Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

by Annie Dillard

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is widely recognized as an important personal essay, uniquely and powerfully combining theology and nature writing. Nancy Parrish reports in Lee Smith, Annie Dillard and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers that the book’s success was immediate: ‘‘thirty-seven thousand copies of Pilgrim were sold within two months of first publication; the book went through eight printings in the first two years; paperback rights and Book-of-the-Month Club selection brought her $250,000 within three months.’’ The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

Most early reviewers responded favorably to the book, including Eva Hoffman, writing for Commentary, who termed Dillard a ‘‘connoisseur of the spirit’’ and praised her for her ‘‘rare ability to create emotional tone.’’ Others, including the fiction and essay writer Eudora Welty (herself a Pulitzer Prize winner), found Dillard’s language and structure needlessly opaque. In a review for the New York Times Book Review, Welty quoted Dillard’s passage about the ‘‘great dog Death’’ at the end of the ‘‘Fecundity’’ chapter and commented, ‘‘I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times. The only thing I could swear to is that the writing here leaves something to be desired.’’

Aside from reviews, there was no criticism of the book for several years. In 1983, Margaret Loewen Reimer’s Critique article, ‘‘The Dialectical Vision of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ initiated a small body of criticism dealing with Dillard’s religious themes. This body of criticism, which frequently debates whether Dillard is more an existentialist or a transcendentalist, tends to be written in academic language that makes it difficult for beginning students.

More accessible, and more common, are the critics who address Dillard as a nature writer. Vera Norwood’s ‘‘Heroines of Nature: Four Women Respond to the American Landscape,’’ in The Ecocriticism Reader, examines Dillard as playing an important role in the development of female nature writers and finds that she is among those who ‘‘freely choose to seek out wild nature and defend it, thus defying the traditions limiting women access to and appreciation of the natural environment, but who also conclude their explorations in a state of ambivalence.’’ Linda Smith, author of the Twayne’s United States Authors series volume Annie Dillard, argues that, because of its concern with religion, the book is not primarily nature writing. But James McClintock, in ‘‘‘Pray Without Ceasing’: Annie Dillard among the Nature Writers,’’ disagrees, stating, ‘‘Nature writing in America has always been religious or quasi-religious.’’ He concludes that Dillard does belong ‘‘among the nature writers’’ because, ‘‘In Dillard’s essays, the same persona speaks to us as from the works of other nature writers—the solitary figure in nature, moved to philosophical speculation and, finally, to awe and wonder.’’

While most critics have admired Dillard’s acute powers of observation and her powerful connection with the natural world, more than a few have found her seeming lack of connection with human society unsettling. The poet Hayden Carruth, in his early review in Virginia Quarterly Review, found that the book made ‘‘little reference to life on this planet at this moment, its hazards and misdirections, and to this extent it is a dangerous book, literally a subversive book.’’ Gary McIlroy acknowledges in his essay ‘‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Social Legacy of Walden’’ that this book has less human interaction than the work Dillard patterned it after, Walden, but argues that solitude is appropriate for her spiritual quest: ‘‘Annie Dillard goes into the woods to claim her spiritual heritage. Like a prophet, she travels alone.’’ In the field of literary criticism about nature writing, Dillard is a major figure. Nearly every significant collection of essays about nature writing, or ecocriticism (the belief that women share a special bond with nature and that both women and nature have been exploited by men) or ecofeminism (the study of literature and the environment) includes an essay about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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Essays and Criticism