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James Dickey; Prolific Poet, Author of ‘Deliverance’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Dickey, a poet, author and writer best remembered for his 1970 novel “Deliverance,” about civilized man’s struggle and survival in the wilderness, has died. He was 73.

Dickey, a Southerner who set the internationally best-selling novel in Georgia, died Sunday in Columbia, S.C., of complications from lung disease.

A prolific writer of essays, criticism and poetry, Dickey wrote few novels and insisted that he did so only to pay the rent--poetry was his true interest.

“Deliverance” was made into a motion picture in 1972, starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Dickey wrote the screenplay.

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The book won the French Prix Medicis in 1971 and the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture.

When the book was published, it was considered shocking for its cold look at suburban man rapidly descending to a primitive or even savage level.

Dickey, praised for his fast-action scenes, came to represent the characters in his novel. “I made the mistake of letting the press, in connection with ‘Deliverance,’ present me as some kind of Hemingwayesque character, which I’m definitely not,” he told The Times in 1987. “I’m a creature of the war years. I think my whole generation, at least the ones that were in conflict, have the same thing. It sort of made you view existence from the standpoint of the survivor.”

During World War II, Dickey flew more than 100 combat missions in the Pacific. He later reenlisted to fly in the Korean War.

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In another Times interview, in 1992, Dickey had clearly wearied of his first novel’s huge success, noting: “There are times when I wish I could be rid of that book.”

He published only two other novels, “Alnilam” in 1987, about a men’s group seeking world dominance, and “To the White Sea” in 1993, about a tail-gunner shot down over Japan near the end of World War II. Neither captured a fraction of the attention given “Deliverance.”

Despite his wry jokes about the difficulty of supporting himself as a poet, Dickey registered great literary recognition for his more than 20 collections of poetry. One, “Buckdancer’s Choice,” won the 1966 National Book Award. And he was invited to read his poetry at Jimmy Carter’s presidential inauguration in 1976.

Born in Buckhead, Ga., James Lafayette Dickey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Vanderbilt University and taught English at Rice University and the University of Florida.

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He began writing poetry in 1947, but after teaching decided to go into the advertising business to “make some damn dough.” He wrote jingles about Coca-Cola, potato chips, fertilizer and Delta Airlines, until he had enough in the bank to establish himself as a full-time poet in 1960.

That emancipation year also marked publication of his first book, “Into the Stone and Other Poems.”

Dickey’s work appeared in more than 30 major literary magazines including Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, the Nation, the New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review and Virginia Quarterly Review.

He became the University of South Carolina’s poet-in-residence in 1968.

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Dickey, whose first wife, Maxine, died in 1976, is survived by his second wife, Deborah; two sons, Christopher and Kevin, and a daughter, Bronwen.


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