“As fire is kindled by fire, so is a poet’s mind kindled by contact with a brother poet.” —John Keble, Lectures on Poetry, XVI

Dear Jimbo,

I am sending this c/o the Dead Poets Society. I hope it reaches you all right. Sure, it’s doubtful, I know. But, then again, why not? About the afterlife . . . well, let’s not get into a big argument about all that. I remember we used to argue sometimes about whether there was anyone else, besides ourselves, out there in the universe. You said we were all alone here. I said that statistically there were probably hundreds of James Dickeys out there writing poems at any given moment. I was only kidding. I do, however, believe in the afterlife. Even if I did not, I would strongly argue that all that wealth of energy (and you had enormous energy to waste and burn until your very last sad days!) can’t just disappear. It seeks and probably finds a home place in this lonesome universe. And, to use somewhat less cosmic terms, your poems, the best of them and they are many, are still very much alive and, I venture, will continue to be as long as our beleaguered language lasts. Critics and reviewers can and do and will give you a full share of ups and downs. They can praise you or blame you. But it is way beyond their power and authority to strike or destroy a word of your lifework.

Lord, it’s been years since I’ve been in touch with you. Ever since I bailed out of the University of South Carolina to go and live in our house in Maine (and to finish up a book or two), we seldom, if ever, wrote and only called briefly and on business. Met here and there a few times. I remember you introduced me — and a funny and generous introduction it was—when I came back to South Carolina to give a reading for the Thomas Cooper Society. We saluted each other at one or two meetings of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. And I had a chance to chat with you briefly at the Scott Fitzgerald Festival at USC in September 1996. You were pretty much confined to a wheelchair (a neat-looking blonde babe was pushing you around, of course), sucking on an oxygen tank (it failed once during lunch), and you looked frail and weary; but I honestly did not guess how close you were to dying. Sorry we didn’t have a chance to talk more and maybe to swap a couple or three stories.

The purpose and occasion of this letter is to bring you up to date on a number of things. Mainly it is, or can be so called, a review of Henry Hart’s biography of you. But there are other things, too, that deserve to be mentioned. Chris’s book (The Summer of Deliverance, by Christopher Dickey) came out in 1998, got a lot of attention, and made its mark. It seems to have shocked some people with its picture of you in the years after Deliverance (1970), as self-destruction and disintegration followed hard on the heels of success. It was a good book, well written and well reported. He told a moving story from his point of view. His portrait of you, warts and all, anticipates and muffles at least some of the aftershocks that will inevitably follow Hart’s more objective and thorough biography. Chris’s book may help people to understand your story and better appreciate what Hart has done.

Things have been pretty busy since your death (January 19, 1997). The primary texts have been put together in James Dickey: The Selected Poems (Wesleyan, 1998), edited by Robert Kirschten; and in The James Dickey Reader, edited by biographer Henry Hart (and dedicated to your literary executor Matthew J. Bruccoli), including representative selections of your poetry, fiction, essays, and criticism. Also published in 1999 was James Dickey, the 19th volume of the Documentary Series of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Judith S. Baughman. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Miss Baughman are the editors of Crux: The Letters of James Dickey. Using roughly 20 percent of the available letters, the book adheres to the twofold logic of Bruccoli’s assembly:

The double rationale for selection was first to document the growth of a major writer . . . then, second to document the ways he fulfilled his genius and advanced his career. Jim was unabashedly a careerist.

Bruccoli is putting it nicely. What comes across in these letters is the portrait of a hard-driving literary hustler and con man, perfectly willing to say or to do almost anything to advance himself and to promote and enhance his public image. The evidence is right there, even in this mildly sanitized version, Jim, that you were willing to bootlick and ass-kiss any other poets, critics and reviewers, agents and editors, whenever deemed necessary, to embrace your enemies and betray old friends, in the constant search for jobs, fellowships, prizes, and awards, better deals with better publishers! Book reviewers made a good deal, maybe too much out of this. In the New York Times (“One Poet’s Prosaic Correspondence,” December 10, 1999) Michiko Kakutani opines that “a distressingly large portion is devoted to poetic politics; to snide putdowns of other poets, insider talk about prizes and fellowships, and catty remarks about rival cliques and claques.” Similarly, poet and editor J.D. McClatchy (New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1999) assumes, in the trendy contemporary manner, a stance of high morality: “But most of the book is consumed by Dickey’s literary resentments and intrigues, betrayals and backbiting. It’s a sad and off-putting spectacle.”

But negative reviews to the contrary, the letters in Crux, together with other letters quoted in Hart’s biography, don’t expose you as a carnival pitchman. Instead, they illustrate a shameful and ongoing period in our cultural history when even our poets, some of the best of them, were infected with the insidious virus of celebrity, aspiring to be elevated to that new American nobility of celebrity rock-and-rollers, slam-dunkers, breakdancers, and gangsta-rappers, a time when poets of several generations began to behave like packs of feral dogs, growling and snarling at each other, or submissively wagging their tails, in savage, unrelenting competition for crumbs and thin bones on the cultural garbage heap. You played the same game, from first to last, and you were better at it than most of the poets of your own generation. (You were a better poet than most of them, too.) You did not invent the game, but you certainly mastered it. One of the funniest scams you ran had to do with John Hall Wheelock’s Poets of Today series (Scribner’s), which published three first books bound together in a single volume. That is how your first book, Into the Stone, was published. But before that, you spent time flattering and honoring Wheelock while simultaneously bad-mouthing the series, in letters to several young poets, cleverly discouraging the competition.

It’s a pleasure to watch how easily and deftly you could handle those guys. What a bunch of jerks!

Once, you and I had a serious talk about careerism and hustling. You said that, by dint of dedication and hard labor, we were sometimes given the glorious gift of maybe half a dozen poems (or stories or novels) that were touched with greatness. You said it was our bounden duty to be faithful to those gifts; that we must not allow what we had been given to disappear; that to be faithful we must be willing to take any risk, to do anything, not for the sake of ourselves and our large or small careers, but for the sake of what we had been given.

Looking at the younger poets coming along behind you, the young and the restless, I think you might be troubled by the way things have gone. Even in our deepest cynical moments of disillusion, I don’t think we could (or would) have imagined a generation of poets who would squander their modest gifts, devoting themselves not to the discipline of contemplation or to creative art, but rather to crude manipulations and to shameless, ruthless self-aggrandizement. Names? You and I know who they are. Let interested readers examine the index and read the letters of Crux. Let them read Henry Hart’s excellent biography—James Dickey: The World as a Lie.

Hart’s biography is a long one, 811 pages, and it is going to bother a lot of people. (It may even trouble you, Jim, though I doubt it.) Has bothered some people already, well before publication. Your old buddy (and mine) Bill Starr of Columbia’s The State reacted with shock and surprise (“Brutal biography may jolt devotees of Dickey’s work,” February 15, 2000). Bill doesn’t criticize or quarrel with Hart’s biography. But he is deeply troubled by the revealed content of your life:

Hart’s biography, subtitled “The Life and Lies of a Poet” [sic], charts Dickey’s banal self-absorption and pathetic self-destruction in minute detail, which gradually becomes so revolting as to make reading a painful act.

Well, maybe . . . and maybe not.

I do think, though, that you would be pleased by what Hart has accomplished. He has interviewed large numbers of people who knew you from childhood to the end. He has followed the intricate paper trails, pursued every conceivable lead. The biggest problem facing him was that you almost never told the factual truth about anything. Hart had to sweep aside an enormous amount of misinformation and disinformation, mostly planted by you. Like a veritable minefield. All writers create, to a greater or lesser extreme, a dream autobiography, based on exaggeration, deepest wishes, or pure fantasy. It comes with the age and the territory, Jim, this great American con game of inventing or reinventing ourselves. After reading Hart’s biography, I have to say that nobody in the literary world could ever match you in this liar’s craft. You understood this from your brief (and incompetent) days in the advertising business, how easy it is for image to overwhelm and replace reality. How imagemakers (poets in the art world, media in “real life”) are the high and low priests of this secular religion. You turned your life, as Hart proves, into a good, if highly improbable story. The jock stuff, the combat stories, the hunting with bow and blowgun, the guitar playing, all of it proves to be either outright fabrication or at least radically different from what you claimed. And nobody cared. You were interviewed innumerable times and each time with a different story. It would have taken 15 minutes, a phone call or two, to check. No literary journalist did so. Nobody cared. It was a good story. More fun than most. Even Hart may have been reluctant to present the mundane facts lest he, and the reader, lose sight of the poetry. But in all this, poetry as well as factual accounting. Hart has done a fine job and a daring one.

Daring? In order to set the record straight and to balance against this his obvious admiration for your poetry, he had to write a long and detailed story, for which he will probably be faulted by many reviewers. His problem was not unlike that of Joseph Blotner and his initial biography of William Faulkner. He had to start from scratch and establish all the facts. He has done so. Hart is accurate, judicious, and thorough. Later versions of your life (and they will come along soon enough) will have to depend on this one. The great curses of biography in our age—psychobabble and judgmentalism—are amazingly absent. Disillusioned or not. Hart is fair, and his good judgment is not clouded. He maintains a clear, unobtrusive, and appropriate style; and he has managed some significant criticism, skillfully dealing with your work in its complex relationship with both your fictive and factual lives. He writes well about the poetry, especially the often ignored, intensely difficult, self-indulgent later poems. He follows the conception and gestation of the novels, which you thought about and toyed with most of your adult life. He places your literary criticism firmly in the context of the times. And, most surprising to me, he is able to say some interesting things about the coffee-table books you made money on during the last years of your life. He treats them seriously and demonstrates the validity of the proposition that everything by a major writer, large or small, slight or deadly serious, finally matters.

Are there any flaws? Of course. There are tales I heard (and told) differently. There are things I would interpret differently. And there are minor quibbles. For instance, I wish Hart, who is justly interested in sales and money, had distinguished between hardcover and paperback sales or had related your advances and earnings to those of your peers. You made a good deal of money, Jim, but not as much as some other writers I know. You blew most of it away. We could use a more comprehensive examination of your finances.

A final test. Even though I knew you pretty well for a while, I learned a lot about you that I didn’t know then or later. Some things genuinely surprised me. Some things have given me a lot to think about. On the whole, Jim, my guess is that you would be pleased with a job well done and with the prospect that, in part because of this, you and your work will be the subjects of serious interest this year and, likely, for many years to come.

Best wishes from the first days of the new millennium.




[James Dickey: The World as a Lie, by Henry Hart (New York: Picador) 811 pp., $35.00]

[Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 575 pp., $35.00]

[The James Dickey Reader, Edited by Henry Hart (New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) 351pp., $16.00]