To My Cousin on James Dickey


The Washington Times today has a review by former USC professor, George Garrett, of two new books about your dissolute former professor, James Dickey. From reading them I can readily see why he would turn up his nose at my poetic efforts. My writing is all about truth. His writings and his life, itself, were quite the opposite. Here are some excerpts from the review:

"Jim was unabashedly a careerist. He had a clear understanding of the odds against any poet, no matter how gifted, and he recognized that poetry did not exist if it was not read. He deliberately promoted and exaggerated his several reputations--genius, drinker, woodsman, athlete--until the legends took over after Deliverance."

That was a quote from Crux: The Letters of James Dickey edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman. That's the mild stuff. This is from the reviewer himself:

I was Dickey's colleague at the University of South Carolina for a few years in the early 1970s. We got along and I thought I knew him fairly well. The careerism evident in the letters is blatantly obvious, explicit and crude. He flatters those he deems it necessary to flatter. He embraces any enemy and betrays any friend in his constant search for publishing deals, good reviews, fellowships, awards, and prizes. He is a hard hustler.

This has raised eyebrows but should not. What is genuinely astonishing is how well it all worked for him. Dickey's understanding of the literary scene was accurate. His jobs in advertising, before he settled down to teaching and writing, seem to have taught him the one great truth of the second half of the 20th century--the overwhelming power of created image over "reality." (end except)

These observations of the reviewer are about the other book, James Dickey: The World as a Lie, by Henry Hart:

James Dickey is a large, long, detailed, at times fascinating biography of a major poet of our time. Because he was such a flamboyant and public figure, it would seem that there could be few surprises left. The principal surprise, and a discovery that required the biographer to check every fact and detail from scratch, is that Dickey was a chronic liar. Almost nothing he told anyone in public or in private proved to be factually correct.

As much as any public figure, rock star or politician, he constantly reinvented himself, so successfully that even the jacket copy of the book, whose chief theme is "the world as a lie," celebrates his "reputation as a sportsman, boozer, war hero, and womanizer...." Boozer and womanizer, maybe. But he was not a real jock, not a true outdoorsman or sportsman, was an honorable veteran, but no war hero. He was an exciting and gifted poet whose fictive life validated the world of his poetry. 

Talk about poetic license...! As a liar with no trace of character, he certainly possessed the most essential ingredient for being a successful womanizer. The current occupant of the Oval Office illustrates that point quite well. Someone like that would rightly see my work as a rebuke of everything that they are and hardly something that they would embrace or endorse.

To paraphrase Housman:

Tis true the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale,
But take it if the smack is sour,
The better for your judgment hour.

(A. E. Housman, the principled atheist, would probably hate that paraphrase, by the way.)

Getting right with his Maker was obviously no higher on Dickey's list of priorities than it is with Clinton. The sad thing about this review and about Dickey's career is what it says about us as a people. A while back I wrote:

Decent, intelligent, and a journalist,
You know what's occurred to me?
In what has become of America,
It's impossible to be all three.

This reviewer, I believe, would be inclined to substitute "writer" for "journalist," making the observation even broader.

But be of good cheer. A clean conscience still beats a full wallet. I hope all goes well with you in the great Southwest.

Your cousin,

David Martin
April 9, 2000

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