[(essay date winter 1987) In the following essay, Spears places Dickey and his work within the context of the Southern literary tradition.]
Some years ago James Dickey, who will be 64 next month, responded to an interviewer's question about the sense in which he was a Southern writer with the ringing declaration that "the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer." He would not want to feel that he was limited in any way by being a Southerner or was expected to "indulge in the kind of regional chauvinism that has sometimes been indulged in by Southern writers," he said, but the tragic history of the South gave him a set of values "some of which are deplorable, obviously, but also some of which are the best things that I have ever had as a human being." Southerners, he suggested, let their ancestors help: "I have only run-of-the-mill ancestors but they knew that one was supposed to do certain things. Even the sense of evil, which is very strong with me, would not exist if I had no sense of what evil was."
Dickey is convinced, then, that being Southern is central to the way he thinks and feels, but doesn't want to be thought of as merely regional; he suggests that the most valuable Southern quality is a special awareness of the personal past in the sense of inheriting traditions and codes of values from one's ancestors, and a special awareness of the regional past in its full tragic meaning, including the sense of evil. But rather than continue to depend on Dickey's own statements, now that I have used him to run interference for me, let me try to define more specifically just what kind of Southern writer he is and how he is related to other Southern writers.
The obvious starting-point is his relation to the Fugitive-Agrarian groups. Except for Donald Davidson, all the Fugitives and most of the Agrarians had left Vanderbilt long before Dickey arrived; so there was no possibility of personal influence. But Ransom, Tate, and Warren had become major figures in the literary world, and Brooks, Jarrell, and others were establishing high reputations. Vanderbilt students and faculty--most of them--were proud of the connection, and the campus was alive with legends of the days when giants had walked that very earth. In this context, creative writing seemed exciting and important to a good many students, and so did being a Southerner. It seems plain enough that Dickey's commitment to poetry and his awareness of his identity as Southerner owed much both to his reading of the Fugitive-Agrarian writers and to the Vanderbilt tradition of respect for serious writing. R. V. Cassill is amusing but, I think, quite wrong when he portrays Dickey as a rebellious Young Turk who refused to conform to the Southern ruling circles by speaking "smartly about Miss Eudora and Mr. Ransom" and being...