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. After graduation from North Fulton High in 1941, Dickey completed a postgraduate year at Darlington School in Rome, Georgia. Dickey asked to be dismissed from the Darlington rolls in a 1981 letter to the principal, deeming the school the most "disgusting combination of cant, hypocrisy, cruelty, class privilege and inanity I have ever since encountered at any human institution." 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 magna cum laude with a degree in English and philosophy (as well as minoring in astronomy) in 1949. He also received an M.A. in English from Vanderbilt in 1950.
Dickey taught as an instructor of English at Rice University (then Rice Institute) in Houston, Texas in 1950 and, following his second Air Force stint, from 1952 to 1954. After teaching at the University of Florida during the 1955-1956 academic year, he 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.
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."
He published his first volume of collected poems, Poems 1957-1967 in 1967 after being named a poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. This publishing may represent Dickey's best work. After serving as a visiting lecturer at several institutions from 1963 to 1968 (including Reed College, California State University, Northridge, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, Washington University in St. Louis and the Georgia Institute of Technology), Dickey returned to academia in earnest in 1969 as a professor of English and writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, a position he held for the remainder of his life.
Dickey wrote the poem “The Moon Ground” for Life magazine in celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing. His reading of it was broadcast on ABC television on July 20, 1969.
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.
In November 1948 he married Maxine Syerson, and three years later they had their first son, Christopher; a second son, Kevin, was born in 1958. Two months after Maxine died in 1976, Dickey married Deborah Dodson. Their daughter, Bronwen, was born in 1981. Christopher Dickey is a novelist and journalist, lately providing coverage from the Middle East for Newsweek. In 1998, Christopher wrote a book about his father and Christopher's own sometimes troubled relationship with him, titled Summer of Deliverance. Kevin Dickey is a radiologist and lives in Winston-Salem, NC. Bronwen Dickey is a writer. Her first book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, was published in 2016.
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.Deliverance (1970)
To The White Sea (1993)
Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960)
Drowning with Others (1962)
Two Poems of the Air(1964)
Buckdancer's Choice: Poems (1965) —winner of the National Book Award
Poems 1957-67 (1967)
The Achievement of James Dickey: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems (1968)
The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy (1970)
For the Death of Vince Lombardi (1971)
The Zodiac (1976)
Veteran Birth: The Gadfly Poems 1947-49 (1978)
Head-Deep in Strange Sounds: Free-Flight Improvisations from the unEnglish (1979)
The Strength of Fields (1979)
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (1981)
The Early Motion (1981)
False Youth: Four Seasons (1983)
For a Time and Place (1983)
The Central Motion: Poems 1968-79 (1983)
Bronwen, The Traw, and the Shape-Shifter: A Poem in Four Parts (1986)
The Eagle's Mile (1990)
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1949-92 (1992)
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like the Bee
In Pursuit of the Grey Soul (1978)
Jericho: The South Beheld (1974) (with Hubert Shuptrine)
Deliverance (novel/screenplay) (1972)
The Call of the Wild (screenplay) (1976)
Lord, Let Me Die, But Not Die Out" (documentary) (1970)