James Dickey: In Touch with Darkness | Beltway Poetry Quarterly
The front doorway, which was surrounded by small glass windows, exhibited aspects of Palladian architecture, while the entablature was Greek Revival and the chimney and overall proportions of the house were modernist. Ivy-covered pine and oak trees shaded the house from the sun and gave the Dickey children an ideal place to play. Even as a child Dickey was aware of Atlanta's relatively short, turbulent history.
On his trips to the Chattahoochee River, where his father owned land, he could envision the Civil War battles that had erupted around earthworks still jutting from the river valley, and the Indian battles that preceded them. The Chattahoochee River had once formed the ancient boundary between Creeks and Cherokees and had been the site of Sherman's triumphs during his march toward Atlanta in July Here, decades later, the young Dickey played, camped, entertained fantasies of heroic combat, and developed a keen sense of ruins and resurrections.
If he looked one way, he could see signs of the war that reduced Atlanta to broken walls and blackened chimney stems. If he looked another, he could see the phoenix-like city that had soared from the ashes. Part of Atlanta's recrudescence began in when a druggist, John Pemberton, began selling a tonic called Coca-Cola to the public.
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By , three years before Dickey's birth, Atlanta had recovered sufficiently from the Civil War to become a fair-sized city with over , people. During Dickey's boyhood, Atlanta burgeoned on many fronts. In , radio stations went on the air for the first time. In , a new baseball park was built after fire destroyed the Atlanta Crackers' old park on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Hotels, office buildings, and homes sprouted everywhere. Delta Air Lines, for whom Dickey would write advertising copy in the s after working on the Coca-Cola account, set up its headquarters in Atlanta in At the beginning of the twentieth century, Atlanta was an odd mix of progressive and reactionary factions.
Partly due to the efforts of Margaret Mitchell's mother, an ardent feminist, Atlanta women obtained the right to vote a year before the constitutional amendment that granted suffrage to women. Despite their political advances, many women were content with their traditional roles. Among the activities prized by fashionable women were the dances at the Piedmont Driving Club, where Dickey's sister Maibelle named after her mother socialized, and the Capital City Club, where Dickey's father was a member.
At the first Piedmont dinner dance after the Great War, Dickey's mother was among the guests. Because of her war service making bandages and other supplies, she greeted the guest of honor, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, Gen. John Pershing. While some Atlantans dined and danced at posh clubs, an organized crime family known as the "bunco ring" flourished in the city.
Essay about James Dickey
After Prohibition took effect on January 16, , illegal stills and bootleggers proliferated. Corrupt, racist politicians extended their tentacles throughout Atlanta. During Dickey's childhood, the Democratic-Populist demagogue Thomas Watson continued to influence Atlanta politics with his anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and antiblack tirades. The Ku Klux Klan had a powerful hand in city government into the s.
The young Dickey absorbed these contradictory social attitudes and never completely resolved them. As an adult, old South and new South continued to battle in his psyche. With the stock market crash of and the ensuing Depression, Atlanta plunged with the rest of America into financial chaos.
The Dickeys were a notable exception. Embarrassed by his family's affluence and how they came by it, Dickey usually repudiated any suggestion that he had been raised by wealthy parents. To his closest friends he mocked his grandfather's tonic company, saying that its slogan should be "Go where the ignorance is," since it targeted poor, uneducated blacks.
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In his unpublished novel The Entrance to the Honeycomb , written in the early s, and a draft of it he called The Casting , he expressed his repugnance for inherited wealth through his alter ego, Julian Glass. Asked about the amenities of West Wesley, Dickey usually feigned ignorance. In fact, his parents hired numerous servants. A chauffeur, Andrew James Burney, drove the Dickeys around Atlanta, gardened, and did odd jobs around the house.
A Hungarian cook, Julia, lived in the house and prepared the meals. Temperamental and superstitious she was known to throw skillets when angry and hang chicken heads on the clothesline to keep away evil spirits , she was also a superb chef. Old George was another "character" who worked at West Wesley. Allowed into the house only on holidays, he drank one beer, played the harmonica, and always told a gothic tale about a black snake. The rest of the time he tended the yard. A succession of maids one named Coreer was Dickey's favorite were in charge of domestic chores.
According to Tom, the family had a budget of about fifteen hundred dollars per month for maintaining their household during the Depression today this would amount to about two hundred thousand dollars per year. Low taxes in the s made the Dickeys even more comfortable. Dickey once admitted, "I don't remember really that there was any special pinch on us financially. Maybe because my mother's income was from patent medicine and depression years are very good for patent medicine because people can't afford to pay doctors.
We never really suffered, but we were not rich. Despite sudden memory lapses when the subject of servants arose, Dickey remembered them well. His bond with his private nurse, Mamie Doster, was particularly close and affectionate, partly because she read to him. His claims of a philistine childhood were as apocryphal as his claims of early poverty.
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Indeed, he constantly implored his nurse to bring him books just as he commanded secretaries to ransack his shelves near the end of his life when illness made walking difficult. His boyhood tastes were eclectic. He wanted to hear children's stories about anthropomorphic animals as much as encyclopedia articles about astronomy.
Dickey also read to her precocious son. She introduced him to Hamlet , as if to prepare him for his later mother-son and father-son conflicts. Fearing accusations of being a pampered and effeminate child, Dickey sometimes said he had been an untutored, rough-and-tumble pauper, whose parents couldn't afford to buy him a new pair of shoes throughout his life he blamed his foot problems on this early hardship.
Dickey's need to envision his past in terms of heroic sacrifices influenced the way he viewed his birth. Throughout his life he claimed that his birth had depended on the death of his older brother, Eugene: "I did gather by implication and hints of family relatives that my mother, an invalid with angina pectoris, would not have dared to have another child if Gene had lived. I was the child who was born as a result of this situation. And I always felt a sense of guilt that my birth depended on my brother's death. Her silence may have created the appropriate void for her son's imaginings.
The idea that he had been conceived because of his brother's death made his birth seem miraculous and Christ-like as well as freighted with original sin, and that's how he treated it in his poetry and prose. Eugene was born on September 14, , and died of infantile paralysis on April 4, , at the age of six. Dickey's mother suffered from a mild ailment, a valve malfunction in her heart brought on by rheumatic fever.
She did not have the more serious angina pectoris.
Indeed, she outlived her husband and even outlived Dickey's first wife, Maxine. She died of cancer in at the age of eighty-nine. Kevin's older brother, Chris, who often stayed with his grandmother, suspected that she retired to her room for long naps in order to get sympathy and keep her distance from her husband.
Often during her "naps," she read and listened to the newly established radio stations. Like her husband and like Jim, she was reclusive by nature.
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Jim's boyhood friends noticed that she stayed inside most of the time and usually wore nothing more than a nightgown. When she and her daughter went out shopping, they "dressed as though they were to meet the queen," as one of Jim's friends remarked, but still she kept her distance by wearing a veil. In the manner of Poe, a writer both mother and son cherished, Maibelle no doubt understood the power a beautiful, aloof, and possibly dying woman could exert.
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Despite her manipulative hypochondria, Maibelle Dickey was a caring and generous mother. Her children, especially her daughter, remembered her with great affection. Maibelle once said, If you tried a million years, you could never relate how really wonderful she was. She treated each of her children as an only child, gave each a home of his own, and supplemented all of Jim's grants.
She was a marvelous letter writer. Jim probably gets his talent from her, although Papa could write an excellent letter too She had a great sense of humor also, especially in her letters. My cousin reports that during the war WWII his fellow soldiers would often say, "please read more from your aunt's letter! Her son remembered her similarly: "She was a deeply feeling, quiet sort of retiring person who stayed alone in her thoughts most of the time, but humorous and sweet as she could be, and helpful.
She was almost the ideal mother because she stayed out of the way. You asked her something; she would tell you what she thought, but she sure wouldn't impose it on you.
She was very proud of all of us, and worried continually about us Having attended Washington Seminary in Atlanta and then Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia, Dickey's mother was typical of her generation in that she gave up her career ambitions singing, painting, and writing were among her talents in order to raise a family. She channeled her literary abilities into letters rather than poems, stories, or novels.
If his mother was his early tutor, she was also his first literary model and muse. As a young man, Dickey found it hard to love any woman other than Maibelle. Christopher Dickey writes,. Though Summer of Deliverance tells more than other books are likely to about the life and death of James Dickey, it should be even better appreciated for what it achieves in telling the truth about the ways a son gives meaning to the weight of a father -- Aeneas carrying Anchises out of burning Troy.
American southerners somehow understand more about the truth of the past than northerners do; perhaps because, like William Faulkner, they know that "the past is never dead. It's not even past," and consequently know how to tell us more-resonant stories. Christopher Dickey's book is southern in that it inhabits the past and the present at once: "Was I the grown man talking to his aged father, or the little boy talking to his dad? Much of the redemptive job of biography has now been done by the poet's elder son. James Dickey seemed to come out of nowhere in the s, arriving in a flood of poetry -- strange, exalted verse stories.
The poems in Drowning With Others , Helmets , and Buckdancer's Choice which deservedly won the National Book Award in may have strutted like someone wearing elevator shoes, but they soon justified themselves in the way they set forth one self after another, against the backdrops of war, of lust and growth, of a southern landscape dripping with anticipation.
In Poems , Dickey's roaring poems took on various personae: an adulterer, a frenzied pilot, a panther, a sex fiend, a country preacher, and a guitar player. In The Atlantic Monthly published an article in which I compared, with certain reservations, Dickey's poetic stature to that of Robert Lowell, the reigning influence for many of the younger poets of the time. When, in , Dickey published his first novel, Deliverance, he seemed yet again to be stretching the sort of writing a poet could manage to do.
Deliverance was excerpted in The Atlantic, and that macho tale of four middle-class Atlantan males embarked on an unpredictably perilous weekend canoe trip down a wild river in Georgia became one of the runaway best sellers of its year. Soon afterward it was made into a movie -- a star vehicle for Burt Reynolds and a smash hit.