Annie Dillard Dillard, Annie (Vol. 115) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Margaret Loewen Reimer (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mary Davidson McConahay (essay date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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William J. Scheick (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elaine Tietjen (essay date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan M. Felch (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Joan Bischoff (essay date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Suzanne Berne (review date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Thomas Keneally (review date 3 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dianne Ganz (review date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Terri Brown-Davidson (essay date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James I. McClintock (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Haines (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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