South Carolina Encyclopedia Guide to South Carolina Writers

By Tom Mack | Go to book overview

Dickey, James (1923–1997).

Poet, novelist, educator. Considered in the 1960s to be the chief rival to Robert Lowell as the major poet of the generation, James Dickey spent almost thirty years as resident poet and Carolina Professor of English at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Dickey was born on February 2, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift. He graduated from North Fulton High School in 1941. After an unhappy preparatory year at Darlington Academy in Rome, Georgia, he enrolled for the fall semester of 1942 at Clemson College to play football. He performed well only in one game, but his Clemson experience established a basis for a myth of Dickey as sports star. At the end of the football season, he left Clemson to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served in the Pacific as a radar observer.

After the war Dickey moved on to Vanderbilt University. He received a bachelor’s degree with high honors in 1949 and an M.A. in 1950. He married Maxine Webster Syerson on November 4, 1948. The marriage produced two sons. Dickey taught at Rice University until he was recalled for the war in Korea. After the war he returned to Rice until l954, when he received a Sewanee Review fellowship to spend a year in Europe writing poetry.

On his return, Dickey accepted an instructorship at the University of Florida but resigned in response to verbal flack received from reading a poem in progress, “My Father’s Body.” After six years as a copywriter and director in advertising firms in New York and Atlanta, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961. This permitted a return to Europe, where he, like many other southern writers, wrote about the South from a faraway country. He subsequently abandoned his moneymaking advertising career to go “barnstorming for poetry.” Dickey performed well as poet-in-residence at Reed College (1963–1964), San Fernando Valley State (1965), and the University of Wisconsin (1966), climaxed by his appointment as poetry consultant (1966–1968) at the Library of Congress, where he was successful at setting up readings.

In 1968 Dickey was appointed the first Carolina Professor at the University of South Carolina and settled in Columbia, beginning thirty years of distinguished teaching there. Maxine Dickey died on October 27, 1976. Shortly thereafter, on December 30, 1976, Dickey married a student, Deborah Dodson. The couple had one daughter.

Dickey published widely, including books of poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and children’s literature. In two of the three volumes of literary criticism, The Suspect in Poetry (1964) and Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Today (1965), Dickey identified the “suspect” in poetry as a failure to involve the reader.

His readings of the Cambridge anthropologists, his discovery of Theodore Roethke, and a friendship with the poet James Wright led to an interest in “country surrealism,” a blending of nature and fantasy. Dickey also mastered an empathetic exchange of identity, as with his dog sleeping on his feet or with a dead soldier whose helmet he donned or with a flight attendant falling to her death. “The String,” a poem from his first book, Into the Stone (1960), introduced the theme of the survivor, beginning with Dickey’s view of himself as a replacement child for a dead brother. A plenitude of like poems appeared in Drowning with Others (1962), Helmets (1964), and Buckdancer’s Choice (1965), which won the National Book

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