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The Bad-Tempered Critic
Crux: The Letters of James Dickey

by Charlie Onion

James Dickey
576 pp.
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Readers looking for beautifully poetic prose among James Dickey's letters (collected here as Crux, after the title for Dickey's unfinished novel) will be disappointed. While he built his reputation in the 1950s and 1960s as a widely published poet and is today known primarily for his surprisingly poetic novel, Deliverance, Dickey was a decidedly prosaic letter writer. By and large, in these letters (roughly twenty percent of Dickey's total correspondence dating from 1943 to his death in 1997), he's not setting out to impress the reader with the weight of his poetic feeling, as he did when writing for publication. Indeed, quite often, he's setting out merely to complain or belittle his fellow poets--which makes for wonderfully entertaining reading, of course. Whether you agree with Dickey's largely negative opinions of other contemporary poets (or can stomach his high opinion of his own worth), his swaggering, streetfighting style is great fun.

Of course, since we only get Dickey's side of the correspondence in this collection, we're left wondering how the recipients felt when they opened a letter and found Dickey weighing in against them. As Matthew J. Bruccoli (who co-edited the letters with Judith S. Baughman) writes in his Introduction, Dickey was a remarkably astute critic, and "The best letters are the ones about writing and the profession of authorship; his correspondence

documents the accuracy of his critical judgments." But it's not the critical comments that would have troubled the recipients, I think; it's the tone that probably ruffled a few poets' feathers. A few letters responding to complaints about Dickey's harsher published reviews suggest this was certainly the case. Here, for example, is how Dickey responded (in part) to the poet James Wright, who wrote an (unpublished) essay called "A Note on Mr. James Dickey" after Dickey attacked him and another poet in print:


Under the influence of God knows what powerful, self-protective compulsion, you have evidently invented a dreadful, irresponsible, arrogant fellow named James Dickey who thinks of you as a person congenitally unable to tell the truth ("I realize that you will consider this statement a lie." Why will I?), is capable of writing brilliant and important criticism except when he is overborne by something called "hatred" (and except when he is dealing with your work and that of Philip Booth, an almost equally uninteresting poet). Now it ought to be quite obvious that I have no cause to "hate" Philip Booth, or anyone else I write about. I have no reason to doubt your word, or even to care about it, one way or the other. It is true, however, that I dislike seeing a writer thrown into a state of convulsion over three words (including his name) about him in a review, and then taking the first opportunity offered him to get what revenge he can by the perfectly transparent expedient of fastening on his "enemy's" reference to another poet, and seeking to discredit him by a good deal of routine cuteness about "bees and flowers" and the Handbook for Boys, the while never making any recognizable point. If you had submitted your review to me earlier, we might, together, have made something at least tolerably interesting out of it, instead of allowing it to appear as a pathetic exhibition of aggrieved, adolescent whimpering and "strucken" self-righteousness. It is too late, now, though, and I am afraid you will have to go it alone.


And if that didn't ruffle Wright's feathers, here's how Dickey closed the letter:


[I]f you ever have occasion to address any further correspondence to me, do me the courtesy of leaving obscenity out. Childish as your references are, they nevertheless constitute a considered insult to me and to my family. As such, they effectively remove you and me from the plane of literary controversy. Such language addressed to the home of a total stranger must be taken either as the doing of a hopeless crank (which I do not believe you are, quite) or of someone who realizes the implications of his actions, and is prepared to be held responsible for them: i.e., to resolve the differences in personal action, rather than in print. If you persist, you have my word that this will be the case.



Never one to back down from a fight, Dickey merely swung harder when he received such letters of complaint, it seems. But he was equally quick to make long-term friendships out of the resolution of such epistolary fights. Indeed, four days after firing off that salvo, he sent Wright a letter in which he accepted Wright's apology and extended one of his own, adding "Before I go any further, do, please, let me say that you are entirely too hard on yourself. I have not read your work in its entirety (but I intend to), but as far as I can tell, you have a great deal more ability than you seem to want to allow yourself to think." From here on out, believe it or not, they seem to have formed a strong epistolary friendship.

The collection isn't without its flaws. As Bruccoli readily acknowledges, his (and Baughman's) decision "to focus on the development of Jim's career" makes the book weaker in three ways: 1) it is inadequate as "a systematic biography of James Dickey in his own words," 2) it fails to "establish the role of Jim's first wife, Maxine in his success," and 3) it doesn't "adequately cover Jim's highly effective teaching of writing and poetry at the University of South Carolina."

What it does offer, though, is first a compelling portrait of a youthful, hungry writer's drive to educate and market himself. Then, once Dickey has matured and been recognized by his peers, the collection serves as a good summary of how he positioned himself on a number of critical issues (like who are the best living poets; not surprisingly, Dickey showed up on his own list). Bluster and bullying aside, Dickey was a remarkably able critic willing to dissect offending poems phrase by phrase, and both critics and poets can learn something from Dickey's angry grousing.

For Dickey enthusiasts and literary types interested in the American literary scene of the last forty years or so, Crux is a useful, entertaining volume. And let's admit it: whether it makes Dickey smell like a rose or not, the prosaic, gossipy, backbiting stuff's awfully fun too. Click here to find any book!


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