James Dickey was born to lawyer Eugene Dickey and Maibelle Swift in Atlanta, Georgia, where he attended North Fulton High School in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. In 1942 he enrolled at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina and played on the football team as a tailback. After one semester, he left school to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Dickey served with the U.S. Army Air Forces as a radar operator in a night fighter squadron during the Second World War, and in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Between the wars, he attended Vanderbilt University, graduating with degrees in English and philosophy, as well as minoring in astronomy. He also taught at the University of Florida and the University of South Carolina. From 1950 to 1954, Dickey taught at Rice University (then Rice Institute) in Houston. While teaching freshman composition at Rice, James Dickey returned for a two-year air force stint in Korea, then went back to teaching. He then worked for several years in advertising, most notably writing copy and helping direct creative work on the Coca-Cola and Lay’s Potato Chips campaign. He once said he embarked on his advertising career in order to “make some bucks.” Dickey also said “I was selling my soul to the devil all day… and trying to buy it back at night.” He was ultimately fired for shirking his work responsibilities. He returned to poetry in 1960, and his first book, Into the Stone and Other Poems, was published in 1960. Drowning with Others was published in 1962, which led to a Guggenheim Fellowship (Norton Anthology, The Literature of the American South). Buckdancer’s Choice (1965) earned him a National Book Award for Poetry. Among his better-known poems are “The Performance”, “Cherrylog Road”, “The Firebombing”, “May Day Sermon”, “Falling”, and “For The Last Wolverine.”
After being named a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, he published his first volume of collected poems, Poems 1957-1967 in 1967. This publishing may represent James Dickey’s best work. He subsequently accepted a position of Professor of English and writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. His popularity exploded after the film version of his novel Deliverance was released in 1972. Dickey had a cameo in the film as a sheriff. The poet was invited to read his poem “The Strength of Fields” at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977. James Dickey died on January 19, 1997, six days after his last class at the University of South Carolina, where from 1968 he taught as poet-in-residence. Dickey spent his last years in and out of hospitals, afflicted first with jaundice and later fibrosis of the lungs.
- February, 02, 1923
- Atlanta, Georgia
- January, 19, 1997
- Columbia, South Carolina
- All Saints Episcopal Church Cemetery
- Pawleys Island, South Carolina