Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature

By Michael Cocchiarale; Scott D. Emmert | Go to book overview
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The Football Elegies of James Dickey
and Randall Jarrell: Hegemonic Masculinity
versus the ‘Semifeminine Mind’

Diederik Oostdijk

In 1966, Life magazine featured a lengthy article on the poet James Dickey (1923–1997) called “The Unlikeliest Poet,” which gave Dickey’s reputation “its most substantial boost” of the decade, according to his biographer Henry Hart (350).1 It was unusual that a popular general-interest magazine such as Life would devote such a prominent story to a contemporary poet, but as the article’s title suggested, Dickey was no ordinary poet. Physically he measured over six feet and was a broad-shouldered man with an attractive smile. His vita was also untypical for a poet. The article noted that Dickey had been an outstanding athlete whose college football career at Clemson was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Dickey reportedly went on to become a decorated combat pilot during that war. After his honorable discharge from the Air Corps, he transferred to Vanderbilt, but he “found himself banned from the game [of football] by a conference rule designed to keep coaches from stealing each others’ returning service athletes” (O’Neill 66). Dickey subsequently embarked on a career in the advertising industry, inventing jingles for Coca-Cola and Lay’s potato chips, among others. He wrote his poems in his spare time. A few years after the interview, Dickey would become a national celebrity when his novel Deliverance (1970) became a bestseller and its movie adaptation (1972) a box-office success. From all signs, Dickey indeed looked like “The Unlikeliest Poet.”

What the journalist from Life and many other people at that time did not know was that Dickey was an inveterate liar. Throughout his life, Dickey concocted stories that embellished or distorted actual events, especially regarding his youth. Paul O’Neill took Dickey at his word without checking his sources, for he gullibly wrote that “in his college freshman year at Clemson [Dickey] was a football star with pro potential” (67). However, in his detailed biography of the late poet, Henry Hart argues that professional football “was never a possibility for Dickey” (51). The cold facts of Dickey’s college career


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Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature
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