8. ^ a b "Buckdancer's Choice: Poems | Winner, National Book Awards 1966 for Poetry". National Book Foundation. 1966. Archived from the original on 20 October 2021. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  9. ^ James Dickey reads "The Moon Ground," 1969 on YouTube
  10. ^ — (15 March 1992). "The Strength of Fields". The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945–1992. Wesleyan Poetry. Wesleyan University Press. pp. 378–379. ISBN 978-0-81-952202-3. LCCN 91050811. OCLC 767498572. OL 1566756M – via Internet Archive.
  11. ^ Nadeau, Barbie Latza (16 July 2020). "Legendary Foreign Correspondent Chris Dickey Dies in Paris". Europe. The Daily Beast. Archived from the original on 18 January 2022. Retrieved 1 February 2022. We talked at length about what it was like to be the poet and novelist James Dickey's son and about the summer he was on the film set with Burt Reynolds when they filmed Deliverance, which his father wrote. He had just written his memoir Summer of Deliverance and the stories were raw, and he was honest about the pain of his father's genius and his mother's demons.
  12. ^ a b Davison, Peter (1 August 1998). "The Burden of James Dickey". The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 282, no. 2. eISSN 2151-9463. ISSN 1072-7825. LCCN 93642583. OCLC 1098736991. Archived from the original on 21 January 2022. Christopher Dickey watched his father and his mother sink into deep alcoholism, watched the enormous talents of the poet dissipate, watched his mother die of complications from cirrhosis and his father marry, in haste, one of his young students, who later became addicted to narcotics.
  13. ^ Trueheart, Charles (24 May 1987). "James Dickey's Celestial Navigations". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. LCCN sn79002172. OCLC 2269358. Retrieved 1 February 2022. In what might be called Dickey's second life, he's the husband of a 35-year-old former student, Deborah Dodson Dickey, called Debba, who is nearly as tall as he, and he is 6 feet 3. He married her in 1976, two months and two days after the death of his first wife. They have a little girl named Bronwen, who is 6.
  14. ^ Dickey, Bronwen (10 May 2016). Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon (Illustrated ed.). Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-30-796176-1. LCCN 2017385667. OCLC 991422085. OL 27405899M.

External links[edit]