The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997

The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997

The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997

The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970-1997


This book completes and complements the first volume of the letters and life of James Dickey. Picking up where the previous volume left off, "The One Voice of James Dickey: His Letters and Life, 1970 1997" chronicles Dickey's career from the unparalleled success of his novel "Deliverance" in 1970 through his poetic experimentation in such books as "The Eye Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy" and "Puella "until his death in 1997. A prolific correspondent, Dickey tried to write at least three letters a day, and these letters provide a unique way for Gordon Van Ness to portray the vast and varied panorama of Dickey's life. The letters are grouped by decade largely because Dickey's life was so very different in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. The chapter titles and their progression, as in the first volume, reflect Dickey's sense that his life and career were a kind of warfare and that he was on a mission. A final section, Debriefings, offers a concise overview of Dickey's full career. In earlier chapters, letters to people as varied as Saul Bellow, Arthur Schlesinger, and Robert Penn Warren indicate Dickey's belief that this correspondence was a valuable networking tool, likely to open up new opportunities, while other letters, such as ones to Dickey's oldest son, Christopher, expose the tender aspects of the author's character. No other critical study so well projects the development of Dickey's career while simultaneously exhibiting the diversity of his interests and the often-conflicting sides of his personality. In the strictest sense, this volume is not a life-in-letters, but it does provide a general sense of Dickey's comings, goings, and doings. Van Ness's selection of letters suggests an acute understanding of Dickey, and his editorial commentary examines and reveals Dickey's brilliance."


For James Dickey, writing was always a statement of identity, revealing variations of himself that he emotionally or psychologically needed to project and promote. His poetry and fiction, therefore, properly read, reflect his complex personality and provide a sense of its development. Dickey himself admitted as much in Self-Interviews, published in 1970: “I have never been able to dissociate the poem from the poet, and I hope I never will. I really don’t believe in Eliot’s theory of autotelic art, in which the poem has nothing to do with the man who wrote it. I think that’s the most absolute rubbish!” His correspondence is no different; it portrays who Dickey essentially was, his one voice. As he wrote in an unpublished letter to Donald Hall dated February 10, 1963, “It’s good to do new things, as you are doing, but it is also good to remember that a writer has one main stream running through him and a lot of tributaries that feed into it (also a lot of sumps and stagnant water), and that the work has force and truth only in that current, as it must flow.” Dickey’s work had force and truth precisely because he recognized that “one main stream” and flowed with it. It was who he was.

Dickey loved rivers and streams, oceans, lakes, swimming pools—any body of water. His son Christopher, recognizing this fact, related in his memoir, “Wherever we went he was drawn to them, and if we could, we lived near them, and if we could not, he sought them out.” It is as if water for Dickey held within it a secret promise, another life, as if its various forms, motions, and locations identified him. It is not surprising, therefore, that in his letter to Hall, who was then struggling to write poetry distinctive in subject and style and who had recently sent Dickey a group of poems for comment (Dickey best liked one entitled “The Swamp”), he should utilize the image of flowing water to epitomize not only the writer but also the process by which he wrote.

1. Self-Interviews (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 24.

2. Hall’s correspondence is in the Milne Special Collection and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham.

3. Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 128.

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