Critical Context (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was Dillard’s first full-length work. It was enthusiastically received by reviewers and won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, although a few dissenting voices complained about Dillard’s self-centeredness. Many compared her to Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and her search for the illuminated moment, what German Romantic writers called the Augenblick, aligns her with English Romantics such as William Wordsworth and William Blake. A comparison with Blake is particularly instructive, since Dillard, like Blake, writes about the state of innocence; she too is horrified at the parasitic aspects of nature, which parallels Blake’s disgust with the state of being he labeled “Generation.” Dillard’s visionary breakthroughs resemble Blake’s higher world of Eden. Concern with the Augenblick also aligns Dillard with twentieth century writers such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust.
Dillard’s next book was Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), a collection of religious poems which record mystical experiences similar to those in her first book. She writes of seeing trees on fire, for example, and of God picking her up and swinging her like a bell (the bell metaphor is used twice in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Holy the Firm (1977), a visionary prose narrative, illustrates by way of parable Creation, Fall, and Redemption. It too makes extensive use of the image of fire, and reveals what is perhaps sometimes obscured in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—that Dillard’s concern is not with the natural world per se but with how nature reveals the infinite God. Her interests are theological rather than naturalistic.
Dillard wrote several more books during the 1980’s. These included Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1982), which consists of fourteen essays, dealing mainly with the natural world and once more emphasizing transcendental experiences. Here for the first time in Dillard’s work, other human beings become important to the narrative.
The autobiographical An American Childhood (1987) sheds interesting background on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, revealing how Dillard first developed her acute powers of observation of the natural world and how this skill was accompanied by a search for transcendence.