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An essayist, poet, and fiction writer, Annie Dillard is best known for her nonfiction narrative, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which was awarded the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction when she was twenty-nine. Dillard has served as contributing editor for Harper’s since 1974 and has written many essays, short stories, and poems.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Combining Scientific Knowledge with Literary Grace
Born to Frank and Pam Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Annie Dillard grew up in an affluent world of country clubs and private girls’ schools, where she began writing poetry and fiction in high school. She was born in 1945, the same year that Japan surrendered to the Allied powers, and thus ended World War ii. By the war’s end, the United States led the world in industrial output, while elsewhere the war-torn nations of Europe and Asia struggled to regain their pre-war productivity. Growing up in affluence, Dillard was largely sheltered from the aftermath of the war. While economic recovery was swift in many parts of the world, the economic ruin in England—where Dillard spent time as an adult—only worsened in the decade following the war’s end.
Eventually, Dillard enrolled in the writing program at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and received a BA (1967) and an MA (1968), both in English. In 1964, while still a student at Hollins, she married writer R. H. W. Dillard, her teacher. She read widely in such diverse fields as theology, philosophy, physical sciences, anthropology, and literature; critics have praised the accuracy of her scientific knowledge, especially as it is revealed in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. During her formative years, the United States was engaged in two international conflicts, first with the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and then with the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1959 until 1975.
Longing for a Hidden God
Dillard’s first book, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), collected some previously unpublished poems along with many that had appeared earlier in magazines. The poems portray human characters and explore themes of human love and desire; however, the main impetus behind the poems is strongly religious. Dillard writes of the intricacy and detail of nature, the changing lights of consciousness, the mystery of time’s relation to eternity, the futility of asking questions about God, and ultimately, through all the poems, the poet’s urgent longing for a God who is hidden. Finally, according to the poet, the union of a human with God depends as much on God’s action as on the human’s, and when the divine presence acts upon her, the poet says, ”I rang a hundred prayers of praise.” The final poem, ”Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,” is considered by Dillard to be her best; it contains the refrain to be heard later in Holy the Firm (1977): ”who will teach us to pray?”
Dillard Wins the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction
Dillard herself was surprised by the publishing world’s overwhelming recognition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book grew out of notes she wrote during 1972 while living on Tinker Creek, in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia. For a year, she says, she read voraciously as she gathered material, took walks, and ”did nothing.” But those daily walks and her reading of naturalists, anthropologists, physicists, and biologists were recorded in detail. When she did begin to write, she worked for eight months, seven days a week, up to fifteen and sixteen hours a day in a library carrel, recording her insights and observations from 1,103 index cards. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek weaves together Dillard’s meticulous observations of the physical world with moments of metaphysical illumination. She sent the first chapter to a New York agent who successfully placed it with Harper’s magazine.
Almost immediately the chapters of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek were snapped up by Harper’s and other magazines; the completed book was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, and in October 1973, Dillard was invited to become a contributing editor of Harper’s.
When Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the Pulitzer Prize and became a best-seller, Dillard’s success brought her many offers to make appearances, give readings, and even write film scripts, but she declined most offers in an effort to maintain the privacy and energy necessary for serious writing. During one summer she traveled to the Galapagos Islands for Harper’s, where she wrote a long essay discussing the interplay between freedom and evolutionary necessity. For this essay, ”Innocence in the Galapagos,” she won the New York Presswomen’s Award for Excellence in 1975. She also traveled and wrote several columns for the journal of the Wilderness Society, the Living Wilderness, between 1974 and 1976.
A Move to the Pacific Northwest
When her marriage of nine years ended in 1974, Annie Dillard moved to the Pacific Northwest to become scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University at Bellingham. There she taught creative writing and poetry, and began work on Holy the Firm, published in 1977. In this work, Dillard again struggles with the problem of pain, but she is more explicitly concerned with the metaphysical aspects of pain than she was in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She is also more concerned with philosophical discussions about time, reality, and the will of God. Although the book is only seventy-five pages long and covers the events of only three days, it took her fifteen months to write. Its language is highly condensed and poetic, and its narrative framework is built from a complex set of internal elements that interrelate and recur in the reflexive manner of a complicated poem. Some critics argue that the book is more self-consciously artistic than Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Although Holy the Firm was highly praised by reviewers, some considered it less penetrable than its predecessor. It has been widely reprinted and a dramatic version has been performed by Atlanta’s Imaginary Theatre.
Her long piece of fiction, ”The Living,” which appeared in Harper’s (1978), deals with human consciousness and awareness of time and death. Set in 1905, the story concerns Clare, an easygoing and unreflective man who teaches high-school shop near Northern Puget Sound. When one of his ex-students announces that he plans someday to kill him, Clare becomes intensely conscious for the first time of his own mortality. Dillard traces the changes in Clare’s life and his consciousness with great psychological acuity, as the story builds to his final realization of his place in time and his unity with the eternal.
Dillard is professor emeritus at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and during the summer of 1981, the Centennial of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra performed The Tree With Lights In It, a symphony by Sir Arthur Tippett based on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
During the 1990s Dillard published three major works: a novel entitled The Living (1992), a poetry collection entitled Mornings Like This (1995), and a non-fiction narrative entitled For the Time Being (1999). All three works have been recognized with awards for literary excellence. Her latest work of fiction, The Maytrees (2007), a short novel, is set in Cape Cod at an artist community and focuses on a marriage on the rocks. The Maytrees was honored as a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award in 2008.
Works in Literary Context
Annie Dillard has carved a unique niche for herself in the world of American letters. Over the course of her career, Dillard has written essays, a memoir, poetry, literary criticism—even a western novel. In whatever genre she works, Dillard distinguishes herself with her carefully wrought language, keen observations, and original metaphysical insights. Dillard’s many essays and poems describe her essentially spiritual vision. Her subjects include the role of the artist, the artistic process, evolution, and wildlife—all discussed in the larger context of her philosophical concerns. Influences on her work include Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, about whom she wrote her master’s thesis.
Scrutiny of Minutiae
Dillard is esteemed as an inspirational author of fiction and nonfiction that explores religion, philosophy, natural phenomena, the role of the artist in society, and the creative process. Commended for her startling imagery and precise prose, Dillard characteristically focuses on minute details in art or wildlife, investing her observations with scientific facts and obscure allusions gathered from her broad reading in science and literature. From this scrutiny of minutiae, she investigates wider philosophical implications; for example, in one episode of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard reflects on nature’s intricacy as she describes the 228 muscles in the head of a caterpillar. In her subsequent works, Dillard examines theology, literary theory, and her own child hood, offering personal revelations on artistic pursuit and the meaning of existence.
Annie Dillard has been acclaimed not only as an inspiring writer but also as a stimulating intellectual. She questions boldly as she ponders the role of the artist in the modern world; her works continue to reflect humanity’s concern with the eternal.
Works in Critical Context
Dillard entered the literary scene with what was categorized at the time as a Thoreauvian natural history, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard’s broad interests are reflected in the praise she received for the accuracy of her scientific observations. Readers relish Dillard’s minute observations of nature, her lush and lyrical prose, and her high-spirited humor that only places in higher relief her serious meta physical quest.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Immediately Popular
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard’s second book, met with immediate popular and critical success. ”One of the most pleasing traits of the book is the graceful harmony between scrutiny of real phenomena and the reflections to which that gives rise,” noted a Commentary reviewer. ”Anecdotes of animal behavior become so effortlessly enlarged into symbols by the deepened insight of meditation. Like a true transcendentalist, Miss Dillard under stands her task to be that of full alertness.” Other critics found fault with Dillard’s work, however, calling it self-absorbed or overwritten. Charles Deemer of the New Leader, for example, claimed that ”if Annie Dillard had not spelled out what she was up to in this book, I don’t think I would have guessed. . . . Her observations are typically described in overstatement reaching toward hysteria.” A more charitable assessment came from Muriel Haynes of Ms. While finding Dillard to be ”susceptible to fits of rapture,” Haynes asserted that the author’s ”imaginative flights have the special beauty of surprise.”
Contemporary Approaches to Dillard
The major shift in critical appreciation of Dillard’s work took place during the 1990s when scholars and critics shifted away from noting Dillard’s kinship with the nineteenth-century transcendentalists to appreciating her differences from them. Readers have gone from linking Dillard to Thoreau to finding her affinity with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville as well.
- Johnson, Sandra Humble. The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992.
- Slovic, Scott. SeekingAwareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992.
- Smith, Linda. Annie Dillard. New York: Twayne, 1991.
- Major, Mike. ”Annie Dillard, Pilgrim of the Absolute,” America 128 (May 6, 1978): 363-364.
- Smith, Pamela A. ”The Ecotheology of Annie Dillard: A Study in Ambivalence,” Cross Currents: The Journal of the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life 45 (Fall 1995): 341-358.
- Dillard, Annie. Annie Dillard—Official Website. Retrieved September 4, 2008, from http://www. anniedillard.com. Last updated on May 17, 2007.
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