Dillard, Annie 1945–
Dillard, Annie 1945–
PERSONAL: Born April 30, 1945, in Pittsburgh, PA; daughter of Frank and Pam (Lambert) Doak; married Richard Dillard (a professor and writer), June 5, 1964 (divorced); married Gary Clevidence (a writer), April 12, 1980 (divorced); married Robert D. Richardson, Jr. (a professor and writer), 1988; children: (second marriage) Cody Rose; Carin, Shelly (stepchildren). Education: Hollins College, B.A., 1967, M.A., 1968. Religion: Roman Catholic
ADDRESSES: Agent—Timothy Seldes, Russell and Volkening, 50 West 29th St., New York, NY 10001.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Harper's Magazine, editor, 1973–85; Western Washington University, Bellingham, scholar-in-residence, 1975–79; Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, distinguished visiting professor, 1979–81, full adjunct professor, 1983–98, writer-in-residence, 1987–98; professor emeritus, 1999–. Member of U.S. cultural delegation to China, 1982. Board member for various organizations, including Western States Arts Foundation, Milton Center, and Key West Literary Seminar; Wesleyan Writers' Conference, board member and chair, 1991–. Member, New York Public Library national literacy committee, National Committee for U.S.-China relations, and Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs. Member of usage panel, American Heritage Dictionary; member of McNair Mentors Program; has served as a juror for various writing prizes, including Yale University Bollingen Prize, Pulitzer Prize in general nofiction, and PEN Martha Albrand Award in nonfiction.
MEMBER: International PEN, Poetry Society of America, Society of American Historians, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Citizens for Public Libraries, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction, 1975, for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; New York Press Club Award for Excellence, 1975, for "Innocence in the Galapagos"; Washington State Governor's Award for Literature, 1977; grants from National Endowment for the Arts, 1982–83, and Guggenheim Foundation, 1985–86; Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination, 1982, for Living by Fiction; honorary degrees from Boston College, 1986, and Connecticut College, and University of Hartford, both 1993; National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 1987, for An American Childhood; Appalachian Gold Medallion, University of Charleston, 1989; St. Botolph's Club Foundation Award, 1989; English-Speaking Union Ambassador Book Award, 1989, for The Writing Life; Best Book of the 1980s, Boston Globe, for Teaching a Stone to Talk; Best Foreign Book Award (France), 1990, for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and 2002, for For the Time Being; History Maker Award, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1993; Connecticut Governor's Arts Award, 1993; Campion Medal, America magazine, 1994; Milton Prize, 1994; inducted into Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, 1997; Academy Award in Literature, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1998; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1999.
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (poems), University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1974.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (also see below), Harper's Magazine Press (New York, NY), 1974.
Holy the Firm (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1977.
The Weasel, Rara Avis Press (Claremont, CA), 1981.
Living by Fiction (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1982.
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1982.
Encounters with Chinese Writers, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1984.
An American Childhood (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1987.
(Editor, with Robert Atwan) The Best American Essays, 1988, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988.
The Annie Dillard Library (contains Living by Fiction, An American Childhood, Holy the Firm, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk), Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
The Writing Life (also see below), Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
Three by Annie Dillard (contains Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life), Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
The Living (novel), HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
The Annie Dillard Reader, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.
(Editor, with Cort Conley) Modern American Memoirs, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Mornings Like This: Found Poems, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
For the Time Being, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Also author of "Innocence in the Galapagos." Columnist, Living Wilderness, 1973–75. Contributing editor, Harper's, 1974–81, and 1983–85. Contributor to Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1987. Contributor of fiction, essays, and poetry to numerous periodicals and anthologies, including Atlantic Monthly, American Scholar, Poetry, Mill Mountain Review, Black Warrior Review, Esquire, Ploughshares, Yale Review, American Heritage, Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, TriQuarterly, North American Review, New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Chicago Review, The Lure of Tahiti, The Norton Reader, and Incarnation
ADAPTATIONS: Several of Dillard's writings have been adapted as plays or as readings to accompany music and art.
SIDELIGHTS: 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. Her first significant publication, 1974's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, drew numerous comparisons to Henry David Thoreau's Walden; in the years since, Dillard's name has come to stand for excellence in writing.
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel was Dillard's first publication. This slim volume of poetry—which expresses the author's yearning for a hidden God—was praised by reviewers. Within months of its appearance, however, Dillard's debut work was completely overshadowed by the release of her second, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Dillard lived quietly on Tinker Creek in Virginia's Roanoke Valley, observing the natural world, taking notes, and reading voluminously in a wide variety of disciplines, including theology, philosophy, natural science, and physics. Following the progression of seasons, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she probes the cosmic significance of the beauty and violence coexisting in the natural world.
"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 of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. "Anecdotes of animal behavior become so effortlessly enlarged into symbols by the deepened insight of meditation. Like a true transcendentalist, Miss Dillard understands 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."
Dillard's next book delves into the metaphysical aspects of pain. Holy the Firm was inspired by the plight of one of her neighbors, a seven-year-old child who was badly burned in a plane crash. As Dillard reflects on the maimed child and on a moth consumed by flame, she struggles with the problem of reconciling faith in a loving God with the reality of a violent world. Only seventy-six pages long, Holy the Firm overflows with "great richness, beauty and power," according to Frederick Buechner in the New York Times Book Review, while Atlantic reviewer C. Michael Curtis found that "Dillard writes about the ferocity and beauty of natural order with … grace."
Elegant writing also distinguishes Living by Fiction, Dillard's fourth book, in which the author analyzes the differences between modernist and traditional fiction. "Everyone who timidly, bombastically, reverently, scholastically—even fraudulently—essays to live 'the life of the mind' should read this book," advised Carolyn See in the Los Angeles Times. See went on to describe Living by Fiction as "somewhere between scholarship, metaphysics, an acid trip and a wonderful conversation with a most smart person." "Whether the field of investigation is nature or fiction, Annie Dillard digs for ultimate meanings as instinctively and as determinedly as hogs for truffles," remarked Washington Post Book World contributor John Breslin. "The resulting upheaval can be disconcerting … still, uncovered morsels are rich and tasty."
Dillard returns again to reflecting on nature and religion in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters. In minutely detailed descriptions of a solar eclipse, visits to South America and the Galapagos Islands, and other, more commonplace events and locations, she continues "the pilgrimage begun at Tinker Creek with an acuity of eye and ear that is matched by an ability to communicate a sense of wonder," according to Beaufort Cranford in the Detroit News. Washington Post Book World contributor Douglas Bauer was similarly pleased with the collection, judging Dillard's essays to be "almost uniformly splendid." In his estimation, Dillard's "art … is to move with the scrutinous eye through events and receptions that are random on their surfaces and to find, with grace and always-redeeming wit, the connections."
Dillard looked deeply into her past to produce another best-seller, An American Childhood. On one level, An American Childhood details the author's upbringing in an idiosyncratic, wealthy family; in another sense, the memoir tells the story of a young person's awakening to consciousness. In the words of Washington Post writer Charles Trueheart, Dillard's "memories of childhood are like her observations of nature: they feed her acrobatic thinking, and drive the free verse of her prose." Critics also applauded Dillard's keen insight into the unique perceptions of youth, as well as her exuberant spirit. "Loving and lyrical, nostalgic without being wistful, this is a book about the capacity for joy," stated Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Cyra McFadden, while Noel Perrin of the New York Times Book Review observed that "Dillard has written an autobiography in semimystical prose about the growth of her own mind, and it's an exceptionally interesting account."
The activity that has occupied most of Dillard's adulthood serves as the subject of The Writing Life. With regard to content, The Writing Life is not a manual on craft nor a guide to getting published; rather, it is a study of a writer at work and the processes involved in that work. Among critics, the book drew mixed reaction. "Dillard is one of my favorite contemporary authors," Sara Maitland acknowledged in the New York Times Book Review. "Dillard is a wonderful writer and The Writing Life is full of joys. These are clearest to me when she comes at her subject tangentially, talking not of herself at her desk but of other parallel cases—the last chapter, a story about a stunt pilot who was an artist of air, is, quite simply, breathtaking. There are so many bits like this…. Unfortunately, the bits do not add up to a book." Washington Post Book World contributor Wendy Law-Yone voiced similar sentiments, finding the book "intriguing but not entirely satisfying" and "a sketch rather than a finished portrait." Nevertheless, the critic wondered, "Can anyone who has ever read Annie Dillard resist hearing what she has to say about writing? Her authority has been clear since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—a mystic's wonder at the physical world expressed in beautiful, near-biblical prose."
Dillard ventured into new territory with her 1992 publication, The Living, a sprawling historical novel set in the Pacific Northwest. Reviewers hailed the author's first novel as masterful. "Her triumph is that this panoramic evocation of a very specific landscape and people might as well have been settled upon any other time and place—for this is, above all, a novel about the reiterant, precarious, wondrous, solitary, terrifying, utterly common condition of human life," exclaimed Molly Gloss in a review for the Washington Post Book World. Dillard's celebrated skill with words is also much in evidence here, according to Gloss, who noted that the author "uses language gracefully, releasing at times a vivid, startling imagery." Carol Anshaw concurred in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "The many readers who have been drawn in the past to Dillard's work for its elegant and muscular language won't be disappointed in these pages."
Following the 1994 publication of The Annie Dillard Reader, a collection of poems, stories, and essays that prompted a Publishers Weekly reviewer to term Dillard "a writer of acute and singular observation," Dillard produced two works during 1995. Modern American Memoirs, which she edited with Cort Conley, is a collection of thirty-five pieces excerpted from various writers' memoirs. Authors whose work appears here include Ralph Ellison, Margaret Mead, Reynolds Price, Kate Simon, and Russell Baker. "Many of these memoirs are striking and memorable despite their brevity," commented Madeline Marget in a Commonweal review of the collection.
Mornings Like This: Found Poems, Dillard's other 1995 publication, is an experimental volume of verse. To create these poems, Dillard culled lines from other writers' prose works—Vincent Van Gogh's letters and a Boy Scout Handbook, for example—and "arranged" the lines "in such a way as to simulate a poem originating with a single author," explained John Haines in the Hudson Review. While commenting that Dillard's technique works better with humorous and joyful pieces than with serious ones, a Publishers Weekly critic added that "these co-op verses are never less than intriguing." Haines expressed concern over the implications of Dillard's experiment: "What does work like this say about the legitimacy of authorship?" He concluded, however, that "on the whole the collection has in places considerable interest."
In 1999 Dillard produced another book of theological musings that has been praised as a worthy successor to her earlier works in the genre. For the Time Being specifically addresses the questions of cruelty and suffering. In this volume, Dillard displays a fascination with statistics, quoting facts about the number of dead people in the earth versus the number of living; how many suicides take place each day; what percentage of the population is mentally retarded; and how many people die each day. She describes in clinical detail various birth defects, the wholesale slaughter of enemies practiced by rulers throughout history, and the ritual burial of thousands of living soldiers and concubines with deceased Chinese rulers. As Jean Bethke Elshtain put it in the Journal of Religion, the author "does this through a variety of genres that are not often on display in a single text. Weaving together poetry, vignette, ethnography, autobiography, history, theology, Dillard provides multiple entry points into the mysteries of time, history, natural calamity, and the possibility of grace." For the Time Being "is, among other things, an impressionist picture of [a] tempest-tossed world," remarked Michael J. Farrell in National Catholic Reporter. "The book is a gradual unveiling of the world as Dillard is obsessed by it, which also, of course, is a gradual unveiling of the author." Maggie Mortimer noted in the National Post that For the Time Being "embodies the cryptic and the insightful," and that "For the Time Being sometimes reaches heights that can only be deemed inspirational."
"Few writers depict what's wrong with the world as vividly as Dillard," concluded Farrell. "At the end of the most brutal century in human history, we, weary, search desperately for the happy ending, the escape, while Dillard urges us not to turn away, coaxes us instead to look Life in the eye…. Relentlessly. Her books are one tour de force after another." Andre La-Sana, critiquing For the Time Being in First Things, described Dillard's work as "a valuable attempt to cut us loose from a complacent acceptance of life's enigmas."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Anderson, Chris, Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 1989.
Carnes, Mark C., Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), pp. 109-118.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 9, 1978, Volume 60, 1990.
Detweiler, Robert, Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction, Harper (New York, NY), 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Elder, John, Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature, University of Illinois Press (Chicago, IL), 1985.
Fritzell, Peter A., Nature Writing and America: Essays on a Cultural Type, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1990.
Hassen, Ihab, Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters, University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 1991.
Johnson, Sandra Humble, The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Works of Annie Dillard, Kent State University Press (Kent, OH), 1992.
Lohafer, Susan, and Jo Ellyn Clarey, editors, Short Story Theory at a Crossroads, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1989.
Parrish, Nancy C., Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group: A Genesis of Writers, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, LA), 1998.
Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, editors, Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1985.
Slovac, Scott, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1992.
Smith, Linda, Annie Dillard, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1991.
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Cross Currents, fall, 2000, Peggy Rosenthal, "Joking with Jesus in the Poetry of Kathleen Norris and Annie Dillard," p. 383.
Denver Quarterly, fall, 1985, Mary Davidson McConahay, "Into the Bladelike Arms of God: The Quest for Meaning through Symbolic Language in Thoreau and Annie Dillard," pp. 103-116.
Detroit News, October 31, 1982, p. 2H.
English Journal, April, 1989, p. 90; May 1, 1989, p. 69; December, 1989, Joan Bischoff, "Fellow Rebels: Annie Dillard and Maxine Hong Kingston," pp. 62-67.
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Ms., August, 1974; June, 1985, p. 62; December, 1985, p. 80; October, 1987, p. 78.
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Theology Today, July, 1986, Eugene H. Peterson, "Annie Dillard: With Her Eyes Open," pp. 178-191.
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