Dickey Laid Bare


A review of James Dickey: The World as a Lie by Henry Hart. Picador USA. 811 pages. $35.

A beast can hold
The thought of self
Between the horns
Until it shines.

--James Dickey, “To His Children in Darkness”

A few years before his death, I called James Dickey to ask if I could quote from one of his poems in an article. The story was some ridiculous “mood of South Carolina” piece, and could have used a little borrowed glory. I knew Dickey only through his writing and public persona: a barrel-chested, deeply Southern, full-voiced and characteristically blunt man who likely did not suffer fools, or writers of silly stories, gladly. In the back of my mind was a never-forgotten Newsweek account from around the time of Carter's inauguration, where Dickey was quoted telling an ex-friend: “You know, buddy-ro, you never had it. You failed.” Well, I figured, the worst he could do was hang up.

When he answered the phone, the first thing that struck me was the voice, which was far too gentle. I did not know then that he was dying, but I knew I was speaking to someone quite ill or old, whose voice had long since lost its fire. I read him the passage I wanted to quote, which he thought was pretty good but didn't recognize. We continued talking. He urged me to read Alnilam, which he said was his best book and which he assured me was not as imponderable as people said. We discussed other writers, classic and modern: Blake, Cowper, Updike, Frost, Stevens, and his old friend John Berryman. He recalled with affection that Berryman once wrote a poem for him: “Goddammit, Jim D., You Woke Me Up Again,” about Dickey's penchant for late night calls. (Actually, he said, it was the other way around.)

I'm not sure if it was during this phone call or another -- there were several over the course of a year -- that I mentioned a line from As You Like It that reminded me of his novel Deliverance, when Charles the Wrestler says: “Come, where is this young gallant that is so desirous to lie with his mother earth?” He liked the quote, and said he had actually played Charles in a high school production -- a fact which seemed to me, at the time, perfectly serendipitous.

Maybe it was, although I've been doubting it ever since I picked up Henry Hart's mercilessly surgical new biography. Hart presents a man who never stopped lying about everything, small and large. He fashioned the world to his own making, as writers will; lying for and against his own benefit, lying because it was simply his nature. Maybe he did play Charles, or maybe it just sounded good at the time. Being a good liar, he often pointed out, was all that really mattered.

Years before his death, he recalled that his disappointment with his friend Theodore Roethke “was not at all in the fact that Roethke lied, but in the obviousness and the uncreativeness of the manner in which he did it. Lying of an inspired, habitual, inventive kind, given a personality, form, and a rhythm, is mainly what poetry is, I have always believed. All art, as Picasso is reported to have said, is a lie that makes us see truth.” His own favorite poet was Byron: “The guy who is an enormous phony, but who makes the public take him on his own terms, the terms of his persona.” Elsewhere, he wrote that “the manner in which a man lies, and what he lies about -- these things and the form of his lies -- are the main things to investigate in a poet's life and work.”

Hart, naturally, takes this as something of a mission statement, and has no problem, virtually from page one, uncovering traces of Dickey's multiple deceptions. He said he grew up in a German household and didn't speak English until he was five or six; actually he learned only a handful of German words. His household was wealthy, living on the profits of his grandfather's tonic company, but he pretended to far humbler beginnings. His father was a lawyer of no distinction, but Dickey claimed he was a “linthead” who worked in a cotton mill and “believed the way to settle trouble was with lynchings.” Dickey's sister recalls how Dickey as a boy was repulsed by the cockfights his father would stage, but as a macho poet he expressed nothing but redneck pride. “My people were all hillbillies,” he liked to tell interviewers. His mother read poetry to him from infancy, yet Dickey claimed many times he came to poetry independently. From childhood, he had fantasies about being a fighter pilot, and following World War II, lied about having been one.

The major lies on which the myth of Big James Dickey were built involved football and the military. Although he did play for Clemson as a freshman, he never, as her later claimed, played on Coach Frank Howard's varsity team, let alone won All-Southern Conference honors. His World War II flying record was not negligible: he completed 38 combat missions, flying 403 hours, of which 120 were in combat. Dickey stretched the number of missions to 100 -- a boast which became part of the standard biography, and which still found its way into obituaries after his death. Dickey also liked to obscure the fact that he washed out of Primary Flight Training in Camden. In later years, Dickey would often be pictured with a Martin guitar and would pass himself off as something of a professional picker. The testimony of those who know is that he played poorly and had almost no sense of rhythm.

“Nearly everything Dickey said about his life was an embroidery of fiction and fact,” Hart tells us, and he never stops making the point. Hart's assiduous assault on every aspect of the Dickey story can be annoying, especially when he starts scrutinizing the poems themselves for truth, and he never seems to be happier than when he's gloating over another lie revealed. As the book goes along, both reader and author become numb to Dickey's deceptions. One gets the feeling that Dickey can be trusted on no subject but poetry.

But lying is only partly the key to Dickey's life which, along with many books, would come to include two disastrous marriages, many heartless and gloomy affairs, and many alcoholic nights. Dickey's life and poetry are, I think, largely motivated by a desire to push limits, break boundaries, and never settle down into a resigned acceptance of things as they are.

“The life of an officer in the Air Force is essentially a life of surrender:” he says in a 1951 letter to his wife, “a surrender to the ‘good deal', a surrender to an indolent, unthinking life, a surrender to expediency, a surrender to the officers' club, and a surrender of all I most want to do.” Later in the year, he hints that free souls such as themselves need not be bound by the usual picayune laws of fidelity: “I want you, and I love you dearly and always, and I want to be near you; I want to come back to you from other people and find you the same, always, but I don't want to wear you around my neck and feel you grow intolerable with heaviness.” Their marriage would be torture for both, with Dickey frequently flaunting his adulterous liaisons in her face. Maxine became an alcoholic and went to early grave; her final attack was brought on by screaming at her husband for going to a USC reading rather than visiting her in the hospital. Two months later, he would marry a wife nearly 30 years younger, a heroin addict whose trials and travails, many inflicted by Dickey, would drag the writer through 20 years of Deliverance on a domestic scale.

Dickey's longtime friend Al Braselton, who suffered dearly for his friendship with Dickey, remembers Dickey telling him “Grab it, Al, risk it. Don't be content with the half-life of sliding through that greased chute of upper middle class America.”

With the fame that came from his great early poetry, and his “barn-storming” efforts at promoting them, Dickey was sliding through that chute himself. Part of what gave Dickey his popular image as a poet is that he was, or seemed, far from everyone's idea of one. He wasn't an anemic little scribber. He was a man's man with a macho last name that fit him perfectly, an extrovert with a supposedly vast amount of experience in the world of real men and real struggle: athlete, pilot, business executive, hard drinker, womanizer. He was the stuff of myth, and it never got mythic enough for Dickey.

Along the way, he left a trail of anguish, broken marriages and friendships, and bad memories. This is a sometimes rough and painful book to read, as the incidents mount in crudity and cruelty so much that they begin to run together. The usual party scene goes something like this: James Dickey arrives wearing boots and a cowboy hat, booms out his name to all within hearing distance, and proceeds to fill a tumbler full of ice and Jack Daniels. Within minutes he's either insulting the host, propositioning the hostess, or cruelly insulting a longtime friend. As the evening wears on, Dickey never stops filling his glass and eventually falls over drunk. The crowd is variously mortified, insulted, embarrassed, humiliated, awe-struck, crestfallen, hurt, wounded, chagrined, angered or saddened, but also too intimidated to upbraid the great man. He calls the next day to apologize and all is perhaps forgiven. The Dickey show wanders on to the next party, reading, author's conference, book signing or commencement ceremony, and the whole episode, with a few alterations, is played out anew.

So Dickey was a bastard. Okay. He was also a writer, and for all Hart's scholarship I'm not sure he has gotten to the most important part of his subject. There's patient scholarship, yes, but no real zest for the poems, nothing that would give anyone a really compelling reason to take a fresh look at Drowning with Others or Helmets or Buckdancer's Choice. As Hart coolly presents the case against Dickey's life, I found myself wishing that someone would state the case for his art. I will have to believe his books will suffice.