The Haggard Heroes Recall Their Lost Pal


The Haggard Heroes
THE LION IN WINTER. Dickey, center, surrounded by Matthew Bruccoli, Benjamin Franklin, Don Greiner, and Ward Briggs. The picture was taken in the lobby of the Koger Center on December 18, 1995, where Dickey gave the commencement address. Dickey was weak, and asked that Greiner sit at the table next to him so that he could touch his arm should he feel ill. “He was determined to deliver the address,” Greiner recalls. “To get to the coliseum, he had to use a wheel chair. Giving the speech that night was yet another instance of his courage. Most of the faculty suspected that this would be the last time they would have to hear the great poet, so more faculty turned out for that particular graduation than in recent memory.”

For most of his final years, the poet James Dickey's life was in free fall. Professionally, his stock had dropped; the prices for books and readings fluctuated, and there was always the looming threat that his old lies would be exposed. That was the least of it. His home life was a nightmare: he was a hardened alcoholic and an incurable womanizer, and his much younger wife Deborah was a heroin addict who often took out her rage on him. Their lives, to read Henry Hart's biography, were a swirling maelstrom of liquor, adultery, and verbal abuse on his side and dope, prostitution, theft, and late night calls from violent drug dealers on hers. Worst of all, both were trying to raise a young daughter, Bronwen, born in 1981. The possibility that she would be placed in a foster home was very real.

Somewhere in the mid-1980s, Dickey started eating lunch every Tuesday and Thursday at the University of South Carolina Faculty Club with English Department stalwarts Don Greiner and Benjamin Franklin. They called themselves the “Haggard Heroes,” from a poem Dickey adapted in their honor from Samuel Johnson: “Where culture's haggard heroes find repose/and safe intellect defy our foes.” Sometimes, to fill in the fourth chair at the table, they invited a “mystery guest,” who was either Bronwen, or a bright student or another professor. The guest was generally expected to keep up with and contribute to the lively, intensely literary talk.

Teaching, and these lunches, “were the only semblance of order in his life,” Greiner recalls. “He would eat lunches with us on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then go teach, so he had order from noon to five o'clock. Then he'd go home to that chaos with Deborah.”

Always at the forefront, of course, was Dickey's expansive personality, easily eloquent on subjects both literary and domestic, his conversation peppered with brilliant judgments, well-remembered quotes, tall tales, and statements guaranteed to shock all but the most jaded.

In that regard, both Greiner and Franklin had been well-trained. One of Greiner's first meetings with Dickey, recounted in Hart's book, is typical. The year was 1969, Greiner's wife Ellen was very pregnant with the couple's second child, and Dickey patted her belly.

“That's some wife you've got there,” he later told Greiner, and then crudely joked that he had just had sex with her. Greiner's response: “Well, you're doing better than I have in the last six weeks.”

“What Henry Hart inadvertently left out is that what Jim was doing was testing me,” he said. “Ellen's word for it was ‘He was baiting us,' and we refused to take the bait. And we became among his best friends.”

Greiner said his wife got a call the next day from a university gossip: “The phone call went something like this: ‘Do you know what that outrageous James Dickey did last night? He had his hand on the stomach of a wife of a poor, untenured assistant professor, and the assistant professor couldn't do anything about it...' and Ellen said ‘Wait a minute, I was the woman, and it didn't bother me.' And there was this -- click! -- silence.”

Dickey was forever “pushing, testing the person with him, be it male or female, to see how the person reacts. If the person reacts calmly, or refuses to be insulted, then the subject is dropped and Dickey is ready to buy you a beer. But boy, if you react, as if ‘You've insulted my integrity,' Dickey kept pushing and pushing and pushing. That's why he liked Ben and me, and [USC classics professor] Ward [Briggs] and Matt [Bruccoli], because we would say: ‘Oh, Jim, for God's sake! Grow up!'”

Hart marshals considerable anecdotal evidence of Dickey's racism, with numerous instances, even up to his last years, where he would freely use the word “nigger.” Did his friends ever see that?

“I think he had leanings in that direction,” said Franklin. “I would not call him a hyper-racist, by any means, but he would make assumptions” based on race. Franklin recalls the time Dickey asked a black waiter who he was backing in an upcoming boxing match with Mike Tyson, “the assumption being that a black male would be interested in that. Now that is not a major deal, but that is kind of an incipient, minor, low-keyed racial attitude.”

Greiner, again, sees it in light of Dickey's outrageous personality.

“I think he deliberately used words we don't use today to test you. If you reacted with horror, he would keep using it. If you just sloughed it off, if you didn't see yourself as the defender of political correctness, then the conversation would move on. He was always testing. Of course, he didn't keep that up with us because we just didn't bite.”

They also became used to his lies, some of which they believed, some of which were transparently silly. Franklin recalls Dickey coming to lunch and announcing that he had been nominated to the Archery Hall of Fame, or his fantasies in earlier years that Jimmy Carter had asked him for advice on policy matters. While Dickey did send letters of unsolicited advice to Carter, “he presented it as ‘Jimmy asked me...'” Franklin recalls.

But part of the irony of Dickey's life, for Greiner and Franklin, was that he did have very real accomplishments. It wasn't enough for him that he was America's most famous poet, or that he had written a good novel titled Deliverance; he would later brag that he had virtually made John Boorman's film of the book as well. And while he didn't fly 100 missions, he did fly 38, and won five Bronze Stars.

“He had enormous accomplishments,” Franklin said, “but he just would not leave well enough alone.”

His sense of his own importance could sometimes lead to ridiculous extremes. When the local Catholic church refused to allow a non-Catholic to be Bronwen's godfather, Dickey personally appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Pope.

When Dickey's many bloated myths eventually started falling apart, he counterattacked by de-mythologizing himself, conceding that a lot of his public persona was just made up.

“In letter after letter, he's writing and saying, ‘I am not Hemingwayesque, I do not know a great deal about the woods, I don't want to get on the Chatooga River and paddle down.' I think Dickey was trying to have a preemptive strike against a biographer who would say ‘Here's the Dickey myth, let me destroy it for you,'” Greiner said. “I think Dickey was trying to destroy it already.” By then, it was too late.

Dickey's constant drinking was a form of release, Greiner said, from days spent living in a private world, which is always at war with the one on the outside.

“Remember James Joyce's famous comment? ‘The enemy of the artist is the perambulator in the hallway.' There you are -- and look at the estrangement between Jim and his sons.” (Both Christopher and Kevin Dickey kept their distance from their father; Christopher Dickey didn't even know about Deborah's 1991 arrest in a drug raid until he found it on the Internet three years later.)

Dickey had typewriters in several rooms and floated between them. “When he got blocked, he just moved to the next typewriter. Well, you do that all day, day after day...”

“Jim had the natural inhibitions that most of us have,” said Greiner, “and that alcohol freed him.”

James and Deborah Dickey made varying attempts at controlling their demons. Jim would swear off drinking, Deborah would get detoxified, but it was never long before either or both slipped.

“Jim started coming to our houses on Sunday afternoons,” Greiner said, “and it became pretty regular. We would call one another to warn the other that Jim was just leaving our house. What Jim wanted of course was conversation, to get away from Deborah, and alcohol.”

Greiner said it got to a point where he closed the draperies and wouldn't answer the door, because he knew Dickey was drunk, would demand more and -- worst possible scenario -- might drive home drunk and kill someone in an accident. (Both James and Deborah Dickey certainly had their share of car wrecks, once while picking up Bronwen from summer camp.)

But even in his cups, Dickey's gift of gab never deserted him.

“We would have wonderful conversations,” Greiner said. “The more alcohol he had, the greater the conversation was. He was brilliant. But I was afraid if he had any more alcohol he wouldn't get home, and only occasionally would he let me drive him home and leave his car at my house.”

Franklin said the neighbors used to laugh at the sight of Dickey driving his blue Miata into the center of Franklin's yard. Dickey would already be loaded, and then would have beer with Franklin. They'd talk for three hours and, upon exiting, Dickey would usually take a quart of beer from Franklin's refrigerator.

“He was out of control,” Franklin said. “And my great fear was ‘What would happen if this guy in fact would run into someone and kill a pedestrian or another driver?' If he wants to kill himself, that's one thing, but if he takes someone with him... I lost sleep over that one. My conclusion is I was not strong enough to stand up to him, on that.”

Although Dickey was the most highly-paid member of the USC English Department, and was still raking in profits from books, screenplays and readings, he never carried money, not even credit cards. He was, Franklin said, “oblivious” to money; he could be intensely generous but just as intensely tight-fisted. Franklin recalls at least one bizarre incidence when Dickey called him up and asked for a loan.

“He called up and said ‘Do you have twenty-five dollars,' and I thought that odd. It so happened that I did have twenty-five dollars and he said ‘Could I borrow it?' and I said ‘Sure.' So twenty minutes later up pulled the van, Deborah driving. Jim got out and came to the door and I handed it to him. There weren't even pleasantries. He just took that and went.”

Franklin immediately called Ward Briggs, and told him what had just occurred. Briggs told Franklin he had just became part of a drug transaction; Deborah needed a fix. Briggs also told him he'd never see that money again, but Dickey surprised Franklin by paying him back at the next Tuesday's lunch.

For a man whose public persona was one of hunting, war, women, liquor, and risky behavior -- and who came to believe his own myths -- the private story was much different.

“One of the ironies in that context,” said Franklin, “is that he was really an abused husband.” There are many instances in Hart's book where Deborah brained her aging and sickly husband with whatever was handy. The intense friction between Dickey and his wife, who was becoming increasingly violent under the influence of heroin addiction, spread to those who were Dickey's friends. Franklin recalls when he and Greiner tried visiting Dickey, and Deborah Dickey wouldn't let them in. Dickey, in a back room, overheard them and interceded. He was glad to see them.

But that isn't all about him the two friends remember.

“Let me explain what I mean by generous,” Franklin said. “At these lunches, he would bring two copies of the latest book for which he had written an introduction. He was all the time bringing us books that he had contributed to, with generous inscriptions.”

He had the typescript of To the White Sea copied and signed -- a rare copy, as Dickey later made editorial changes to the book. Greiner remembers Dickey giving him the typescript of a poem he wrote in honor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many other thoughtful acts.

“Whenever I needed a letter of recommendation, back in my early career, it was there. He wrote it. Greatest literary mind I've ever known and extremely generous -- but not with money, because he never carried any.”

Ultimately, Dickey hit rock-bottom, a fact that became painfully clear to Greiner and Franklin one day when he showed up late for lunch. Franklin looked across the Horseshoe and saw Dickey propped up against the gate but making no movement toward the group -- when he finally did move, it seemed to take an eternity for him to move a hundred feet. As he approached a step near the table, he looked up at Greiner and Franklin and just said: “Help me.” Both noticed that Dickey's skin was a deep yellow.

“It was obvious that this guy was in serious trouble and jaundiced,” Franklin said. “From that point forward, it was nothing but straight downhill. He'd have moments where he would be much better, but he was on a pretty constant descent. One aspect of that, though, that I think Henry also talks about, is that if you need evidence that he was dedicated to teaching the students, and to this university, that day was it. Because we insisted that we either take him to a hospital or a doctor or somehow see that he got medical care and he would not do that. And why? Maybe some of it was bravado, I don't know, but he felt an absolute dedication to those students who were waiting right over here at two o'clock, and he insisted on going there. We, in the end, got him there.”

After that experience, about four years before Dickey's death, neither man ever saw him take a drink again. Of course, by then, “his health had been shattered,” Greiner says.

“Even after he must have known he was dying, I don't know that he regretted [drinking],” said Franklin. He vividly remembers walking back from lunch with him that day, and stopping at the bridge over Pickens Street. Dickey couldn't continue walking and sat down. He told Franklin: “Nine out of ten of the greatest experiences of my life involved alcohol.”

“He never detailed them,” Franklin said, “but he seemed to be saying that he doesn't regret what has happened to me because of alcohol.”

We were “watching a man die,” Franklin said, “and it began at that lunch with us. Of course, there was a long prelude to that.” At the very end, through a special arrangement with USC, an emaciated, cirrhotic Dickey was teaching classes at his house, an oxygen tank at his side.


Of course, in the end, none of the above will matter.

“No one remembers Shakespeare's children,” a drunken William Faulkner once snarled at his daughter, and he was right. If people remember anything about Dickey, it won't be the drinking or the ugly behavior or the way he tortured his first wife or the way his second wife tortured him. Where does Dickey stand, and what about his art is worth preserving?

Franklin notes that Dickey's rare book prices are at an all time low -- “his present reputation, if that's any gauge of it, is not all that exalted.” Dickey also had a hell of a time trying to sell his papers; years before his death, his own university library balked at paying the $350,000 price tag. The papers were later snapped up by Emory University.

“That was a huge mistake on the part of this university,” Greiner said.

I cited an influential Atlantic Monthly article from October 1967, where the poet Peter Davidson said that James Dickey and Robert Lowell were only the only two poets at that time who had any claim on being considered “major.”

“Dickey's work,” Davidson wrote, “is a search, in a sense, for heaven on earth. He seeks order and resonance in the inchoate; ransacks through obsession, through trial and error, changes of costume and skin, through transformation of personality and the accidents of experience, to discover some sort of relation between the human and animal worlds, a bridge between the flesh and the spirit, and, more than these, a link between the living and the dead.”

Thirty-three years down the road, Greiner, who teaches Dickey's poetry, thought Davidson's ranking proved correct: Dickey and Lowell do loom the largest over American poetry from 1960 onward. Among other contenders, he said, there may be Sylvia Plath, but she died too soon and poets have to judged on more than feminist politics. Richard Wilbur has a “classicist formality” and is a “master of language,” but no major Wilbur poem is on par with Dickey's best work.

That's no assurance of future posterity, though, Greiner said.

“I'm not convinced that Lowell and Dickey, fifty years from now, will have the same kind of stature that Eliot, Pound, Frost and Stevens continue to have. Those four poets have entered the pantheon, and they're there forever.”

Greiner's praise for Dickey does not include his work from about 1970 on, which critics generally agree was where he peaked.

“The artist has the right to be judged on the best work,” Greiner said. “It makes no difference to me that Melville wrote Mardi; the point is he wrote Moby-Dick. It makes no difference to me that Ezra Pound wrote some cantos that are full of fascist rhetoric; the point is wrote Canto One, Three, Thirteen and Forty-Five. That's what matters.”

“Jim was a poet of risk,” Greiner said. The lingering images in his poems are ones of war, animals, sex, blindness, machinery, and death. “What he was trying to do -- and I think it worked beautifully, when he succeeded -- I'll use the word the some critics have used, but I think it's accurate: exchange.”

A poet like Wallace Stevens, he said, would start a poem with a realistic description (“She sang beyond the genius of the sea”) and then try to push into more abstract, imaginative territory, “and even though he knew that transformation could not be permanent, he longed for it to be permanent.” Dickey “caught the pulse of American readers in the 1960s and 1970s” because he would start with a realistic image, seek transformation, but always return, changed, to the real world.

“It wasn't like Keats longing to be with the nightingale. Dickey wanted to be with the nightingale, and then return back to his mundane existence, changed by the experience. When you read his poetry carefully, the word ‘change' is in a lot of poems.”

In Dickey's “Cherrylog Road,” a young man has sex with Doris Holbrook in the back of an old Pierce-Arrow in a junkyard. The lovers part: “We left by separate doors/Into the changed, other bodies/Of cars...”

“He goes back to his life, but he's changed forever, whereas Stevens would have longed to keep the kid in the junkyard with Doris Holbrook forever, and that would not have been possible.”

Similarly, “The Lifeguard” starts with a realistic scene, with the guilt-wracked title character laying still amidst “a stable of boats.” In the middle of the poem, he thinks the child he had failed to save has returned to bless him. The poem returns, at the end, to the reality that no such salvation is possible.

Dickey's style, too, was significant: “That rising trimeter line is extraordinary for the kind of poems that Dickey is writing.” Dickey's switch to a split line, creating a so-called “wall of words” effect where words and phrases are spaced across the line, led to some great poetry but, for Greiner, it also precipitated a decline. In time, Dickey's strength, the narrative, was lost. The poems became more abstract and opaque.

Dickey arrived at an opportune time in American poetry, Greiner said; the late 1950s, when poetry was beginning to break with formalism. Dickey was “seen as a fresh new voice, with an obvious lyrical talent, on top of his narrative.” But where T.S. Eliot said “The poet must escape from personality,” Dickey took the other direction; he “poured his personality into his poems, so the reader could feel a personal contact.”

Dickey's 1960s poetry often put him right in the thick of controversy, with attacks coming from both right and left. His poem “May Day Sermon,” which is full of sadomasochism (for which Dickey had a private fetish) was deemed pornographic when it was published in the Atlantic Monthly, and could have cost him his position as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress. Major poems like “The Firebombing,” in which a World War II pilot reflects on dropping napalm on the Japanese, was deemed hawkish by Robert Bly. Bly also found racism in Dickey's poem “Slave Quarters,” where the narrator imagines himself a slave owner, conceiving a child with his own property.

Dickey, whose public positions on Vietnam and race were always in public conflict, only relished the controversy. Greiner points out that Dickey supported Eugene McCarthy for President; then again, Dickey also said he was no fan of appeasement and at times was staunchly in favor of America's involvement in Vietnam.

“Bly totally misread ‘The Firebombing' for his own political ends,” Greiner said. “He knew that that poem was not about Vietnam. It's a poem of retrospection where the narrator is looking back 20 years, from 1965 to 1945, telling us what he did and admitting at the end of the poem that the poem is about the guilt of not being able to feel guilt. That's what the poem is about.”

Greiner notes the poem's closing lines: “Absolution? Sentence? No matter;/The thing itself is in that.”

“I'm not being absolved, because I can't feel the guilt, I'm numb, is the point,” Greiner explains. “You can sentence me, it won't make any difference -- I've already done it. It won't do any good. I've already dropped the bombs.”

Greiner said Bly deliberately overlooked lines in the poem -- “This honored aesthetic evil” -- which suggests a narrator who has ambiguous feelings about the destruction he has wrought.

“What Bly wanted was for Dickey to write a poem on the level of [Russian poet Yevgeny] Yevtushenko, who was parading around the United States. ‘America, the stars on your flags are the bombs that you drop' and all that. It was political hogwash. Nobody's gonna read Yevtushenko's poetry anymore.”

Similarly, Bly misses the boat on “Slave Quarters,” Greiner says. “Every initiated reader knows not to identify the voice in the poem or novel one on one with the author. The author is creating. Bly knows that.”

Not that Bly broke Dickey's heart. Dickey never hid his opinions on the competition, and offered his own harsh assessments on Bly, James Merrill, John Berryman, Lowell, and Plath (a whiner, he often said) all his life. But those opinions could change on a sudden whim. Hart's biography asserts that for all his avowed dislike of women poets like Plath, Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton (with whom he had a torturously unconsummated relationship), he couldn't have written Puella -- his experimental cycle of poems written from a sustained female perspective -- without them.

Greiner compares him to Frost, who would help any poet he did not see as a rival. Although he often criticized Lowell -- whom he called “Lord Dreary,” derisively punning Lowell's poem “Lord Weary's Castle” -- he could also be charitable.

Franklin points out that Dickey would acknowledge the significance of Lowell's poem “For the Union Dead,” which he found superior to his old friend Allen Tate's “Ode to the Confederate Dead.”

When Lowell came to USC to read, Dickey turned to Greiner and said “Don, tonight it's as if Shakespeare and Johnson were meeting at the Mermaid Tavern, and only time will tell which of us is Shakespeare.”

“It's clear that Lowell was his rival,” Greiner said, “even though they became friends toward the end of their lives.”

Dickey's opinion of Lowell considerably improved after the latter died, which was not unusual, says Greiner. He also praised John Berryman to his face, bad-mouthed him to others, and then said “Berryman was the best of us” after that troubled poet leapt to his death from an interstate bridge. Greiner thinks Dickey's professions of guilt over Berryman's death -- he had given him a bad review not long before -- was just ego on Dickey's part.

“I don't think Jim really thought that he had helped push Berryman over the edge by something that he might have said. I think Jim liked that notion” that he could have.

Dickey's poems, “up to or about Deliverance, were revolutionary,” says Greiner. “They're mesmerizing. They have an incantatory tone, when I read them aloud in class. Students feel the pulse in him. They are riveting.”

Dickey's star was truly in the ascendant when he published Deliverance in 1970. The well-known novel about four men on a weekend canoeing trip that ends in rape and murder encapsulated and solidified everything about the Dickey myth, as did his appearance in the film as the sheriff. It meant more money, more fame, more readings, and more excess. Dickey had the power to do anything, and he did a lot.

“The whole hoopla over Deliverance, where Jim took his outrageous persona, in effect, on the road, and played the redneck sheriff -- I think it hurt him,” Greiner said. “I think it brought him all that money and then he started demanding more and more money for the readings.”

Deliverance is “mesmerizing. I think it's a terrific book. But it's not Moby-Dick or The Golden Bowl or Absalom! Absalom! or The Great Gatsby.”

“However the novel he preferred is Alnilam. “ said Franklin. “His second novel is his great novel, which is the one no one knows. It was vilified for that kind of dual narrative.”

“Which I think is the brilliance of it,” said Greiner.

Greiner said that while Alnilam is no Moby-Dick either, it will probably be rediscovered the way Moby-Dick was, seventy years after its publication, or the way Robert Coover's 1977 The Public Burning is getting renewed attention now.

“I think there will be critical attention paid to it. I don't think you'll have readers flocking to it, because it's too hard. Dickey's technique is absolutely brilliant. On the one left hand side of the page you have the blind narrator telling what he thinks is going on, and on the right hand side you have the objective narrator telling the reader what is literally going on. The possibilities for irony are endless there, because the reader knows what's going on; Cahill doesn't know, but is thinking what's going on on the basis of sound and feel.”

Franklin remembers how anxious Dickey was to get early approval on his final novel, To the White Sea, and asked opinions of the book not long after it came out. Part of the anxiety, said Greiner, is due to the fact that Dickey's opus of collected poems, The Whole Motion, sank like a stone. Critics barely noticed it.

“There's a life's work,” Greiner said, “and it got no play at all.”

For the best of that life's work, he quickly ticks off six poems: “Falling,” “The Performance,” “The Lifeguard,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Fiend,” and “The Firebombing.”

For Greiner, Dickey's major poetry comes as close as any to meeting the standard laid down by Robert Frost: “The utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.”