Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Annie Dillard has been well received and highly acclaimed. Her work includes Holy the Firm (1977) and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which are responses to nature in the transcendentalist tradition; An American Childhood (1987), her early autobiography; Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), a collection of poems; and Living by Fiction (1982), which discusses in essay mode concerns of the modern writer. The Living is her first novel.

Reviews of the novel have been full of praise for the scope and humanity of The Living, for its ability to invoke in seamless prose the atmosphere of its inhabitants, and for its skillful weaving together of the seemingly disparate plot lines. Although The Living has no real models, it resembles in intent other fictionalized historical epic narratives, such as Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978), and it perhaps imitates the naturalistic fiction of the turn of the twentieth century. Dillard’s novel, however, is remarkable for being an American epic and for focusing on a specific area not often centrally included in the story of the building and settling of America. The novel is also animated by her personal experience of life in the area and is reinforced by extensive historical research.

In The Living, Annie Dillard proves her diversity as a writer who has mastered the grand epic sweep of imagination. She is fast becoming a stalwart of American letters, having won grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Pulitzer Prize, the Washington Governor’s Award, the New York Press Club Award, and the Ambassador Book Award in Arts and Letters from the English-Speaking Union.