James Dickey Biography

From Christopher Dickey's blog Deep Deliverance

James Lafayette Dickey III, destined to become nationally and internationally recognized as poet, novelist, essayist, and critic, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, February 2, 1923. The third child of Maibelle Swift Dickey and Eugene Dickey, his birth occurred at Piedmont Hospital.

The couple's first child, a daughter, named Maibelle Swift Dickey (2 July 1912 - 11 April 1998), had been followed by a son, Eugene, Jr. (14 September 1914 - 4 April 1921). With the ideal family, the Dickeys' circle seemed complete; however, Eugene, Jr., died before his seventh birthday.

Thus, a third child and second son, James L. Dickey III, was named after his grandfather (James Lafayette Dickey (29 September 1847 - 29 October 1910), and his uncle, James Lafayette Dickey Jr. (13 September 1875 - 15 May 1968). A fourth child, another son, was named Thomas Swift Dickey (5 February 1925 - 8 December 1987).

James Lafayette Dickey III, or Jim, grew up in Atlanta, attending Ed S. Cook Elementary School and North Fulton High School in Buckhead, then a relatively rural town on the city's outskirts. An athlete during his high school years, Jim played football and ran track, specializing in the hurdles. After graduating from North Fulton High School, Jim attended the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, for one year in preparation for a college education and a college football career at the University of Clemson, Clemson, South Carolina. Attending only in the 1942 fall semester, he dropped out to enlist in the Army Air Corps to serve in World War II. Entering flight training school, he emerged as radar observer and navigator, and in these capacities flew thirty-nine missions in the 418th Night Fighter Squadron based in the South Pacific. The squadron's log, written in part by Dickey, vividly records the poet's airborne sorties.

Jim's poetry career began, as he related, when his letters to girls back home - "who I didn't want to forget me" - reached a stage of imaginative development that even the nineteen-year-old writing from the South Pacific could recognize. He began to read widely while in the South Pacific, asking his mother to send him volumes and volumes of poetry of both the classic poets and the contemporary poets. His published early notebooks - Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey, edited by Gordon Van Ness - although not begun until several years later - records Dickey's long years of poet-apprenticeship.

Dickey married Maxine Webster Syerson ( - 1976) 4 November 1948 in Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended Vanderbilt University on the G. I. Bill. In 1949, he received the BA in English with a minor in philosophy, graduating fourteenth in a class of 446, qualifying for Phi Beta Kappa. In 1950, he received the MA in English, and began a teaching career at Rice Institute in Houston, Texas. Dickey was recalled to duty in Korea as flight training instructor.

Dickey continued teaching after his discharge from the Korean conflict, returning to Rice. He worked extensively in his notebooks during this period, fully documenting his development as poet and critic. Dickey became a full-time poet when he was awarded a Sewanee Review writer's fellowship which enabled him to live with his family in France and Italy for a year beginning in August 1954. Upon his return from Europe, Dickey taught at the University of Florida until his reading of his poem "The Father's Body" to a local women's group stirred a controversy. At the center of the controversy over the attempt to censor his work, Dickey left teaching and began a career in advertising with the McCann-Erickson Agency in New York, returning to Atlanta in 1956.

He called his years in advertising, "selling his soul to the devil in the daytime and buying it back at night." In 1961, after the 1960 publication of Into the Stone and Other Poems, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him, his wife, and his two sons to live in Italy during 1961 and 1962. Following this important hiatus which ended Dickey's work in the commercial world and began his true life's work as a poet, Dickey returned to the United States to a series of Poet-in-Residence positions at Reed College, San Fernando Valley State College, and the University of Wisconsin. In 1966 and again in 1967 he was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the American equivalent of Poet Laureate.

On August 26, 1968, Dickey and his wife, Maxine, and their two sons, Christopher and Kevin, moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Dickey had been appointed poet-in-residence and a chaired professor of English at the University of South Carolina. He was to remain there until his death in 1997, following a distinguished career as poet and teacher.

This brief biography is easily supplemented, for many works detail the development of Dickey's career. Good places to begin are those reference works located in research libraries: The Dictionary of Literary Biography and The DLB: Documentary Series which supplements it are excellent sources. The Documentary Series 7 is restricted to three modern American poets, including Dickey. The Documentary Series 19: James Dickey provides varied and full documentation of most phases of Dickey's life and career. The Contemporary Authors: Bibliographical Series Volume 2 American Poets provides an excellent section on Dickey. In addition to these and other standard reference series, Dickey's own Striking In: The Early Notebooks of James Dickey provides an invaluable background of his development.