Annie Dillard has consistently held a high place in American letters since the publication of her first book, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), when she was still in her twenties. This is despite the fact that her publications tend to be brief, infrequent, and distributed over a wide range of genres, in both fiction and nonfiction. What is common to all of them is a poet’s skill in the use of figurative language, a passion for the natural world, and a philosopher’s sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. In her best-known work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), Dillard chronicled the wonder and terror of the natural world at the edge of civilization in Roanoke Valley, Virginia. Like her literary predecessor, Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Dillard is obsessed with humanity’s intersection with nature as she observes the process from the margins of society. This is no less true of The Maytrees, a novel set among the bohemians of Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the decades following World War II. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek revealed her fascination with Thoreau’s life in a cabin at the edge of town; The Maytrees demonstrates that this idea is still a potent stimulus for her imagination.
In their shack by the sea, Toby and Lou Bigelow Maytree are outsiders in bohemian Provincetown, which is itself a repository of outsiders. In her portrayal of this independent community, Dillard emphasizes that these characters bring the same sense of originality to their lives that they invest in their art. This is implied in the naming of her characters. On one side of the spectrum, there are writers for whom a character’s name evokes little interest beyond its utilitarian value: a signifier for someone who plays a role in a story. At the opposite end of the literary continuum are the writers who employ naming as a means of revealing a character’s role or his or her inner life. Ishmael, for example, is an appropriate name for the narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) because he, like the biblical character of the same name, is an outcast. Dillard, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different approach. The singular nature of the inhabitants of this artistic community is embodied in their names: Deary Hightoe, Reevadare Weaver, Cornelius Blue, Sooner Roy. The oddness of the names is also due in part to their high vowel contentnot a minor matter to a poet as skilled as Dillard.
Indeed, Dillard brings a poet’s sensibility to the overall structure of the novel. At just over two hundred pages in length, The Maytrees is a lightweight in the world of modern fiction; if it were any shorter, it would qualify as a novella. In spite of its brevity, however, Dillard imposes a formal structure on her novel worthy of an epic narrative. In addition to the prologue, there are three numbered parts and a concluding epilogue. In formal terms, Dillard appears to be building a modest cottage with walls as thick as a fortress. It serves a function, but it initially seems out of proportion to the narrative she seeks to relate. This can be partly accounted for by the fact she often brings a skewed sense of proportion to her best writing. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for example, the devouring of a tiny toad by a large insect triggers a wave of shock and horror in the narrator that permeates much of the rest of the book. Again, the key to understanding Dillard’s reasoning lies in the fact that this is a prose work by an accomplished poet. One should keep in mind that in a poemeven a brief poemstructure is both visually and aesthetically important, from the lines within a stanza to the grouping of stanzas into named sections. The density of the prose, moreover, often belies the brevity of the book. Thus, the initial impression of an oversized structure for such a small book is one that soon dissipates.
The plot itself is simple enough: A prologue follows the Maytrees as their romance progresses into marriage and a child; part 1 focuses on the breakup of the relationship as Toby Maytree falls in love with Deary Hightoe; part 2 finds Lou living alone and Toby in his second marriage; part 3 and the epilogue find Toby and Lou back together again. All of this sounds like a cliché, like a typical popular romance really, and it does not do justice to Dillard’s carefully crafted prose.
What enables Dillard’s work to succeed and hold the...
(The entire section is 1814 words.)