The Columns

Dedicated to Dickey Ward Briggs ’67 has memorialized his longtime friend, writer James Dickey, with a large donation of Dickey materials to Washington and Lee Special Collections.

— by on December 7th, 2016

“With this collection, or any collection, of Dad’s stuff, what would make him the happiest is if it was used as an inspiration for young writers.”

— Bronwen Dickey

In autumn 1963, at a classy dinner party in the home of then-Washington and Lee University Dean Bill Pusey, acclaimed poet and novelist James Dickey spoke to a first-year student named Ward Briggs for the first time. Briggs will never forget the words that launched a long, meaningful friendship.

From his position of drunken repose on the sofa, Dickey scowled up at Briggs and said, “Who the hell are you?”

As their relationship matured over the next three decades, so did the quality of their interactions. Nevertheless, after Dickey’s death in 1997, Briggs, a retired University of South Carolina Classics professor who graduated from W&L in 1967, found himself contemplating that question as it related to the prolific, passionate and greatly misunderstood 20th-century writer:

Dickey, dear friend, who the hell were you?

“I knew how brilliant he was and what a great and loyal friend he was,” Briggs said, “I just didn’t understand what a poet he was. So I started gathering up as much of his poetry as I could. I wanted an understanding of him as a poet, to see what my friend’s identity really was. Then, as these things came in the mail, I had this feeling that it’s almost like he’s still out there producing wonderful stuff.”

The result of Briggs’ sourcing was a large, eclectic collection of Dickey materials, which Briggs has donated to W&L. From first-edition novels and poetry to film posters from “Deliverance,” the thriller based on Dickey’s 1970 novel, the comprehensive collection is a significant gift.

“Briggs’ collection reveals the intellectual development and the constant experimentation of this iconic American literary figure,” said Tom Camden, head of Special Collections and Archives at W&L. “Any study of major 20th-century American poets must include Dickey, and Briggs’ collection provides the authoritative source for that study.”

Dickey, who grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, is best known for “Deliverance.” But his son, novelist and journalist Christopher Dickey, says his father merely entertained himself by writing novels — he sustained himself by writing poetry. “If you asked him what he really cared about as a writer, it was poetry,” Chris Dickey said.

James Dickey realized his love of poetry while serving as an Army radar operator during World War II. At his request, his mother sent him poetry collections so he could entertain and distract himself during terrifying night missions.

“So he really discovers poetry in the cockpit of this plane when he is scared to death, when his life is in danger,” Briggs said. “It’s an amazing conversion. He just found what he could do.”

Between WWII and the Korean War, during which he served in the U.S. Air Force, Dickey earned degrees in English and philosophy from Vanderbilt University. Later, he taught at Rice University and worked in advertising (the character of Ken Cosgrove on the popular AMC television series “Mad Men” is said to have been partially based on Dickey) before diving fully into poetry.

His “Into the Stone and Other Poems” was published in 1960, followed by “Drowning with Others” in 1962 and “Buckdancer’s Choice” in 1965, which brought a National Book Award for Poetry. From 1966 to 1968, Dickey was U.S. poet laureate (then called “poetry consultant”), after which time he became an English professor and writer-in-residence at USC. Briggs joined the faculty in 1973, shortly after Dickey became a household name with the 1972 film release of “Deliverance.”

The novel, which was published in myriad languages, is considered by many to be one of the best of the 20th century. On Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels, “Deliverance” is No. 42, above novels by Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Roth, Updike and other celebrated writers. It made considerable money, landed Dickey on talk shows, and allowed him to hobnob with famous movie stars. Although he would write two more novels and reams of poetry over the next 25 years, nothing in his canon would ever be as well-known as “Deliverance.”

Like many gifted writers, Dickey had a multifaceted and complex existence. That included an intense dependence on alcohol, a tendency to epitomize contradictions, and a famous disdain for the truth. Any study of Dickey’s work is made more complicated and more fascinating because of these quirks.

Said Briggs, “I mean this not as a personal or ethical critique but as an aesthetic observation: He simply didn’t care what the truth was. He cared whether it was a good and entertaining story.” At times, this made for challenging relationships. In his 1998 memoir, “Summer of Deliverance,” Chris Dickey wrote: “Long before ‘Deliverance,’ my father had begun to make himself up. And me. He would not tolerate for a minute the world as it was.”

Dickey’s ability to be competitive and critical was tempered by a deep-seated sensitivity that played out in his poetry, Briggs said, as well as during interactions with strangers, friends and family.

“He certainly did or said his share of wild and crazy things, but as a father he was the most encouraging, attentive, pleasant, conscientious, caring parent you could ever want,” said Bronwen Dickey, his daughter and the youngest of his three children. “He would always stop in the middle of what he was doing to play checkers or watch a nature documentary with me.”

Dickey died at age 73, having lived much longer than many of the poets he admired. Briggs, aware that Dickey’s writings outside “Deliverance” were a mystery to many readers, decided to begin work on the most thorough and accurate edition of Dickey poetry to date. “The Complete Poems of James Dickey,” which contains all 331 poems published during the writer’s career, was released in 2013. Briggs was careful to ensure that each poem was printed the way Dickey intended, since magazines such as the “New Yorker” often altered poems before publishing them.

The donation to W&L is an effort to spread that respect for Dickey’s work to students who may never have read it, or who may be discovering their own love of poetry — as Dickey did in that airplane cockpit many years ago.

“With this collection, or any collection, of Dad’s stuff, what would make him the happiest is if it was used as an inspiration for young writers,” said Bronwen Dickey. “He was a really dedicated teacher, and he was very enthusiastic and encouraging with young writers.”

Chris Dickey said Washington and Lee is a suitable home for his father’s works for a number of reasons.

“My father always loved W&L — loved the campus and its history, liked and respected the people he knew there, and wanted me to go there,” he said. “We paid more than one visit when I was in high school. In the end, I went to the university a bit farther north, and it was my younger brother [Kevin Dickey] who went to W&L— then left to focus on pre-med and medical degrees at Emory. So we have a soft spot for Washington and Lee in our family, and I am delighted that Ward has given us, now, this very tangible connection.”

Virgil Collection Enriches Classics Department

The James Dickey collection is not the only donation recently made to Washington and Lee University by Ward Briggs ’67. Briggs, a retired Classics professor with a specialty in the ancient Roman poet Virgil, has given the university a set of about 600 works on Virgil.

Washington and Lee Classics professor Caleb Dance already has built a fall course, Topics in Advanced Latin Literature, around the collection. In addition, Parrish Preston ’17 is drawing on the resources for his honors thesis.

“I was very impressed with its organization,” Dance said. “It’s a comprehensive collection of teaching texts and close-reading texts, and it includes all of the big names in Virgil scholarship.” When he entered the conversation about the proposed donation, Dance said, “I just remember thinking that this would be a great resource to use with W&L students.”

The library at University of South Carolina at Columbia, where Briggs is Carolina Distinguished Professor of Classics and Louise Fry Scudder Professor of Humanities Emeritus, wanted the collection. But Briggs said he believes that W&L, being a liberal arts school, is likely to get more use out of it.

The collection is currently housed in Dance’s office, but it will soon be catalogued and shelved in Leyburn Library’s Special Collections.