James Dickey

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James Dickey
James Dickey.jpg
Born James Lafayette Dickey
(1923-02-02)February 2, 1923
Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Died January 19, 1997(1997-01-19) (aged 73)
Columbia, South Carolina, United States
Occupation Poet, novelist, critic, lecturer
Nationality American
Period Contemporary literature
Notable works
Notable awards
Spouses Maxine Syerson
(m. 1948–1976; her death)
Deborah Dodson
(m. 1976–1997; divorced)
Children Christopher Dickey
Kevin Dickey
Bronwen Dickey


James Lafayette Dickey (February 2, 1923 – January 19, 1997) was an American poet and novelist.[1] He was appointed the eighteenth United States Poet Laureate in 1966.[2] He also received the Order of the South award. Dickey was also a novelist, known for Deliverance (1970) which was adapted into an acclaimed film of the same name.


Early years

James 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. 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."[3] 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 Army Air Corps. Dickey served with the U.S. Army Air Forces as a radar operator in a night fighter squadron during the Second World War, and 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. After teaching at the University of Florida during the 1955-1956 academic year, he worked for several years in advertising, most notably writing copy and helping direct creative work on the Coca-Cola and Lay's Potato Chips campaign. 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.

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.[6]

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

The poet was invited to read his poem "The Strength of Fields" at President Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977.

Personal life

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. Two months after Maxine died in 1976, Dickey married Deborah Dodson. Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981. Christopher Dickey is a novelist and journalist, lately 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. Kevin Dickey is a radiologist and lives in Winston-Salem, NC. Bronwen Dickey is a writer. Her first book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, was published in 2016.[7]


James Dickey died on January 19, 1997, 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 first with jaundice and later pulmonary fibrosis.



  • Deliverance (1970)
  • Alnilam (1987)
  • To The White Sea (1993)


  • Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960)
  • Drowning with Others (1962)
  • Two Poems of the Air(1964)
  • Helmets (1964)
  • Buckdancer's Choice: Poems (1965) —winner of the National Book Award[5]
  • 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)
  • For the Death of Vince Lombardi (1971)
  • The Zodiac (1976)
  • Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49 (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)
  • The Eagle's Mile (1990)
  • The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92 (1992)
  • Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like the Bee

Illustrated prose

  • In Pursuit of the Grey Soul (1978)


  • Jericho: The South Beheld (1974) (with Hubert Shuptrine)


  • Lord, Let Me Die, But Not Die Out (documentary) (1970)
  • Deliverance (novel / screenplay) (1972) - Sheriff Bullard (final film role)
  • The Call of the Wild (screenplay) (1976)


  1. ^ The New York Times
  2. ^ "Poet Laureate Timeline: 1961-1970". Library of Congress. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-19. 
  3. ^ Hart, Henry (2001-09-08). James Dickey: The World as a Lie. Picador. ISBN 9781466828650. 
  4. ^ Currey, Mason (2 May 2013). "Keep Your Day Job". Slate. 
  5. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 1966". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-26.
    (With essay by Patrick Rosal from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  6. ^ YouTube
  7. ^ Penguinrandomhouse.com

External links

  • James Dickey Newsletter & Society
  • The James Dickey Page
  • CNN Audio Clips with James Dickey
  • 1977 audio interview of James Dickey by Stephen Banker
  • James Dickey at Academy of American Poets — with brief biography and selected list of works
  • The James Dickey Library at the University of South Carolina
  • James Dickey Papers at Washington University in St. Louis
  • James Dickey in New Georgia Encyclopedia
  • James Dickey at Modern American Poetry
  • James Dickey on IMDb
  • James Dickey Revisited - online "themed issue" of the South Carolina Review that collects all pieces by and about James Dickey that have been published in that literary journal since 2001, in addition to content related to a James Dickey Festival that was hosted at Clemson University.
  • "Deliverance: A Dark Heart Still Beating - The Novel Turns 40" by Dwight Garner in The New York Times
  • Bronwen Dickey on her father's legacy
  • Clark Powell Harbinger, "James Dickey: A Personal Memory"
  • James Dickey at Library of Congress Authorities — with 95 catalog records
  • "James Dickey, The Art of Poetry No. 20". The Paris Review (Interview) (65). Interviewed by Franklin Ashley. Spring 1976. 
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