Virgil’s Aeneas, weeping over the frescoes that depict the fall of Troy, voices the tragic sense of life that animates all poets: “Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.” In “Resolution and Independence,” Wordsworth describes the wrenching extremes of a poet’s moods:


But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low.
James Dickey (1923–97), handsome, blond and blue-eyed, formidably energetic, large, and larger than life, scaled the heights. College athlete, air force navigator, advertising executive, guitarist, archer, hunter, teacher, performer and poet laureate, winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Award, he covered the Apollo launching for Life and read his poetry at President Carter’s inauguration. He made more money from his writing than any American poet of his time. In 1996 his income was $187,000, his assets $800,000, and he was “practically a conglomerate.” But he knew the tears of things, and caused a good many of them to be shed. He was a tragic figure who exclaimed: “I am a haunted artist like the others. I know what the monsters know.”

Dickey has been ill served, even betrayed, by his son, by his literary executor, and by his biographer, who show little understanding of his genius or the reasons for his agonizing suffering and sharp decline. Christopher Dickey’s memoir, Summer of Deliverance (1998), by turns hard-boiled and mawkish, first accused Dickey of killing his wife, Maxine, and then turned Iron John into Jello Jim. His literary executor Matthew Bruccoli was a longtime colleague at the University of South Carolina. But Bruccoli’s selection of Dickey’s letters is superficially introduced and inadequately annotated.[1] He misses the reference to Gertrude Stein’s description of Pound as a “village explainer,” and in his notes says that Denis Donoghue is American, rather than Irish, and that Stansky and Abrahams edited, rather than wrote, their two-volume biography of the early Orwell. The letters are painfully repetitive and, lacking a proper context, sometimes baffling. They emphasize Dickey’s boastfulness, flattery, and condemnation of rivals as well as his brazen self-promotion.

I first met Dickey in 1981 and corresponded with him for ten years. At his best, I found him extremely witty, ironic, even mock-heroically self-deprecating. He wrote that when he missed a shot at a buck, “the arrow rattled around in his antlers. He seemed, literally, to be playing with the thing.” When he left his advertising firm, his colleagues lamented like “Priam weeping over the body of Hector.” Recalling the once fashionable (and now taboo) outdoor statues of little black grooms, Dickey provocatively threatened to invite James Baldwin “out here, dress him in livery, and make him stand on the lawn in front of my house.” At Reed College, where he briefly taught, “everybody has a beard except one or two of the girls.” When his old sports car caught fire, he was “Surrounded by more blue-black smoke than Satan when he fell or was pushed from the crystal battlements of Milton’s heaven.” Of a divorced daughter-in-law, he remarked: “everybody in the family loved [her] but Chris.” And on a tiny commuter plane to a small town in Carolina, he solemnly asked the stewardess: “What movies do you have on this flight? And when do we land in Tulsa?”

Dickey’s plodding biographer, Henry Hart, toiled on his book for six years,[2] seems to hate him, and takes every opportunity to gloat over his boorish behavior and many misfortunes. Hart’s ponderous style and priggish moral superiority replace Dickey’s verve and panache. To Hart, he is simply the Great Liar. Even the photos in the book make him look fake. As a boy in high shoes and leggings, Dickey pedals furiously on a bicycle that’s resting on its stand, and in the Poe Museum he writes with a stuffed raven on his shoulder. Always eager to blame, Hart claims that “The Faustian consequences of [Al Braselton’s] friendship with Dickey were divorce, alcoholism, bankruptcy, a son’s suicide, and his own near suicide.” Four-hundred pages later, Hart quotes Braselton’s telling Dickey “what a profound and beneficial influence you have been on me,” but does not explore the contradiction. Hart obsequiously calls Bruccoli an “acclaimed biographer” and “renowned Fitzgerald scholar.” But who, apart from Bruccoli himself, ever acclaimed him? Like Bruccoli’s Fitzgerald and Jay Parini’s Steinbeck, Hart’s biography lays a dead academic hand on this marvelous material and transforms Dickey’s tragedy into soap opera or farce.

Hart dives into Dickey’s massive archive and, like most American academics, serves up everything he’s found, including two pages on a meeting with Eliot that never took place. Instead of bringing the cast of characters to life, Hart provides repetitive and stupefying catalogues of courses and grades, people and places (listing every stop on every reading tour), which are neither interesting nor illuminating and bring the narrative to a grinding halt. The book, printed in extremely small type, would have been better if cut by one-third. It’s much more difficult, in fact, to write a short biography than a long one. The best lives, like Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin, are selective and analytical.

Hart’s book is filled with errors. Half-a-dozen foreign words lack diacritical marks; he misspells the Japanese Dai-Ichi Hotel and the Marunouchi train line, Conrad’s Marlow, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, and T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as well as Ernst Jünger, Winfred Overholser, Vernon Scannell, Dwight Macdonald, Budd Schulberg, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt —even Stamford, Connecticut.

Hart has a shaky grasp of modern culture. He claims that the popular tourist sites— Naples, Capri, and Pompeii—are “unlikely spots” to visit and that Losanna (the Italian name for Lausanne, Switzerland) is in Italy. He states that Swift came to Ireland in the early seventeenth (instead of early eighteenth) century and died in 1715 (instead of 1745). He attributes to Oscar Wilde a quote by Lord St. Leonards; misstates the first name of Sir James George Frazer; says H. G. Wells, who died at the age of seventy-nine, lived into his eighties; maintains that Mary Welsh was Hemingway’s third (not fourth) wife; gives the wrong title of Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers; calls the American biography Journey to the Frontier a “British novel”; misquotes Frost’s “I only go when I’m the show”; ignores the fact that Dickey’s 1966 view of the “dark Frost” was based on Lionel Trilling’s essay of 1959; and thinks the Ph.D. is an honorary degree (it might have been in his case).

Worse still, Hart’s remarks on literature, like Dickey’s stray arrows, are wildly off the mark. He compares Dickey’s sensual second wife to Dante’s Beatrice; says Ernest Dowson’s exquisite lyrics are antiquated and hackneyed; states that the swan in Yeats’s poem on Leda is “camouflaged”; absurdly likens Proust’s refined Marcel to the rough hero of Dickey’s failed novel Alnilam; refers to the nonexistent “criminality of artists” theme in The Magic Mountain; attributes “monstrous appetites” to the ascetic hero of Doctor Faustus; maintains that Jake Barnes’s war wound in The Sun Also Rises “complicates” his sex life (!) and that Harry’s vivid memories, which sustain him during his agonizing death in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” are a “series of drunken lies.” Hart doesn’t realize that Dickey was invited to the White House to meet Léopold Senghor because the African statesman was also a distinguished poet. He misses many important allusions that give depth and resonance to Dickey’s work. “Noli me tangere” comes from John 20:17, “a new heaven and a new earth” from Revelation 21:1. “Nature red in tooth and claw” comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, the “Demon of the Perverse” from Poe. Dickey’s “Here lies one whose name was writ on fifty-seven thousand freshman papers” parodies Keats’s famous epitaph. “But where’s the bloody horse?” comes from “On Some South African Novelists” by Roy Campbell—who had a great deal in common with Dickey. “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (misquoted by Hart) has nothing to do with Dickey’s German grandmother; it’s the epigraph from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Opus 135, which Randall Jarrell used as the epigraph to his first book, Blood for a Stranger. Dickey’s description of his fear of wartime flying—“the mechanics with a hose [had] to clean the shit out of the cockpit”—strangely foreshadows the shocking conclusion of Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Quoting Dickey’s “The fox knows many things, but the groundhog knows one big thing” (he was born on Groundhog Day) without noting the allusion to Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, Hart misses both the wit and the context of the aphorism. Berlin attributed the phrase to the Greek poet Archilochus; Hart, muddled as always, calls it “an old Russian proverb.”

Hart’s subtitle should have been “Life as a Lie,” for he runs his thesis into the ground and takes pleasure—hundreds of times—in exposing Dickey’s lies. Hart, however, is also gullible. He traces Dickey’s “origins to Richard Talbot, a Norman baron who came to England with William the Conqueror,” and assumes all his (often self-serving) informants have told him the truth. Dickey, who was not on oath and preferred the imagined to the real, exclaimed: “I’m an artist. I make the truth.” Despite his considerable achievements (he wasn’t a pilot but did fly 120 combat hours in the Pacific and won five Bronze Battle Stars), his ego demanded the creation of a mythical life, a Hemingway-like legend and a series of invented selves that attracted readers and sold books. Refusing to distinguish between fact and fiction, history and fantasy, for his imagination sparked all of them, he liked to make up stories to hoodwink and entertain. The humorless Hart ignores Dickey’s deliberate outrageousness and desire to shock. Impatient with his civilized self as well as with his repressed and respectable audience, Dickey often thought: “What is the worst thing I can say or do at the moment?”

Such a complicated character, however appalling his behavior, cries out for understanding and elucidation. Instead, Hart solemnly and inexorably lists his deceits. Dickey’s lies spring from deeper motives than the desire to scandalize. Like so many American writers, he had a strong mother and weak (or absent) father. He called his wealthy father, who raised fighting cocks and owned a lot of real estate in Georgia, an “unsuccessful lawyer, a born loser.” But he desperately wanted to impress his father, who disdained poetry, with his own outdoorsmanship and military prowess. Dickey also had to compete with his dead—and therefore perfect—older brother as well as with a younger brother who was a much better athlete. When reality was insufficient, as it usually was, Dickey—like Hemingway and Malraux—created myths. As Dickey wrote of his semblable et frère Theodore Roethke, his favorite American poet,

these lures and ruses and deceptions did enable him to exist, though painfully, and to write; they were the paraphernalia of the wounded artist who cannot survive without them.

In one agonizing scene, witnessed by an artist who illustrated Dickey’s extremely lucrative coffee-table books,

Dickey was lying on the floor, cursing, and banging his fists up and down, and the girl [in his bed] was saying, “That’s all right, Jim. I know you can do it.”
Dickey once told me that a biographer should be “an investigative reporter of the spirit.” But Hart, ignoring the spiritual element, is as heartless as a cosmetic mortician. Describing this scene, he merely concludes, without a trace of sympathy or compassion: “Exhaustion and alcohol had once again rendered Dickey impotent.” I hope Hart will never have to confront the demons of drink, marital strife, and disease that destroyed Dickey, but if he has to, I doubt that he could face them with Dickey’s stoicism and courage.

In his self-reflective essay on Roethke, Dickey asked:

Why all this insistence on being the best, the acknowledged best, the written-up best? … And why the really appalling pettiness about other writers like Lowell, who were not poets to him, but rivals merely? … His broad, boyish face had an expression of constant bewilderment and betrayal, a continual agony of doubt.
Yet Dickey himself, creating a Roethkean persona of a poet who hung around with tough guys and was pretty tough himself, brought his aggressive and competitive instincts, reinforced by sports and business, into the world of poetry. Like a cornered buccaneer, he angrily cut and slashed a path through his rivals.

Like Yeats, who on Swinburne’s death confidently declared himself “king of the cats,” or John Berryman who uneasily asked, when Frost died, “It’s scary. Who’s number one? Cal [Lowell] is number one, isn’t he?,” Dickey proclaimed himself capo di tutti capi after Berryman threw himself off a cold Yankee bridge and Lowell became crackers. But Dickey was not, despite his ungenerous letters, entirely negative. He could bless as well as blast and admired his early masters: Hopkins, Crane, Tate, and Dylan Thomas. As Hart concedes, Dickey praised “Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, W. S. Graham, and Jon Silkin among the British; John Berryman, Howard Nemerov, and Theodore Roethke among the Americans.” His critical missiles, though ungracious, were devastatingly on target. Jarrell was sentimental, self-indulgent, and self-pitying; James Merrill, with whom Dickey maintained an uneasy truce, often was a “chocolate-frosting of a poet”; Anthony Hecht was tiresome in his empty elegance. Anne Sexton, obsessed with “the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience,” he wittily lampooned as “Rag-time Annie.” John Updike was (and is) superficial, unoriginal, and too negative—slick and prolific, but devoid of content.

Hart gives endlessly repetitive, mind-numbing accounts of how Dickey, living up to his reputation as a hell-raising poet, became drunk, lecherous, out of control— breaking up furniture, parties, and marriages while reaping the sexual rewards of poetic fame. When, by force of will, he suddenly stopped drinking but refused to take drugs to ease his withdrawal, he suffered a seizure, bit off part of his tongue and nearly bled to death. Incisive about his own failings but unable to help himself, Dickey observed:

People say that the good feeling that alcohol gives you is false—but all you have to do is live a human life to know that, in many instances, a false good feeling is better than none at all.
Hart doesn’t explain that when Dickey’s later poetry failed to correspond to his self-generated hype and the burden of honors he’d received, the old navigator lost his bearings and tried to obliterate his sense of unworthiness with alcohol.

Dickey’s two marriages were disastrous, but Hart does little to explain his powerful bond with these two most important women in his life. His first wife, Maxine Syerson, was the illegitimate child of a Danish immigrant, who abandoned her mother just after she was born. Hart vaguely describes her as “gracious, fun-loving, and capable of running the practical business of a household,” and cryptically adds that her “efficiency was evident in her ‘practical approach to sex.’”

After Maxine bore two sons, began to drink heavily (partly because of Dickey’s adultery), and gained a lot of weight (“Hast thou seen the white whale?,” Moby-Dickey would ask when she entered the room), she had for him “the sex appeal of a walrus.” She became frigid; he became impotent with her and continued to consort with other women. But, completely dependent on her, he always came back. She was “the last of the poet’s wives who could stick it out,” and preferred to be Mrs. James Dickey than Ms. Nobody. In 1976, after twenty-eight years of marriage, Maxine suffered a massive internal hemorrhage (there was so much blood on the floor that Dickey first thought she’d been attacked by a burglar) and died at the age of fifty.

Dickey’s marriage two months later to the beautiful Deborah Dodson (she was twenty-five and he was fifty-three) was even more of a nightmare. Deborah became a heroin addict, pawned Dickey’s possessions, stole his medicines, and was violently threatened by her criminal suppliers. She had drug-induced seizures to match his alcoholic ones. After smashing Dickey on the head with a heavy frying pan and causing a massive blood clot that needed an emergency operation, Deborah had to be committed to a mental institution to save her own life —and his. Despite the traumatic marriages, Dickey’s children turned out remarkably well. Christopher became a successful author and the Paris bureau chief for Newsweek, Kevin a professor at Yale Medical School. Bronwen, abandoned by Deborah and brought up by Dickey, went to Choate and published a touching obituary of her father in Newsweek.

After teaching brilliantly at Rice, Florida, Reed, and San Fernando State, in 1968 Dickey finally got a permanent post at the University of South Carolina—another third-rate university in an extremely dreary town. His precipitous decline began right after the astonishing success of his novel Deliverance, which had sold 1.8 million copies by 1973, and of the superb film (for which Dickey wrote the script and played the redneck Sheriff Bullard) based on his book. Hart fails to note that Dickey’s deterioration coincided with his long, tedious years in South Carolina.

Dickey’s serious health problems began in 1980 with a major operation for a hiatus hernia. His intestine had strangled his esophagus, which made it much easier to drink than to eat. After the doctors “challenged the Dark Man with their short knives,” his weight suddenly dropped from 250 to 190 pounds. His blood clot operation was followed in 1994 by a severe case of hepatitis, which attacked his liver and nearly killed him. After a long struggle, he was finally finished off by fibrosis of the lung.

Hart does not ask, let alone answer, the big questions about Dickey’s life. What accounts for his self-destructive streak and sharp decline? Pride, arrogance, egoism, vanity, and perhaps some hidden tragic flaw certainly contributed to his demise. Perhaps, in America, the rewards for success are too sudden and too ample, the penalties for failure too great. As Hemingway, a negative model for Dickey, bitterly observed in Green Hills of Africa, nearly everything can hurt a vulnerable writer: “Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money, and ambition.”

Finally, we must ask, how good is Dickey’s best work? Two of his novels are first-rate. William Styron, who says more in a sentence than Hart does in fifteen pages, wrote, “[I] began to see how Deliverance, which I had so admired as a novel, was in a sense an allegory of fear and survival”—a Heart of Darkness for our time. Hart misses the point of the greatly underrated To the White Sea when he claims that its “puerile machismo soon turns pathological.” On the contrary, the hero of Dickey’s intensely lyrical and dramatic novel achieves transcendence through a mystical identification with nature. He is not meant to be a pleasant fellow or a virtuous man. Shot down in wartime Japan, he is—like the hero of The Call of the Wild—an expertly trained, self-reliant, and necessarily ruthless survivor.

Dickey’s best poems, published in his first five volumes between 1957 and 1967, include “May Day Sermon,” “The Performance” (about the beheading by the Japanese of a captured American airman), “The Firebombing,” “The Sheep Child,” “Adultery,” “Encounter in the Cage Country” (inspired by Rilke’s “The Panther”), and “Falling” (about a stewardess who was sucked out of a plane). These deeply moving poems express Dickey’s transfiguring imagination, delicate sense of music, courageous tenderness, and capacity for wonder. They “strike the reader,” as he said, “down through the more obvious levels of his being into the hidden and essential ones.” Dickey’s reputation, battered by his letters and biography, now seems at a low ebb. But, ten years from now, we may come to appreciate him more. The greatest postwar American poets may not be the manic confessionalists, Lowell and Berryman, but the more joyous and affirmative Roethke and Dickey.

 

Notes
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  1. Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, edited by Matthew Bruccoli and Judith Baughman; Alfred A. Knopf, 574 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
  2. James Dickey: The World as a Lie, by Henry Hart; Picador, 811 pages, $35. Go back to the text.