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.