Born 30 April 1945, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Daughter of Frank and Pain Lambert Doak; married RichardDillard, 1965.
For the tourist, places are ends in themselves, scenes to be consumed by the ravishing eye. For the pilgrim, places are means—of refreshment, of soul-building, of education about the Way. To the pilgrim, allegory dissolves mere scenery, the picture forces its way through the picturesque. Annie Dillard's writings beautifully depict earthly places, but she is no tourist. Nor, as some would have it, is she a sort of roving regionalist. Raised in the city, she adopted the Blue Ridge creeks, valleys, and hills around Roanoke, Virginia, during and after her days at Hollins College. She now is scholar-in-residence at Western Washington State College and lives on northern Puget Sound.
Dillard startled critics with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Viewed by many as a naturalist who brilliantly revealed nature's fecundity and violence, Dillard was compared to writers as disparate as Thoreau and Melville. Nature is not her real focus, however. She says of her work, "Art is my interest, mysticism my message, Christian mysticism." Indeed, the ultimate meaning of all her work is missed if Dillard is interpreted as a Thoreauvian transcendentalist. The faults identified by many commentators—her extreme allusiveness and toodense imagery, her obliviousness to what humans have done to nature, her "escapism"—can all be accounted for if the reader understands that Dillard's main subject is not creation (nature), but Creator.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is, she says, "really a book of theology" it records the changing patterns of nature over a year in a few acres on Tinker Creek, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The year is as liturgical as it is natural, and this "journal" is a mystic meditation on the terror and glory of creation. The terror is captured in such episodes as the giant water bug sucking out the frog's life blood or the praying mantis consuming her mate as he couples with her. Also revealed is creation's glory, experienced only in unselfconscious instants, where the ego is diminished in selfless epiphanies of complete understanding. Dillard's mission is to see fully.
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974) presents several visionary and difficult poems that use private religious symbolism. Other poems in the volume are more accessible, excellent topical works which focus on a quotation. The title poem of the volume prefigures the ideas and images of Holy the Firm (1977). The prayer wheel "tickets" are various prayers, as the narrator begins: "Our family is looking /for someone who knows how to pray."
A parable of creation and the incarnation, a revelation of grace in the face of the suffering and evil of the world, Holy the Firm is concentrated, spare, deep, intensely poetic. The emphasis is still on the narrator's relationship with the Creator. The work is a very personal explanation of the doctrines of immanence and emanation. To immanence, "Christ is redundant, and all things are one," while to emanation, the world is wholly other, linked to God through Christ. Dillard, like many mystics, opts for a reconciliation of these two views: "And the universe is real and not a dream, not a manufacture of the senses; subject may know object, knowledge may proceed."
Describing the "writing life" Dillard asserts that "the art must enter the body." From her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she establishes this relationship with both her writing and the environment it reflects. Rather than objectively observing the scenes of her life, she experiences them as religious encounters. Her early work, up through Holy the Firm, secured Dillard a place among both naturalist and mystical essayists. Within her natural descriptions, Dillard theologizes on creation and its creator. A searching spirituality tempers her acute physical perceptions to create works heavy in allusionary and abstract meaning.
After Holy the Firm, Dillard began to change her focus from external to internal environments. With the 1982 publications of Living by Fiction and Teaching a Stone to Talk, the grand spiritual abstraction that characterized her early natural vision gave way to a more personal and human intimacy. Living by Fiction explores the landscape of fiction as a natural sphere of influence and means of personal definition, while Teaching a Stone to Talk continues to rely on nature as landscape. Although her earlier work suggests that meaning is present and observable in nature, Dillard's later work begins to examine her personal interactions with the landscape, recognizing that most meaning is humanly imposed on a scene.
Dillard clarified this movement with the 1984 publication of Encounters with Chinese Writers, a collection of essays based on her experience as a member of the U.S. Cultural Delegation to China in 1982. Describing a foreign landscape and people, Dillard seeks personal definition within cultural difference. In her autobiography, the National Book Critics Circle-nominated An American Childhood (1987), Dillard brings that search back to the most familiar of all landscapes—childhood. Both works exhibit a fluid exchange between the writer and her landscape. The writing itself becomes more concrete and accessible.
By the time of publication of The Writing Life (1989) Dillard has struggled to identify the tracks of her thoughts and the fissures they leave in the observed landscapes. Her writing no longer exposes only the interaction of God and nature as creator and creation, but the human mind as both creator and creation. Dillard's movement into fiction attests to her attempt to understand the complex relationship between the human mind and the natural world. The Living (1992) chronicles the growth of Bellingham Bay and its inhabitants. Although the novel is historical, Dillard concentrates on the parallel evolutions of the personal and the physical landscapes.
Literary critics have commented on the difficulty of pinning Dillard down. Indeed, ambivalence is the engine that powers her work: the strength with which she can make an argument and then subsequently (or even simultaneously) present an opposing view with equal conviction. A Dillard trademark is the uninhibited, unbridled awe with which she views the world, and this marvel extends to its apparent contradictions. She depicts the wonder of God's creation, at the same time wondering if He gives a hoot about it. In a recent essay, "Sand and Clouds," she quotes the Mahabarata: "Of all the world's wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die."
In "The Wreck of Time, Taking our Century's Measure," Dillard piles on statistic after statistic (130,000 drowned in Bangladesh, 69 suns in the universe for every living person), hammering home the idea of our insignificance; at the same time she makes clear her belief that while her readers may be moved by these numbers, they will nonetheless be unable to give up the idea that their individual lives matter. Death has always been ubiquitous in Dillard's writing; it has perhaps been especially morbid dating back to The Living, in which she fills a small cemetery with dead characters. This millennial essay is steeped in morbidity—horrible natural disasters juxtaposed with the man-made horrors of Holocaust and purge. She makes a strong case, concluding: "We arise from dirt and dwindle to dirt, and the might of the universe is arrayed against us." Yet beside this she sets the strong possibility that all life is sacred. Perhaps Dillard's writing should be seen as not only ambivalent but provisional, as suggested by the title of her 1999 collection of essays, For the Time Being.
Mornings Like This (1995) is a collection of poems constructed from sentences Dillard lifted from sources as various as an antique medical text and the New Testament Apocrypha. "Sarcasm has no place in literature," Dillard told an interviewer in 1996, "but irony has the highest place." She introduces Mornings Like This with: "Half the poems seek to serve poetry's oldest and most sincere aims with one of its newest and most ironic methods, to dig deep with a shallow tool. The other half are just jokes." True to her word the book is alternately heartbreaking and hilarious, irony in service of ambivalence.
Dillard's older work continues to find new readers. In addition to being heavily anthologized, it has been collected in Three by Dillard (1990) and The Annie Dillard Reader (1995). She was the 1988 editor of The Best American Essays and editor of the 1995 anthology, Modern American Memoirs. Her latest project was a new book, "a personal narration about God and the problem of pain."
Dillard resides in Middletown, Connecticut, with her husband and daughter. A writer-in-residence and professor at Wesleyan University, she has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1980-81) and the Guggenheim Foundation (1985-86).
"Sand and Clouds," Raritan (fall 1998).
Bawer, B., "Quiet—Author Suffering," in American Scholar (Summer 1990). Clark, S., "Annie Dillard: The Woman in Nature and the Subject of Nonfiction," in Literary Nonfiction (1989). Guenther, C., "Dillard Finds Poems in Others' Work," in St. Louis Post-Dispatch (25 June 1995). Johnson, S. H., The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard (1992). Kingsolver, B., "Whipsawed in Washington," in Nation (25 May 1992). Scheick, W., "Annie Dillard: Narrative Fringe," in Contemporary American Women Writers: NarrativeStrategies (1985). Suhl, G., "Ideas are Tough; Irony is Easy," in Yale Herald (online, 4 Oct. 1996). Smith, P. A., "The Ecotheology of Annie Dillard," Cross Currents (Fall 1995.)
Other references: America (8 Oct. 1977). Amer. Lit. 59:1 (March 1987). Belles Lettres 8 (Fall 1992). Booklist, (1 June 1995). Commentary (Oct. 1974). CW (24 Oct. 1975). J. Feminist Studies in Religion 6 (Spring 1990). Harper's (Jan. 1998). Hungry Mind Review (1 Nov. 1995). LA Times (25 May 1992). LATBR (25 Sept. 1988). Ms. (June 1985). Nation (16 Oct. 1989, 25 May 1992). NewR (6 Apr. 1974). NYTBR (24 Mar. 1974, 25 Sept. 1977, 9 May 1982, 23 Sept. 1984, 27 Sept. 1987, 18 Nov. 1990). Sewanee Review 92 (Winter 1984). Signs 15 (Spring 1990). So. Atl. Q. 85 (Spring 1986). VQR (Fall 1974). WRB (Jan. 1988).
UPDATED BY JULLIE ANN FIORE