Annie Dillard (DIHL-urd) occupies an unusual place in contemporary American literature. Through her work in a variety of genres, she consistently affirms the spiritual dimension of existence as it is manifested through the natural world. Dillard was the eldest of the three daughters of Frank and Pam Doak. Her father was a business executive, and Dillard was reared in an upper-middle-class environment; she gives a delightful account of her childhood and adolescence in An American Childhood. She graduated from Hollins College in Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and a master’s degree in 1968. In 1965, she married one of her teachers at Hollins, the writer R. H. W. Dillard. They were divorced in 1975. In 1980, she married Gary Clevidence, a novelist, but they too divorced. In 1988, she married Robert D. Richardson, Jr., a professor and writer.
Dillard’s first book was a collection of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, soon followed by Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1975. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek records Dillard’s observations of nature around Tinker Creek—a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where Dillard lived for several years—interspersed with her reflections on the intricacies, paradoxes, and mysteries of the created world. The work has two recurring motifs. First is Dillard’s insistent, perplexed questionings about the cruel and grotesque aspects of creation: The world is a parasitic place in which everything is battered, torn, preyed upon, and devoured. The second motif is quite different: Dillard has flashes of visionary illumination in which the world appears transfigured and holy. She comes upon a cedar tree, for example, and sees it pulsing with divine fire and light. She feels as if she is seeing for the first time, and she lives for the recurrence of such moments. Yet she is aware that they cannot be consciously willed; they come only when perception is innocent. It is these visionary moments that account for the book’s positive conclusion, in which Dillard presents herself as a pilgrim, praising the mysterious holiness of creation.
Dillard’s style in this book is sometimes informal, conversational, and amusing; at other times it is dense with figurative language and subtle in rhythm, and through these devices Dillard achieves some elevated effects. This richly poetic style is also noticeable in Holy the Firm, which...
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