Cover image for Crux : the letters of James Dickey
Crux : the letters of James Dickey
Dickey, James.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1999.
Physical Description:
xxx, 574 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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PS3554.I32 Z48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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James Dickey was a great poet, a legend of the reading circuit, and -- after the best-sellingDeliveranceand its celebrated movie version -- a celebrity. This rich collection, reaching from 1943 to  his death in 1997, and from a fledgling poet to an ailing man of letters, constitutes a vibrant short course in literature and poetry since World War II. From a 1959 letter: "For a long time I have been trying to do two things in poetry, both of which I have been told I should not do. The first is to get away, by whatever means, from the idea of a poem as objet d'art. . . . The other is to be able to make statements, one after the other: this happens, this happens, then this happens. To go with all this, I have also been trying to assert connections in nature where none exist: to make the world do what I say, rather than what it actually does." Matthew J. Bruccoli, James Dickey's literary personal representative, notes in his introduction: "The letters assembled in this volume represent perhaps twenty percent of James Dickey's located correspondence. The double rationale for selection was first to document the growth of a major writer -- how a scarcely educated jock discovered that he possessed genius and that writing was the only thing that counted -- then, second, to document the ways he fulfilled his genius and advanced his career. . . . The best letters here are the ones about writing . . . his correspondence documents the accuracy of his critical judgments." Dickey's correspondents include John Berryman, Harold Bloom, Philip Booth, Richard Howard, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Donald Hall, James Merrill, Ezra Pound, Anne Sexton, Mark Strand, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and James Wright. Entertaining and erudite, these letters reveal the fierce, complicated literary intellect of the man John Updike called "the high-flyer of American poets."

Author Notes

James Lafayette Dickey, an American poet and novelist, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1923. He is perhaps best known for Deliverance, his novel about four suburban men struggling to survive a canoe trip gone awry, which was made into a popular movie of the same title, starring Burt Reynolds. Dickey also published several volumes of poetry that are marked by his portrayal of a world in conflict. His collected poems (1942-1992) were published under the title The Whole Motion in 1992.

After serving as a pilot during World War II, Dickey earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Vanderbilt University. He taught at several universities and worked as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress from 1966 to 1968. He died in 1996.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The late, great poet and novelist Dickey often revised his letters after his secretaries had typed them. His letters are beautifully reasoned meditations on poetics, poets, and critics that reveal the politics and aesthetics of a literary genius who would become a celebrity. Of course, these are the 20 percent of Dickey's located letters that Bruccoli and Baughman chose to collect. "I disapproved of his conduct and celebrated his genius," says Bruccoli. He allows Dickey to celebrate his own genius here, and we learn little of the flawed man's alcoholic and sexual misadventures. Dickey wrote to Andrew Lytle, James Merrill, James Wright, Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Richard Howard, Louise Bogan, Glenway Wescott, Diane Wakoski, Robert Penn Warren, and many lesser lights, as well as to his son, Christopher, and first wife, Maxine. There are even some entertaining letters to his parents from Dickey's heroic air-force days in World War II. These letters are of clear value to aspiring writers and scholars, though their lucid and unscandalous nature means that they may not attract widespread interest. --John Mort

Publisher's Weekly Review

Dickey's indefatigable editor and friend, and senior compiler of his letters, Bruccoli "disapproved of his conduct and celebrated his genius." Whatever that conduct was, it rarely emerges from these letters. Dickey (1923-1997) "deliberately promoted and exaggerated his several reputationsÄgenius, drinker, woodsman, athleteÄuntil the legends took over after [the novel] Deliverance." Not a biography in letters, Crux is, after the early family letters, some later ones to a son and to (or about) his second wife, a selected professional correspondence. When Dickey's first wife dies, in October 1976, and he remarries two months later, we are greeted by a gap from August 1976 to August 1977. What we do have, however, are pages of literary politics, self-seeking, currying favor and attacking writers unworthy of his good words. Nabokov is "tiresome and disgusting... with a built-in intellectual smirk." Frost is "that super-jerk." If all poetry, he says, were like that of Wallace Stevens, "I would have no interest in the subject." Anne Sexton is derided for "continual pushiness." John Hollander is "a literary pimp and time-server." Robert Lowell, whom Dickey will butter up later, is "just another example of the brilliant, pampered American poet who spends the rest of his life, after the initial success, trying to progress and keeps falling down and down." Despite some praise of contemporaries and some steadfast loyalties, Dickey is largely a sour novice. Pathos enters when his second wife becomes "all but comatose with cocaine and heroin," and he struggles to write amid "a maelstrom of misfortunes." The letters end abruptly with a friend's funeral and Dickey's warmth of feeling toward him, but the personality evoked by the letters is generally unlovely. 20 b&w photographs not seen by PW. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The late Dickey's drunken public antics, his braggadocio about his athletic prowess, and his violence-filled second marriage are the stuff of legend by now. Yet Dickey's letters reveal a man consumed by his passion for language and life. Editors Bruccoli and Baughman (coeditors of the letters of Nabokov and Fitzgerald) here collect about 20 percent of the late poet's known correspondence. The collection traces Dickey's career from his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt to his final days in Litchfield Beach, SC, where he wrote every day ensconced in a castle of books. In letters to correspondents like Ezra Pound, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Sexton, James Wright, and others, Dickey doggedly and keenly discusses the role of the poet in the modern world, the nature of modern poetry, and the function of literary criticism. Dickey's letters give us a glimpse into his mind and writing that no biography will ever be able to do. These letters are part of a steadily rising flood of material about Dickey, and large public libraries and academic libraries will certainly want to own them.ÄHenry L. Carrigan, formerly with Westerville P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Bruccoli and Baughman collect here about 20 percent of the late poet's known correspondence, and these letters provide a powerful narrative of the development of a first-rate poet and critic. Revealing a man consumed by his passion for language and life, the letters in this collection trace Dickey's career from his undergraduate years at Vanderbilt to his final days in Litchfield Beach, South Carolina. In letters to correspondents like Ezra Pound, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, Anne Sexton, Donald Hall, Randall Jarrell, James Wright, et al., Dickey doggedly discusses the role of the poet in the modern world, the nature of modern poetry, and the function of literary criticism. His critical judgment grows out of his wide and deep reading, his uncanny recall of small details of books read long ago, and his keen linguistic sensibility. Providing an intimate glimpse into Dickey's mind and writing that no biography will ever be able to equal, this collection makes a good companion piece to The James Dickey Reader, ed. by Henry Hart (1999), and Hart's comprehensive biography, James Dickey: The World as a Lie (2000). Undergraduates through faculty; general readers. ; Independent Scholar



Crux n. A constellation in the Southern Hemisphere near Centaurus and Musca. Also called the Southern Cross . A difficult problem or unanswered question. The title of the unfinished novel James Dickey was writing at his death. to: maibelle swift dickey Postmarked 31 May 1943 Dear Mom, Well, only three more weeks to go in dear old H.P.C. I am no longer afraid of Nashville. I know I'll be o.k., and I know I'll be commissioned as a pilot. For something wonderful has happened. I know I am good for something. First I can run. The coach here clocked me in ten flat yesterday. While not altogether accurate, it must have been pretty close. But that is secondary. I can write. Always before I have had some doubt as to my ability, but not anymore. The English teacher here says my themes are the best he's ever read. Inclosed is a rough draft of an essay I was writing on Bix, but abandoned at the last moment in favor of a more conservative theme. Parts of it are good, some is rotten, and it is not at all the type of thing I intend to do in the future. But I think you'll admit it has some merit, and is interesting in a feverish, breathless, sort of way. There are no revisions on it, so naturally there are some grammatical errors, but, as "Down-Beat" would say, "the stuff's there, and it is mellow!!" I've been having a pretty fair time here. I've had a fearful headache for the last two or three days, and last night got sick and had 99.6 fever. But all is well today. All is o.k., but the headache. It's still with me, I'm sorry to say, but not as bad as originally. I've got a tremendous appetite and am well on the road to recovery. Take care of yourself, Mom, and here's hoping I'll see you in a month, as a bona fide aviation cadet!! Love, Jim The Rebel Soul -- 1931 Most of us are cut from the same pattern, and, with minor variations, have practically the same interests and aims in life. But there are some, yes, many, who by the very nature of their own being, and by their particular talents, are destined to be singled out from the many and live brilliant but somehow strangely distorted and out-of-focus lives. These men, for most of them are men, can only be likened to the oft-repeated and hackneyed metaphor of the comet flashing across the heavens -- scintillating while it lasts, but fading quickly and then forever engulfed by inky blackess, which may be either oblivion or death, one of which is as certain, unrelenting and unconquerable as the other. Such a "Rebel Soul" was Napoleon, as was Alexander the Great. Beethoven was another, Byron another and Shelley still another. Some were militarists, some musicians, some writers; but they all had that same indefinable "something" that made them great, and, make no mistake about it, it was not altogether the stamp of their particular genius, either. Call it incentive, will power, ambition, or what you will. It is the spark, the spark of greatness, that pulls them from obscurity to the heights and back again. But after they have gone, everything is not quite the same. Things have been altered. Sometimes big things, sometimes small things, but everything is not as it was. The spark of greatness has been mistaken in some, and in others it has burned brightly, but to no avail. There is no sadder story in all mankind than that of genius unrecognized. Poe had the spark, undoubtedly, but he died a drunkard and in poverty. "Bix" Beiderbecke, the great jazz cornetist, whose improvisations have been likened to Debussy and Wagner, had it perhaps more than any musician within the last century, and, in some opinions, among them my own, more than any instrumentalist who ever lived. The case of Beiderbecke, unknown to all but a hand-full of musicians, record collectors, and jazz critics, is of particular interest to us here, for it serves to illustrate two of the principles involved in what I have been writing: 1. That a man may have the mark of genius upon him, and, through his own weaknesses or the unwillingness of the public to recognize his talents, remain unknown. 2. That men of genius, real genius, are not all dead, that they exist here among us, if we would but recognize them. "Bix" Beiderbecke was a musical phenomenon. Born in Davenport, Iowa, he could play simple tunes on the family piano at the age of three. He first came under the influence of jazz, when he heard "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong on the riverboats that ply the Mississippi from New Orleans, cradle of hot jazz, to Chicago, which was to become, largely through the influence of Beiderbecke and his compatriots, the Mecca for disciples of the hottest, purest kind of jazz. From the first, "Bix" was absorbed in his music, and his family, becoming worried over the boy's lack of attention to his studies, sent him to Lake Forest Academy in Chicago. At that time there was an abundance of hot music in Chicago, almost all of which was the rough, unpolished but nevertheless potent "stomps" and "blues" of the riverboat negroes, of whom Louis Armstrong was beginning to become undisputed monarch. "Bix" spent more time in the speak-easies and clip joints of south Chicago, than in the classroom, and as a result, fell far behind in his studies. Even during his short stay at Lake Forest, "Bix" played in small bands at every opportunity for one night stands and club dates. In 1923, when only 19, he left school entirely and took the first trumpet chair in Jean Goldkette's band. Goldkette, perhaps more than any of his contemporary leaders, recognized some of the far reaching possibilities of hot music, and consequently gathered about him the outstanding hot musicians of the day; a list that today would read like a "who's who in popular music:" Bix, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Russ Morgan and Joe Venuti, to mention a few, and there were others from time to time. Due to the difficulty in paying all the musical "stars," Goldkette was forced to disband in 1930, and Bix, aiming only at the highest, achieved his pinnacle. Paul Whiteman took him on as first trumpet. Bix played with Whiteman for two years, then left. The beauty of his playing during this period is attested to by the many records he made while with "The King of Jazz." Whiteman himself called him the "greatest instrumentalist and most profound influence in all American contemporary music." There are many more indications of his virtuosity, imagination, and wealth of original musical ideas, too many more to enumerate here. After leaving Whiteman, Beiderbecke played with a few other bands, among them Glen Gray's. That was in 1930. On August 7, 1931, Bix died. He is buried in Davenport, Iowa, the place of his birth. These are the cold, hard facts, such as historians and biographers thrive on. But who would write such a biography as this? "Bix" was a drunkard. He whored. He led the dissipated and irregular life that jazz musicians have always led. He lived ingloriously, and died as a result of his own weakness and folly. Which is as it should be. And yet? -- he had one redeeming feature -- one that stamps him in the minds, souls, and bodies of a very few as a genius, the greatest of the great, -- his music. Bix was a paradox. Music to him was a passion. Perhaps he himself could not have explained how or why. But the music was in him, and he had to get it out. Get it out or perish. His music never satisfied him. He was always striving, seeking new notes, combinations of notes, chord sequences; many of which were not possible to render upon his instrument. His only interest was music; when he was not occupied with his cornet he played piano, and very good piano, too. He was one of the originators of the "tenth-style" bass, and his Okeh recording of "In a Mist," perhaps his most original composition, carried out this conviction. It has an eerie quality, a searching, questing, haunting melody, with beautiful thirteenth chord progressions. One who hears it will never forget. It was Bix's only piano solo, though he composed several others, all in the same vein as "In a Mist." The influence of Debussy was very strong in Bix's piano compositions. One has only to play "In a Mist" once to recognize the similarity. to: eugene dickey Postmarked 8 June 1943 A/S Jim Dickey Flight "E" 326th C.F.D. High Point Col. H.P., N.C. Dear Pop, I've just gotten back from my first flight, and it was fine. I learned how to do all the elementary maneuvers, and also tried a loop, which didn't turn out so hot. My instructor is a fellow named Whitley, who is not too educated, but knows his airplanes thoroughly. You ought to see me up there, with those earphones clamped over my head and my parachute on. I feel almost ready to go after a Zero. My instructor said I was doing fine. Since you seem to be interested in my writing I am inclosing a description of a day's football practice at Clemson. While writing this I kept in mind not a single day's performance but a composite of all the days when we scrimmaged the varsity. I used as my model Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" to lend reality to the picture. I tried to make the reader experience what I did. In this I did not entirely succeed, being considerably disheartened at the complete piece, for it did not convey the impression I intended to give. However I got a fairly good grade. Since then I have written several other short selections, which I will send to you from time to time. Congratulate Tom for me, and tell him he owes me a letter. He hasn't written me in 2H months. All my love, Jim p.s. I am drawing flight pay now -- $75 a month. I don't get paid again until I hit Nashville. Excerpted from Crux: The Letters of James Dickey by James Dickey All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.