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Wright, who wrote an (unpublished) essay called "A Note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
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.