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Big man on campus

50 years after James Dickey arrived at USC, the poet’s story is still being told



If you were at Carolina anytime between 1968 and 1997, you know about James Dickey. Winner of the National Book Award, Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, author of Deliverance, World War II airman, ad man for Coca-Cola, guitar player, bow hunter — the broad-shouldered, 6'3" Dickey cast a long shadow.

But not all stories about the former University of South Carolina writer-in-residence read so triumphantly. Fifty years after his arrival at USC, the once-mythologized extracurricular exploits can seem boorish, even ugly, and certainly self-destructive. And yet, James Dickey was too complex to reduce to a cautionary tale. Talk to the people who knew him. 

“I asked him once, ‘Jim, who will write your authorized biography?’” says Ward Briggs, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Classics emeritus and editor of The Complete Poems of James Dickey (2013). “He said, ‘There will be no authorized biography, there’s too much dirt.’ What I thought he meant was that there were too many negative stories. Really, though, he meant that there was just too much. Everybody who ever met him has a story.”

 

Stranger than fiction

Don Greiner, Ben Franklin and James Dickey

English professors Don Greiner (left), Ben Franklin and James Dickey dined together at McCutchen House twice a week for close to 13 years. The Power Lunch Group, as they jokingly called themselves, discussed literature, film, music, sports, teaching and life in general. “[A]fter a while I think Jim knew we weren’t going to rush home to write an article about ‘The Great Poet,’ so he confided in us,” says Greiner. Photo by Gene Crediford.

Don Greiner, Carolina Distinguished Professor of English emeritus and former associate provost and dean of undergraduate affairs, is among the first people Dickey met on campus. In the fall of 1967, Greiner’s first year at Carolina, he was assigned a course for the spring called Modern American Writers. He planned to teach the big guns — Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald —  then round out the syllabus with a few contemporary novelists and a hotshot poet.

“I knew nothing about James Dickey at the time, but I did remember that someone named James Dickey had won the National Book Award for a book called Buckdancer’s Choice in 1966, so I assigned Buckdancer’s Choice,” says Greiner, who laughingly describes his younger self as “the greenest assistant professor in the history of this university.”

And then, truth being stranger than fiction, Greiner was on his way to the administrative office in Davis College (then home to USC’s English department) to place his book order when he bumped into a colleague, Calhoun Winton, who introduced him to a tall, handsome stranger.

“He says, ‘Don, this is James Dickey,’” recalls Greiner. “I fumbled around like a kindergartner —‘Cal, look at this syllabus I just filled out!’ and ‘Mr. Dickey — !’ That moment probably got me in well with Dickey. I mean, here I am, the acolyte, fawning at the great poet’s feet.”

Dickey had that effect. That December, he accepted the writer-in-residence position; the following June he delivered the commencement address on the Horseshoe. In January 1969, after fulfilling a prior teaching commitment at Georgia Tech, he taught his first courses at USC and became one of the most recognizable faces on campus.

Meanwhile, Greiner and Dickey became fast friends, often meeting for lunch at the Faculty Club, a full-service restaurant located in McCutchen House. It was there that the facetiously-named Power Lunch Group was born after a particularly lively repast with a third English department colleague, Ben Franklin. The men dined together nearly every Tuesday and Thursday from 1984 until shortly before Dickey’s death in 1997.

“Jim was always interested in what we had taught that day,” says Greiner. “Generally, we talked about literature, obviously, but we also talked about sports, music, movies. Ben knew more about music than I did, I knew more about movies, so conversation was easy. And after a while I think Jim knew we weren’t going to rush home to write an article about ‘The Great Poet,’ so he confided in us.”

James Dickey

Stephanie Sonnenfeld Stinn, ’98, journalism, joined the Power Lunch Group as the “mystery guest” twice. Now a public relations manager for Lockheed Martin, the former editor of The Gamecock looks back on the experience fondly. “How many people in this world have the opportunity to sit down and talk about books with one of the most influential writers in American literature?"

In good weather, they took the table by the garden fountain; otherwise, they held court in the dining room. Sometimes they closed ranks; other times they invited a “mystery guest,” which tended to bring out the performer in Dickey. The guest might be another professor, or a visiting writer or someone from the community. Occasionally, it was a student. Stephanie Sonnenfeld Stinn, a journalism major and editor of The Gamecock, had the rare honor of being invited twice, the first time when she was still a freshman.

“You could really tell he loved being at the University of South Carolina,” says Stinn. “He’d been this big ad man in Atlanta, and given his innate intelligence, he could have gone just about anywhere and done just about anything, but he did something that most people can’t: he indulged his passion and became a full-time poet and writer — and, of course, a teacher at USC.”

And while he may have put on a show, he was generally charming, say his colleagues, and his literary intelligence was always on display — even when he overdid it with the drinking. 

“He wasn’t over the top, but he knew he was the focus of attention,” says Franklin. “To me, the amazing thing about these long lunches is that following them, he would teach — and people raved about his teaching.” 

 

From the gut

James Dickey

For nearly three decades, beginning in the late 1960s, James Dickey was one of the most recognizable figures on campus, a poet, teacher and fashionable bon vivant.

Novelist and USC Beaufort English professor Ellen Malphrus met Dickey while she was in the creative writing MFA program at Carolina in the early 1990s and never stopped taking notes — in the classroom, in her dog-eared paperback of Poems 1957-1967, in her mind as she revisits favorite poems like “The Last Wolverine” and “Cherrylog Road.” “His work hits you in the gut,” she says. “It affects you mind, body and soul. That’s what Dickey taught us — to write from the gut, and to have guts enough to write.”

Dickey taught from the gut, too. He’d strut into class lugging a suitcase filled with books, a couple of Heinekens under his belt, and begin pulling rabbits from his hat. If his students needed a creative jolt, the same showman who electrified audiences on tour would appear, up close and personal, at the head of the seminar table.

“One of my very first classes with him he was trying to get us to tap into our emotions,” Malphrus recalls. “He said, ‘You know that dream when you’re trying to run but you can’t? You know that dream?’ We’re all wagging our heads, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and he had a student, Charlie, who had been in that class before. Dickey said, ‘Charlie, you know what I’m talking about! Get up on the table and show everybody!’”

And Charlie did just that. He climbed up on the table and pantomimed the struggle to break free, effectively loosening the creative valves for everyone. “Dickey had a knack for opening you up,” says Malphrus. “You could just see the eyeballs pop, everybody thinking, ‘This is gonna be a wild ride!’”

But his classes were more than just theatrical. Reading from the books in his ubiquitous suitcase, he opened up meaningful discussions about language, nature, the cosmos, the divine. And then there was Dickey’s own work, suffusing the air with creative possibility. 

For Longwood University English professor and Dickey scholar Gordon Van Ness, who studied under the poet in graduate school, edited two volumes of his letters and is now working on a new Dickey biography, the experience set the trajectory of his career, but it also changed the way he experiences the world.

“Language meant possibility to him. It awakened in him a sense of life’s essential mystery, and he was trying to reawaken that in us,” says Van Ness, ’87 Ph.D. “In me, he awakened a sense of the uniqueness of nature and the world around me. I can’t look at an ice cube, for example, without looking at it really closely and seeing nebulae and gaseous quasars, those types of things — and it was his poetry that got me to do that.”


 

Awakening the giant

For Ward Briggs, who served as a pall bearer at Dickey’s funeral alongside Greiner, Franklin and fellow English professor Matthew Bruccoli, the wild ride dates all the way back to 1963, when the poet gave a reading at Washington and Lee University — where Briggs was a freshman.

This was three years before the National Book Award, five before Dickey strode onto campus at USC, a decade before Deliverance rocketed him to superstardom, but the ad man-turned-barnstorming poet was already a big deal, with a couple of collections to his name and a Guggenheim Fellowship greasing his wheels. When he arrived at the Virginia liberal arts college, the dean of the college naturally threw a dinner party. Briggs scored an invite because his father and the dean had been college classmates.

Unfortunately, the guest of honor passed out after offending the dean’s wife with his colorful language, and Briggs was enlisted to rouse him. For an aspiring writer who knew the famous poet’s work from The New Yorker — over the course of his career, Dickey sold a whopping 63 poems to the magazine — it was an intimidating moment. “Mr. Dickey?” he said as he poked the sleeping poet’s shoulder. “Mr. Dickey?”

“People have asked if I remember the first thing he ever said to me, and I do,” Briggs recalls with a chuckle. “He opened one eye and said, ‘Who the hell are you?’”

Or words to that effect. The actual quote is saltier, befitting a man who refused to self-censor. “And then he got up!” Briggs adds, his voice still tinged with wonder five decades later. “Within half an hour he was in Lee Chapel giving a reading and just blowing everybody out of the water.”

 

Assault on the senses

Esquire Magazine cover

James Dickey’s novel Alnilam wasn’t published until 1989, but an excerpt, “Cahill Is Blind,” appeared in Esquire in 1976. Sitting for the life mask that appeared on the cover had temporarily blinded Dickey, informing a key aspect of the novel’s main character, Frank Cahill.

By the early 1970s, Dickey’s “wild ride” was motoring full speed. Encyclopedia Britannica had made a documentary chronicling one of his book tours (Lord, Let Me Die But Not Die Out, 1970). Deliverance the best seller (1970) had turned into Deliverance the Academy Award nominated film starring Burt Reynolds (1972). Reporters made pilgrimages to his Lake Katherine home and famous writers flocked to campus. The Paris Review sat down with him for their iconic interview series. Esquire featured him on their cover wearing a bizarre silver life mask. 

Meanwhile, Dickey was darting around Columbia in a Jaguar XKE purchased with movie money, sporting Gucci shoes and donning a wide-brimmed hat reminiscent of the sheriff’s hat he’d worn for his cameo in Deliverance. But the success cut both ways, and the booze didn’t help. 

As if scripted for Hollywood, Dickey wrapped the Jaguar around a utility pole guy wire, landing himself in jail and the details in Time magazine. His marriage to his first wife, Maxine, unraveled, partly due to his extramarital affairs, partly due to drinking. His second wife, Deborah Dodson, also suffered from substance abuse problems. And Dickey himself kept drinking — to excess.

“It was very hard to talk to him about his drinking,” says Briggs. “You’d say, ‘How come you drink so much, Jim?’ and he’d say, ‘Ward, you can’t imagine what it’s like when every day you wake up, and as soon as you do, then begins the assault of the senses.’ Not the assault on the senses but of the senses. Everything he saw, he picked up and reacted to it.” 

Dickey continued to react, on the page and in public, but by the 1980s his national audience was shrinking. He completed two more novels, Alnilam (1987) and To the White Sea (1993), but neither matched Deliverance in sales or reviews. In the early 1990s he hoped to revive his reputation with an anthology of his best poetry, The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (1992), but the volume was ignored by critics, many of whom took umbrage with Dickey’s often pointed critiques of their own poetry.

The Whole Motion just dropped into the well, almost no reviews, nothing,” says Briggs. “There were people in the literary community who just hated him by that point. He had this toxic reputation.”

 

After apple-picking

In 1994, after nearly dying from liver failure, Dickey dried out — “The charm, the incredible intelligence and wit, that all came back,” says Briggs — but an unrelated congenital ailment, pulmonary fibrosis, made it difficult to breathe without use of an oxygen tank. Still, he continued to tell stories, teach, write. And he literally surrounded himself with books, stacking them around his chair at his Lake Katherine home.

“What I wish more people realized was just how learned he was, how totally devoted he was to his calling, to literature, and how grievously it wounded him to fail in his later years,” says Briggs. “He kept trying his damnedest all his life.” 

On his deathbed, he held Don Greiner’s hand while the two men recited poetry.

“It’s going to sound melodramatic, but he knew that one of my favorite poets is Robert Frost, and he looked up at me and said, without warning, ‘My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree,’” says Greiner. “That’s the first line of my favorite Frost poem, ‘After Apple-Picking.’ So, I picked up, ‘Toward heaven still,’ and then Jim — ‘And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill…’”

The poem, which explores themes of mortality, ambition and things left undone, would be Greiner and Dickey’s last encounter, and by the time they reached its conclusion the mood had become somber. “Our hands were gripping at that point,” says Greiner. “The nurses did not interrupt.”

For Briggs, who accompanied Dickey to the hospital, the final chapter of their relationship was tenderer than the first. The two men revisited a dream Dickey once shared with him about scoring the winning touchdown in high school, being carried off the field, then dancing in the moonlight with the most beautiful girl in school. In the dream, Dickey lamented that the experience wasn’t real but the girl assured him it that, yes, it was real — in the dream.

“The first time he told me that story he said to me, ‘You remember that, Ward,’ so we’re in the hospital and he asks me to hold his hand,” Briggs recalls. “I said, ‘It’s all real in the dream, Jim,’ and he just said, ‘I know, Ward. I know.’ 

“The next time I was with him was in the hospital and he was on the ventilator. I remember the first words he said to me, but I remember the last ones, too. His actual last words were, ‘Y’all are talking too loud. Be quiet.’”

 

Photographs and Esquire cover courtesy of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library

 

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