Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1974
Holy the Firm, 1977
Living by Fiction, 1982
Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, 1982
Encounters with Chinese Writers, 1984
An American Childhood, 1987 (autobiography)
The Writing Life, 1989
For the Time Being, 1999
The Living, 1992
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, 1974
Mornings Like This: Found Poems, 1995
Modern American Memoirs, 1995 (with Cort Conley)
The Annie Dillard Reader, 1994
Annie Dillard (DIHL-urd) occupies an unusual place in contemporary American literature. Through her work in a variety of genres, she consistently affirms the spiritual dimension of existence as it is manifested through the natural world. Dillard was the eldest of the three daughters of Frank and Pam Doak. Her father was a business executive, and Dillard was reared in an upper-middle-class environment; she gives a delightful account of her childhood and adolescence in An American Childhood. She graduated from Hollins College in Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and a master’s degree in 1968. In 1965, she married one of her teachers at Hollins, the writer R. H. W. Dillard. They were divorced in 1975. In 1980, she married Gary Clevidence, a novelist, but they too divorced. In 1988, she married Robert D. Richardson, Jr., a professor and writer.
Dillard’s first book was a collection of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, soon followed by Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1975. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek records Dillard’s observations of nature around Tinker Creek–a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains where Dillard lived for several years–interspersed with her reflections on the intricacies, paradoxes, and mysteries of the created world. The work has two recurring motifs. First is Dillard’s insistent, perplexed questionings about the cruel and grotesque aspects of creation: The world is a parasitic place in which everything is battered, torn, preyed upon, and devoured. The second motif is quite different: Dillard has flashes of visionary illumination in which the world appears transfigured and holy. She comes upon a cedar tree, for example, and sees it pulsing with divine fire and light. She feels as if she is seeing for the first time, and she lives for the recurrence of such moments. Yet she is aware that they cannot be consciously willed; they come only when perception is innocent. It is these visionary moments that account for the book’s positive conclusion, in which Dillard presents herself as a pilgrim, praising the mysterious holiness of creation.
Dillard’s style in this book is sometimes informal, conversational, and amusing; at other times it is dense with figurative language and subtle in rhythm, and through these devices Dillard achieves some elevated effects. This richly poetic style is also noticeable in Holy the Firm, which consists of three meditations on how spiritual experience can be maintained in a painful world. The setting is an island on Puget Sound in Washington State, where Dillard was living at the time. In the first essay, Dillard sees in the elemental life around her a network of meeting points between eternity and time. In the second essay, recounting how Julie, a seven-year-old girl, is severely burned in a plane crash, Dillard questions these connections; the link between the divine absolute and the world of time and space is not so easy to discern when innocent human suffering is taken into account. The third essay works toward a solution. Dillard draws on a concept found in esoteric Christianity, which posits a subtle substance, inherent in all things, that serves as a link between the material and the spiritual worlds. Armed with this concept, Dillard once more revels, as she had done in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in the divine fire and light as revealed through the world, and the book finishes with a vision of Julie’s life transformed by holy power.
Many of the essays in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters are similar in theme and style to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard typically begins with an observation about the natural world and her experience of it–anything from the behavior of weasels to a total eclipse of the sun–which leads her into metaphysical speculation. The latter is stimulated by her wide reading, which she is always eager to share with the reader. Yet the scope of these essays is broader than that of her earlier work. She ranges from the Galápagos Islands to the jungles of Ecuador, as well as covering the more familiar terrain of Virginia and Washington. She is also far more involved in the human world than before, manifesting a growth in maturity and compassion.
Living by Fiction is an examination of contemporary fiction, but it reaches beyond, into a consideration of the relationship between art and life. Dillard poses what for her is a familiar question: Can the world be understood at all, whether by fiction or anything else? She does not know the answer. In Encounters with Chinese Writers, Dillard relates stories from a visit she made to China as part of a delegation of American writers and from a conference in Los Angeles with a delegation of Chinese writers. Anecdotes rather than fully developed essays, they yield many insights into the differences between the two cultures.
In The Writing Life, a short book of seven chapters, Dillard explores and expounds upon her craft through anecdote, story, and epigrammatic passages that often read like journal entries. The Living, Dillard’s first novel, centers on the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. The Annie Dillard Reader contains a new version of the original short story that eventually became The Living. The reader also contains a revised version of Holy the Firm, chapters from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood, and a sampling of poems and essays. Mornings Like This: Found Poems, like much of Dillard’s writing, chronicles and celebrates her astonishingly wide reading. Though the words of this text belong to others, by arranging them as poetry, Dillard reclaims them with results that range from the humorous to the sobering.
Dillard’s work has been consistently well received by critics and public alike. Her affinities with Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville have often been remarked, and some of her work might also be compared to that of essayist and naturalist Loren Eiseley. Though Dillard continues to explore a remarkable range of genres, her nonfiction narratives and her essays are considered by most to be her finest work.