Dillard, Annie (Vol. 115)
Annie Dillard 1945–
American essayist, poet, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Dillard's career through 1996. See also, Annie Dillard Criticism.
Dillard is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for her transcendental philosophy and naturalist writings in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Her works of fiction and nonfiction explore issues such as the role of the self within the universe, the relationship between beauty and horror, the nature of God, and the art of writing. She is considered one of the most influential and unorthodox American environmental writers.
Dillard was born on April 30, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Frank and Pam (Lambert) Doak. The oldest of three girls, Dillard grew up rebelling against her parents and exploring the issues about which she would later write. In her autobiography, An American Childhood (1987), she reveals that the teachings at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, the expectations of her middle-class environment, and her explorations of the area parks filled her thinking. In 1967 she graduated from Hollins College with a B.A. in English and a year later she completed a master of arts degree. She married Richard Dillard in 1964, whom she later divorced. In 1980 she married writer Gary Clevidence with whom she shares one daughter and two stepchildren. In 1988, again divorced, Dillard married Robert D. Richardson Jr., a professor and writer. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Dillard taught creative writing at a number of American universities, including Western Washington State University and Wesleyan University. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she has won the New York Presswomen's Award for Excellence in 1975, the Washington State Governor's Award for Literature in 1978, and the Catholic Book Club Campion Medal in 1994. She has also receive several grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Throughout her literary career, Dillard has worked in many genres. She began in 1974 with a collection of poetry en-titled Tickets for a Prayer Wheel and returned to poetry with Mornings Like This (1995), a collection of experimental poetry based on the writings of others. Her most famous works are her nonfiction, naturalist, spiritual writings such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982). Styled in response to Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek follows the progression of seasons in Roanoke Valley, chronicling the evolution of the observer's consciousness through meditations on life in the woods. In highly personal essays replete with scientific facts, Dillard recounts her expeditions into the forest, relating both horror at scenes of predatory violence and joy at the beauty of natural wonders. From these observations, Dillard creates a cosmology, using her observations as a metaphor for the universal nature of self and the relationship of self with God and the universe. At the heart of all three of the naturalist writings is a concern with the meaning of existence and other spiritual matters. Set on Puget Sound, Holy the Firm is a journal of her struggle to come to terms with senseless suffering. Teaching a Stone to Talk consists of fourteen essays that continue to develop her philosophy, which posits that people need to discover metaphysical truth in familiar objects. Dillard's other primary interest has been in the act of writing and creating. She has published three collections of essays on literary criticism and writing: Living by Fiction (1982), Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984) and The Writing Life (1989). In these works she explains her own need to write, considers the role of literature in society, and attempts to stimulate writers to be fully committed to their art. In addition, Dillard has also written a fictional historic epic, set in eighteenth-century Washington state, entitled The Living (1992), and her autobiography, An American Childhood which chronicles her youth in Pittsburgh.
Dillard's writing has consistently received strong positive reviews by critics. Scholars praise Dillard's unique voice, and her use of poetic language to merge philosophy with her observations of the natural world. James S. Torrens observes, "Dillard's writing is often poetic, pursuing knowledge through metaphor and analogy, yet compact and far from florid." Dorothy Parker states. "[Dillard] is a fanatical marvelously percipient observer; and she has the poet's inner eye." However, Dillard's propensity for finding meaning, if not order, in her observations of the natural world has sparked debate. Margaret Loewan Reimer argues that Dillard's unorthodox writing style in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek results in confusion about the genre of the book, and debate over what criteria should be used to evaluate it. Reimer and other critics such as Mary Davidson McConahay and William J. Scheik praise Dillard's ability to find larger meaning in specific small events she observes in the natural world around her, to find universal metaphors for the self. However, Elaine Tietjen argues, "Other scholars have noted Dillard's unusual focus on the particular as a path toward the universal. In fact, this focus also limited her." Although some critics called Dillard's essays on literary criticism amateurish, most scholars agree that her work is thought-provoking, insightful and enthusiastic, drawing from her own experiences and passion for writing. Dillard earned similar praise for her novel The Living. However, in the genre of poetry Dillard has not found overwhelming success. Her first poetry collection, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, earned very little notice, although the reviews were favorable. Her poems in Mornings Like This garnered little approval. Elizabeth Lund says that at her most successful, Dillard produces "near-misses" and John Haines suggests that the lines which she borrows from an eclectic range of prose writings may be more powerful in their original sources.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (nonfiction) 1974
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (poetry) 1974
Holy the Firm (nonfiction) 1978
Living by Fiction (essays) 1982
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (essays) 1982
Encounters with Chinese Writers (essays) 1984
An American Childhood (autobiography) 1987
The Writing Life (essays) 1989
The Living (novel) 1992
Mornings Like This: Found Poems (poetry) 1995
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SOURCE: "The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," in Critique, Vol. XXIV. No. 3, Spring, 1983, pp. 182-91.
[In the essay below, Reimer argues that Dillard employs a dual dialectic in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, first between nature and religion, then between beauty and horror.]
When Pilgrim at Tinker Creek appeared in 1974, reviewers agreed that it was a highly unusual treatise on nature. The work obviously exerted a peculiar power, for reviewers were either rhapsodic in their praise or passionate in their indignation. Neither side, however, was quite sure in what tradition or genre the book belonged, or in what context to evaluate the author's rather disconcerting conclusions about the natural world. That is where the matter has stayed. A bibliographical search some five years later turned up no articles on the book besides the initial reviews. Although the book has gone through twelve printings in two editions, the critics have been silent.
Why? Perhaps the book falls between several categories or disciplines—the scientists relegate the work to the religious; the religious view the book as an aberration of scientific investigation. Indeed, the subtitle, "A mystical excursion into the natural world," hints at the paradox and incongruity which characterize the book. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek appears to be a scientific study overlaid...
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SOURCE: "'Into the Bladelike Arms of God:' The Quest for Meaning through Symbolic Language in Thoreau and Annie Dillard," in Denver Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Fall, 1985, pp. 103-16.
[In the following essay, McConahay compares Henry David Thoreau's Walden to Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, noting that both writers focus on self in their efforts to explain the universe.]
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
I propose to keep here what Thoreau called "a meteorological journal of the mind," telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzingly lead.
Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Many American writers are uncomfortable with the nonfiction genre. In her 1953 essay "Memoirs, Conversations and Diaries," Elizabeth Hardwick suggests that "the fear of outrageous vanity, of presuming to...
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SOURCE: "Annie Dillard: Narrative Fringe," in Contemporary-American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, University Press of Kentucky, 1985, pp. 51-63.
[In the essay below, Scheick discusses the narrative structure of Dillard's works and the junctions she creates between elements in her narrative.]
We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery," says Annie Dillard at the beginning of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). This remark is a thesis statement, not only for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek but also for Dillard's Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), Holy the Firm (1977), and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982). So inscrutable is this mystery of creation, Dillard explains, that the best one can do in life is to "discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why" (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek): "There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see" (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Seeing is everything for Dillard: "All I want to do is stay awake, keep my head up. prop my eyes open, with toothpicks" (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). In her writings, her Thoreauvian "meteorological journal[s] of the mind" (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), Dillard seeks to awaken the reader to a new way of seeing, to make the reader undergo a radical change of vision tantamount to a...
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SOURCE: "Perceptions of Nature: Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 101-13.
[In the essay below, Tietjen argues that Dillard focuses too much on individual experience in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and misleads the reader.]
She stared as if she were about to tell me that she dreamed last night of hanging in space above our blue planet. With her leather jacket, loose wool pants, serious hiking boots, and a collecting pouch slung over her neck, she looked the perfect image of the woodswoman I desperately wanted to become. Her cornsilk hair was lit up like a lamp. Annie Dillard sat on a ledge in a clearing, beckoning the reader to come into her woods. I held her Pulitzer Prize-winning book on my lap in the back of an old bus, headed for Canyonlands.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of three books I took into the wilderness for a semester of expeditions in the Rockies. Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac both waited in my pack. Up until two weeks before. I had never heard of Dillard, but the sheer force of her image on the cover convinced me to buy her book. The cover said Pilgrim was "a mystical excursion into the natural world." So I read it first. I was glad the trip to Utah was a long one; I had to savor each paragraph three or four times and stare...
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SOURCE: "Annie Dillard: Modern Physics in a Contemporary Mystic," in Mosaic, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Felch provides an overview of Dillard's writing and investigates how physics has shaped Dillard's cosmology.]
"Art is my interest, mysticism my message, Christian mysticism," Annie Dillard wrote early in her career to a fellow English professor (Wymard). With such authorial support and direction, many critics have naturally concentrated their analyses on Dillard's mystical vision or Christian commitments (Dunn; Keller; Ronda; Peterson). Others have, with good warrant, considered her affinity to American transcendentalists (McConahay; McIlroy). A few have noticed her consuming concern with esthetics (Lavery; Scheick). Little attention has been paid, however, to Dillard's fascination with modern scientific theories.
In her latest book, An American Childhood, Dillard records a French teacher's evaluation of her as an adolescent: "Here, alas, is a child of the twentieth century." Nowhere does the mature Dillard live up to this epithet more fully than in her knowledge of both the facts and the philosophy of twentieth-century science, particularly apparent in her early and best known book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (McIlroy, "Burden").
It is tempting to describe the Dillard of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as an isolated,...
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SOURCE: "Fellow Rebels: Annie Dillard and Maxine Hong Kingston," in English Journal, Vol. 78, No. 8. December, 1889, pp. 50-67.
[In the following essay, Bischoff compares Dillard's American Childhood with Maxine Hong Kingston's autobiography The Woman Warrior, noting that despite different backgrounds the two authors depict similar experiences.]
For all their pseudosophisticated behavior and easy familiarity with high technology, today's high-school students continue to respond to and relish books about fictional young adults who, like themselves, struggle with generic teenage problems: rebellion against parental strictures, competition with siblings, the confines of school, fascination with and fear of the opposite sex, the looming necessity of momentous decisions about career choices and lifestyles. Traditionally, most such novels featured the adventures of young men (with the exception of the ubiquitous Nancy Drew); more recently, we have seen the skyrocketing popularity of such written-for-teens books as those of Judy Blume.
Certainly, such works have their place as leisure reading; however, the senior-high-school English instructor who seeks teachable contemporary literature that has both the virtues of writerly excellence and the popular appeal of the merely entertaining paperbacks is often left floundering in search of titles that promise to be appropriate,...
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SOURCE: "The Lonely Life," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 5, Spring, 1990, p. 6.
[In the review below, Berne argues that The Writing Life is at its best when Dillard is less strident and relentless.]
What happens when you've been writing seriously for years, devoting much of your life to your art, and suddenly you begin to doubt your purpose? You have two options. One is to quit writing; the other is to talk yourself out of your doubts. Reminding other writers of the value of writing is a way of reminding yourself. In The Writing Life, meditations on being a writer, Annie Dillard tells of the time she's spent in lonely cabins, tool sheds, and library, carrels, writing, writing, writing. "It takes years to write a book," she informs us solemnly, "between two and ten years." So why, we ask, does anyone choose to be a writer? Dillard once knew a painter, who when asked how he decided to be a painter replied, "I liked the smell of the paint," What draws a writer to writing? Sentences, she says. It is knowing and loving your own medium so much that you're intoxicated by it, lured away from other pursuits.
But how does a writer keep writing? Beyond loving sentences, from where does the motivation come? Day after day year after year, there is the writer in a small room staring into a blank page or screen, trying to make something from what appears, gloatingly, to be nothing....
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SOURCE: "Beneath the Wheels of Progress," in New York Times, May 3, 1992, p. 9.
[In the following review of The Living, Keneally praises Dillard's style and tone.]
Annie Dillard, a poet and essayist whose nonfiction work has won the Pulitzer Prize, has moved to fiction now with an invigorating, intricate first novel, The Living. Here she displays everything a person could need to know about what befell the Lummi, Skagit and Nooksack Indians between 1855 and the end of the last century; everything about European and Asian settlement in the Washington Territory in the same period; everything about tree felling, hops farming, railroad fever, land speculation, fashion, politics and education in the Bellingham Bay region in the extreme northwest corner of the United States.
At first, the reader might think that the celebration of the setting is the most important part of the book, that this is to be a hymn to the peculiar frontier passages, enthusiasms and griefs of the community of Whatcom on Bellingham Bay. Ms. Dillard so frankly cherishes her material that we are willing to forgive what, at first, seems a peremptory narrative pace. The passage of time seems so brisk, in fact, that a sort of anxiety is momentarily induced. How can the material last the narrator near to 400 pages?
For example, we are at first merely told that young Ada Fishburn has buried her...
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SOURCE: "None Abiding." in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 1. Fall, 1992, pp. 22-3.
[In the following review of The Living, Ganz praises Dillard's ability to find meaning in ordinary settings.]
With Annie Dillard's first novel [The Living], a frontier saga of life along the Puget Sound during the latter 19th century, the Pacific Northwest has been given its Willa Cather. Dillard's pioneers, like Cather's, are drawn against a powerful landscape, but instead of the bright, horizontal immensities of Cather's prairies, Dillard sets her characters down in the dark, towering Pacific rain forests, where 200-foot Douglas firs grow as "close as grass" and as "thick as buildings."
Measured against these giant trees, human beings are fragile things, and it seems the burden of Dillard's narrative, right from the start, to make the reader experience this fragility. In the opening scene, Ada Fishburn surveys this "rough edge of the world" to which she and her family have come, and repeats to herself, like a litany: "Our days on earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding." The land has already claimed her three-year-old son, who was crushed under the wheels of their oxen train back on the Oregon Trail, and Ada has wakened to the shock of how quickly life can be erased. It's a shock the reader is wakened to repeatedly during the course of this novel, as these settlers die from...
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SOURCE: "'Choosing the Given with a Fierce and Pointed Will': Annie Dillard and Risk-Taking in Contemporary Literature," in The Hollins Critic, Vol. XXX. No. 2, April, 1993, pp. 1-9.
[In the essay below, Brown-Davidson provides an overview of Dillard's works.]
Imagine this. You are a lectured-into-submission child, attending another dull Protestant church service with your parents. The ordinariness of your life has driven you into a repressed fury that makes your stomach knot at the meat-and-potatoes dinner you eat every Wednesday night, at the English homework (verbs-adjectives-adverbs-nouns) that always fails to engage you, at a life in which you seem to be peering through one smeared window or the next to glimpse a landscape that loses color as you age. Then you begin to paint. Secretly, at first. The bumbled efforts of any child, the too pastel watercolors you smear onto the tiny stretched canvas with your fist, the windows that open out suddenly, like pulled-apart storm shutters, onto a charged world that was whirling by without you, make you squirm on your hard little pew, but with joy, remembering how it felt to layer Red #2 onto the white as the minister leads you and the congregation in another sorry hymn. You are full, complete, whole for the first time in your miserable six years. You've discovered the essence that the two hundred adults surrounding you haven't, the euphoria in shape, color,...
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SOURCE: "'Pray without Ceasing': Annie Dillard among the Nature Writers," in Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers, edited by John Cooley, University of Michigan Press, 1994, pp. 69-86.
[In the following essay, McClintock considers Dillard's work in comparison to the genre of American environmental writing, arguing that her work is uniquely Christian in perspective.]
"Sons and daughters of Thoreau abound in contemporary American writing," Edward Abbey writes in his introduction to Abbey's Road (1979), mentioning Edward Hoagland, Joseph Wood Krutch, Wendell Berry, John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, and Peter Matthiessen, as well as himself. He reserves his highest praise for Annie Dillard, who "is the true heir of the Master." The others are Thoreauvian primarily in their identification with special locales—from Central Park in Hoagland's essay to Zwinger's Rockies. Abbey's one objection to Dillard's "otherwise strong, radiant book [A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek] is the constant name dropping. Always of one name"—God (Abbey's Road). Abbey's assessment is astute, because it highlights the essential characteristics of Annie Dillard's nature writing: her writing about place, the language she uses to evoke her experiences, and her religious preoccupation and vocation. Abbey's assessment is also eccentric, because his objection to her religious...
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SOURCE: Review of Mornings Like This: Found Poems, in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 663-71.
[In the excerpt below, Haines argues that Dillard's experimentations in Mornings Like This raise some disturbing questions about sources.]
When I first looked through Annie Dillard's Mornings Like This and read her program notes, I was ready to set the book aside as a stunt and not worth serious attention. Subsequent reading has, to an extent, modified that impression. The book is subtitled Found Poems. The lines, as quoted throughout, are taken from various prose texts—from an eighth grade English text, from Van Gogh's Letters, a Boy Scout Handbook, etc.—and, according to Ms. Dillard, arranged in such a way as to simulate a poem originating with a single author. In her "Author's Note" she says of the poems, "Their sentences come from the books named. I lifted them. Sometimes I dropped extra words; I never added a word." She is at least honest about her sources, in contrast to a recent perpetrator who has actually lifted whole poems from a contemporary poet, changed a word or two, and published them as his own (see Neal Bowers, "A Loss for Words, Plagiarism and Silence," The American Scholar, Fall 1994).
A few of her adaptations are especially effective. Among the best are those taken from the diary of a Russian naturalist, Mikhail...
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Bradbury, Malcolm. "The Bridgeable Gap." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4633 (17 January 1992): 7-9.
Compares Dillard's Writing Life with other works on creative writing and finds the book successful in describing writing as an activity.
Chénetier, Marc. "Tinkering, Extravagance: Thoreau, Melville, and Annie Dillard." Critique XXXI, No. 3 (Spring 1990): 157-72.
Considers the different treatments of nature and morality in Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Herman Melville's short stories, and Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Clark, Suzanne. "Annie Dillard: The Woman in Nature and the Subject of Nonfiction." In Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson, pp. 107-24. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.
Argues that as a female nature writer, Dillard creates a distinct perspective.
Gaston, Patricia S. A Review of The Living, by Annie Dillard. Southern Humanities Review XXVII, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 198-99.
Finds The Living a typical example of historical fiction.
Goldman, Stan. "Sacrifices to the Hidden God: Annie Dillard's...
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