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Dillard, Annie (1945 – ) American Writer

Annie Dillard (1945 )
American writer

Often compared to the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau , Dillarda novelist, memoir writer, essayist, poet, and author of books about the natural worldis best known for her acute observation of the land, the seasons, the changing weather, and the wildlife within her intensely seen environment . Though born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 30, 1945, Dillard's vision of nature's violence and beauty was most fully developed living in Virginia, where she received her B.A., 1967, and M.A., 1968, from Hollins College. She also lived in the Pacific Northwest from 19751979 as scholar-in-residence at the University of Western Washington, in Bellingham, and is adjunct professor of English and writer in residence at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, where she lives with her husband, Bob Richardson, and her daughter, Rosie. Since 1973, she has also been a columnist for The Living Wilderness, the magazine of the Wilderness Society , the leading organization advocating expansion of the nation's wilderness.

In 1975, Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for her first book of prose, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), subtitled "A mystical excursion into the natural world," in which she presentedquoting Henry David Thoreau"a meteorological journal of the mind" based on her life in the Roanoke Valley, Virginia, where she had lived since 1965. Her vision of "power and beauty, grace tangled in a rapture of violence," of a world in which "carnivorous animals devour their prey alive," is also an intense celebration of the things seen as she wanders the Blue Ridge mountainside, the Roanoke creek banks, observing muskrat, deer, redwinged blackbirds, and the multitude of "free surprises" her environment unexpectedly, and fleetingly, displays. Seeing acquires a mystical primacy in Dillard's work.

The urgency of seeing is also conveyed in Dillard's only book of essays, Teaching A Stone To Talk (1982), in which she writes: "At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive." Dillard suggests that, for the natural phenomena that we do not use or eat, our only task is to witness. But in witnessing, she sees cruelty and suffering, making her question at a religious level what mystery lies at the heart of the created universe, of which she writes: "The world has signed a pact with the devil...The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die."

Unlike some natural historians or writers of environmental books, Dillard is not associated with a specific program for curbing the destructiveness of human civilization. Rather, what has been described as her loving attentiveness to the phenomenal world"nature seen so clear and hard that the eyes tear," as one reviewer commentedallies her with the broader movement of writers whose works teach some other relationship to nature than exploitation. In Holy the Firm (1977), her 76-page journal of several days spent in Northern Puget Sound, Dillard records such events as the burning of a seven-year-old girl in a plane crash and a moth's immolation in a candle flame to rehearse her theme of life's harshness, but at the same time, to note, "A hundred times through the fields and along the deep roads I've cried Holy." In the end, Dillard is a sojourner, a pilgrim, wandering the world, ecstatically attentive to nature's bloodiness and its beauty.

The popularity of Dillard's writing during the late 1980s and 1990s can be judged by the frequency with which her work was reprinted during these decades. As well as excerpts included in multi-author collections, the four-volume Annie Dillard Library appeared in 1989, followed by Three by Annie Dillard (1990), and The Annie Dillard Reader (1994). During these years, she also served as the co-editor of two volumes of proseThe Best American Essays (1988), with Robert Atwan, and Modern American Memoirs (1995), with Cort Conleyand crafted Mornings Like This: Found Poems (1995), a collection of excerpts from other writers' prose, which she reformatted into verse.

Though a minor work, Mornings Like This could be said to encapsulate all of the qualities that have made Dil lard's work consistently popular among readers: clever and playful, it displays her wide learning and eclectic tastes, her interest in the intersection of nature and science with history and art, and her desire to create beauty and unity out of the lost and neglected fragments of human experience.

[David Clarke ]


RESOURCES

BOOKS

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

. Encounters With Chinese Writers. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

. Holy the Firm. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982.

. The Living. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1975.

. Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1982.

Johnson, Sandra Humble. The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1992.

Parrish, Nancy C. Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Smith, Linda L. Annie Dillard. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

. The Annie Dillard Reader. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

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