Annie Dillard - Official Website
Biography of Annie Dillard by Bob Richardson
Annie Dillard has been considered a major voice in American literature since she published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974 and won a Pulitzer Prize. Her reputation has increased steadily if bumpily since then. Scholars and critics have recognized her scope’s widening from the natural world to history, metaphysics, ever --more narratives, and theology until Paul Roberts could say in the Toronto Globe and Mail that the 1999 publication of For the Time Being, “places Dillard more firmly than ever among the very greatest of American writers.”
Dillard has written a novel, some essays, poetry, and a memoir; her most characteristic books, however, are imaginative non-fiction narratives-—witnessings or accounts, stories and speculations–- that resist classification. Her distinctive, and distinctively American, prose style has been widely recognized and openly imitated. She is, like Thoreau, a close observer; she is, like Emerson, a rocket- maker; her works’ prose structures and aims, however, are all her own. “We have less time than we knew,” she writes in Holy the Firm, “and that time buoyant, cloven, lucent, missile, and wild.”
Dillard was born Meta Ann Doak on Apr 30, 1945, into a Pittsburgh family with Scotch-Irish, French, and German roots. Her father, Frank Doak, worked for some years as a minor corporate executive, but his passions were for Dixieland jazz, for taking his boat down the Mississippi, for dancing, and above all for telling jokes. Frank Doak self-published a memoir, Something Like a Hoagie, in 1994. Dillard has written –in An American Childhood-- about him and about her spirited mother, Pam (Lambert) Doak, who loved dancing and had a sort of wild transgressive genius for practical joking. If the phone rang and it was a wrong number, Dillard’s mother would hand it to the nearest person; “Here, take this, your name is Cecile.”
Meta Ann, called Annie, was the oldest of three sisters; Amy was three years younger and Molly was ten years younger. They all grew up in Pittsburgh; the family moved from house to house in the general neighborhood of Frick Park. Summers she spent with her grandparents on the southern shore of Lake Erie. Dillard went to the Presbyterian church and to the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, and she spent four summers at Presbyterian camp; “We sang Baptist songs and had a great time,” she recalls. “It gave me a taste for abstract thought.” As a child she rode her bike all over Pittsburgh, ran flying down sidewalks with arms spread wide, and broke her nose two mornings in a row sledding belly-down and headfirst and going too fast. She threw a baseball at a strike zone drawn in red on a garage door. Ballplaying became a lifelong passion; she played second base until 1999, once making an unassisted triple play. In school she played varsity field hockey and bastketball
She was an avid collector of both rocks and insects. She had a chemistry set and a microscope with which she found a single-celled world full of wonders. She played “The Poet and Peasant Overture” and boogie-woogie on the piano.
Her inner world was, if anything, more active than her outer one She took drawing and painting classes, and sat in her room for hours drawing detailed studies of remembered faces, of her left hand, of candles, of shoes, of her baseball glove. Drawing and painting were two more lifelong passions. Above all she was a reader. She read “zillions” of novels about World War II, and other novels old and new. She read field guides. Ann Haven Morgan’s A Field Guide to Ponds and Streams was a stunner. She read everything: R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Dickens’ David Copperfield and Great Expectations. She read Desiree, Moby- Dick, The Mill on the Floss, and Mad Magazine. She read S.I. Hayakawa The Story of Language and several volumes of Freud. She read the German expressionist and French symbolist poets extensively and repeatedly. She read Rilke and Rimbaud and a fictionalized biography of Rimbaud called The Day on Fire. She read Henry Miller, John O’Hara, Helen Keller, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, John Updike, By Love Possessed, Emerson’s Essays, The Ugly American, The Hidden Persuaders and The Status Seekers, and a biography of Fitzgerald.. She read C.S. Lewis’s broadcast talks on theology. Her teachers had little idea what was going on inside her. By the time she was 15-17, what they did know they didn’t care for. One said, according to An American Childhood, “Here, alas, is a child of the twentieth century.”
Dillard did everything with voracious intensity and reckless avidity. There had always been boys. Soon there were boyfriends. She bought bongo drums and hung around fancy Shadyside bars in silent solidarity with the Beat poets who were setting about the systematic derangement of their senses. She won a Charleston contest. There was rock and roll—still her favorite music—to add to her father’s Dixieland. She was suspended from school for smoking cigarettes. One day she accepted an invitation from some boys to go drag racing; she was in the front seat when the car slammed into the brick wall. She has been racing, mostly in other ways, ever since.
The headmistress of her school, Marian Hamilton, and her parents, wanted Dillard to go to college in the South to smooth off her rough edges. But, as she says in An American Childhood, “I had hopes for my rough edges. I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface and exit through it.” She cut her way out of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh society when she left home and went to Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. She made the decision to go there, rather than to Randolph-Macon Women’s College, after a dream about the beauty of the little creek, called Carvin’s Creek, that runs behind the old library at Hollins.
Dillard’s teachers at Hollins included the seventeenth -century scholar John Moore, Louis Rubin, the godfather of Southern Literature, George Gordh, who has studied theology, and Richard Dillard, poet, experimental fiction writer and later director of Hollins’ famous Creative Writing program. Lee Smith was a classmate and friend. Dillard actively pursued theology, literature, and writing. By Christmas of sophomore year she was engaged to Richard Dillard; they were married on June 5, 1964. At twenty she was a faculty wife; she finished her BA and an MA, played softball and pinochle, and taught herself to read topographical maps. She hiked and camped on the Appalachian trail and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mostly, however, she read, and lesserly wrote poetry. She and her husband lived in a quiet suburban development in Roanoke, their back yard sloping sharply to an unremarkable stream, perhaps seventeen feet wide at its widest, called Tinker Creek.
In 1974 Dillard published a book of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, which was praised by both its reviewers for its lyrical brilliance, theological questioning and formal clarity. Dillard’s distinctive voice is already audible. “We feather our nests/ with froth: the rivers roll,/ the screens of mercy part.”
During the late 60s and early 70s Dillard was writing prose as well. She understood, as she said in an 1989 interview with Katherine Weber in Publisher’s Weekly, that the essence of poetry “is not its pretty language, but the fact that it has the capacity for deep internal structures of meaning.” For Dillard, prose was a step up from poetry. “Poetry was a flute,” she told Weber, “and prose was the whole orchestra.” What she aimed to do in her prose was to build it on poetic structures so it could carry the same—or even a greater—burden of meaning as poetry could carry. One day in the early 1970s, Dillard was disappointed in a book she was reading. She found herself thinking ‘I can do better than this.’ A year later, while Tickets for a Prayer Wheel was in press, Dillard had a manuscript and a title; Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was published in 1974 about two months after Tickets. One afternoon in the middle of a softball game, Harper’s Magazine called. Dillard came in from playing second base and answered the phone to find herself “famous,” nationally published. In excitement, she ate an apple, really fast.
In 2000, Bobby Tichenor of the Oregonian recalled that Pilgrim “stopped me in my tracks….she lures you into joining her…wonderful and stimulating company. I dip into it every few months [for 26 years!] and always find new ideas and amusements.” By the time Pilgrim appeared in 1974, New York’s publicity machine had already raised as enormous and loud a fuss as is possible with a writer who declines televised appearances. Harper’s Magazine had printed two of Pilgrim’s chapters as articles, and named her a contributing editor; Atlantic Monthly printed another chapter, and Sports Illustrated another. Kirkus Reviews bombed it while it was still in galleys. Loren Eisely bombed it, Wendell Berry said it proposed no land-use ethic whatever, C.P. Snow was appalled. Eudora Welty wrote a long piece for the New York Times Book Review faulting the book for its undeveloped characters, its abstractions, and its bookishness. Quoting the passage that begins “The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. The terms are clear; if you want to live, you have to die…” “I honestly do not know what she is talking about about at such times,” wrote Welty.” Pilgrim barely sold in hardback. Paperbound, it has over the years found its way into the advanced curriculum of every college in the country. Twenty-seven years after its publication, it had appeared on many “best book” lists, including Philip Zaleski’s “Best Spiritual Essays of the Twentieth Century,” and the New York Times “Best 100 Non-fiction Books of the Twentieth Century.”
Because magazines published many chapters from Pilgrim before the book appeared, Dillard has been labelled an essayist and Pilgrim a book of essays. In fact, she has written only one volume of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Her nonfiction books are almost invariably narratives, and Pilgrim is a strictly unified and tightly structured narrative. Her energetic prose is by turns –sometimes by quick turns-- grave, splendid, slang-shot, and hilarious. One critic called her “a stand-up ecstatic.” “The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind,” she writes. “Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” Later, of the temptation to “sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage,” she says “I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we sould be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus,”
Dillard builds a vision of the way things are. Often as not she builds “the world perceived” by narrative testimony and not by analysis, by narrative symbol and not by argument.
About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from
the roof-gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous
as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.
The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were
still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not
falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air.
Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his
wings with exact deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his
elegant white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a
corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight.
The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree
that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are
performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be
The structure of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is complex and multi-dimensional. It is, first of all, a narrative account of her wandering and reading life, of what she spends her days doing. It is at the same time a “meteorological journal of the mind,” a phrase she takes from Thoreau. Further, it is a supercharged and scientific account of the natural world. It is also a “radiant” theodicy, a grave, outraged, outrageous inquiry into how it comes that a good creator has created a world of cruelty and violence. Structurally the book has a solid bilateral symmetry based on medieval Christian theology describing the soul’s approach to God. The first eight chapters present a modern via positiva. Chapter nine, the flood, is the pivot, and the last seven chapters present the via negativa. On the via positiva a person actively attempts to come closer to God through good works, loving God and God’s works.A soul on the via positiva climbs a ladder of good towards God. A soul on the via negativa, as Dillard describes it, approaches God by denying anything that can be said about God; “All propositions about God are untrue. Language deceives; the world deceives. God is not perfectly good, perfectly powerful, perfectly loving; these words apply to beings, and God is not a being.”
The soul on the via negativa rejects everything that is not God; in the darkness of unknowing the soul can only hope God finds it, outside the senses and outside reason. In the first half of the book a growing sense of the rich plenitude of the world dominates. In the latter part, too much wasted creation sates the soul and the mind quarrels with death; realms of greater and greater emptiness emerge. The soul is emptying in readiness for the possible incursion of God.
This is all done through brilliant impassioned writing that can stand comparison with Thoreau and Melville, writing that is vigorous, surprising and irreverent, habitually over the top and plunging like a roller-coaster, always in the senses, relentlessly in the active voice, and always in narrative mode. In the last paragraph of the book Dillard invokes Emerson’s dream in which he saw the earth, spinning, far off, and an angel came and said to him ‘this thou must eat.’ And he ate the world. “All of it.”
Partly to avoid the press and the public after winning the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, Dillard left Virginia and moved to an island near Puget sound, not far from Bellingham, Washington. Boston’s Michael J. Gross has observed that “by refusing to build a public image…Dillard has crafted a writing life of uncommon integrity.” While in Washington, she met her second husband, Gary Clevidence, a writer and anthropologist with whom she lived for twelve years. They spent long stretches of time on a remote and primitive island which had never reliquished the nineteenth century. While living in Washington and teaching part time as Distinguished Visiting Professor at Western Washington State University, she wrote the long short story called “The Living” which she would later expand into a novel. There, too, she wrote the book she likes best, Holy the Firm.
The second in what would eventually be a trilogy of books asking why natural evil exists, Holy the Firm takes the form of a personal narrative. ‘Form’ is the important word here, not ‘personal.’ Dillard recounts events, taking what looks like a personal narrative, but reshaping it, investing or reclothing it with images and ideas from her wide reading, into a symbolic, existential excursion. It is the process by which Melville made Moby Dick out of his tale about a poor old whale-hunter. Critic Barbara Lounsberry has observed how commentators first compared Dillard’s work with that of Thoreau and Emerson, but, over time, came increasingly to compare it with that of Hawthorne and Melville.
Holy the Firm began when Dillard took a line from a letter of Emerson’s to Margaret Fuller, “No one suspects the days to be gods,” and decided to make the next three days a test case. On the second day, an islander’s plane crashed nearby. In the book, facial burns disfigure a young girl, Julie Norwich, whom Dillard had met making cider. What can we say of the gods of these three days? the book asks. The first god is a pagan divinity, inhabiting all creation, inspiriting the mountains, a small naked manlike god tangled in the writer’s hair. The second day, “God’s Tooth,” is indifferent to the cruelty of physical accident—is absent. The third day’s god, revealed through a knapsack as light shines through skeletal ribs, is the holy God of mystery. The book ends with a return to the burned girl, rededication to vocation and a revealed vision of the baptism of Christ.
The structure of the book is a complex as a late Beethoven Quartet. Holy the Firm has three parts: creation, fall, redemption. The first part is anchored in the senses, presents the new-born island world as vivid with spirit, and presents pantheism. Part two depends on mind. It proceeds –outraged—to examine the fall, the crash of the second day, by means of reason, which can make no sense of needless suffering. Part three is anchored in spirit, moving through ecstasy to enlightment. The writing teeters on the limit of what can be felt and said. All of this, it cannot be too much emphasized, is accomplished through narrative, the things of this world, the island, farm, girl, books, boy. It is narrative heightened, freighted, wrought into symbol, and narrative first and last.
The opening event illuminates the whole story, and sets out themes: a monk or artist’s life of sacrificial dedication to ego-less emptiness, fire, terror, beauty. Dillard was camped alone and reading a novel about the young French Poet, drunken Arthur Rimbaud, “that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen. I was hoping it would do it again.” One night a moth flies into her candle. “A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing….When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs….All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.
And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a safron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk….
She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.
In 1979, Dillard and Clevidence moved East, making home in Middletown, Connecticut, where Dillard again held a teaching position, this time as Writer in Residence at Wesleyan University. “I came to Connecticut because, in the course of my wanderings, it was time to come back east—back to that hardwood forest where the multiple trees and soft plants have their distinctive seasons” she said in a 1984 Esquire article “Why I Live Where I Live.” Their daughter, Cody Rose, was born in Connecticut in 1984. The family spent summers in South Wellfleet on Cape Cod, where two girls from Clevidence’s earlier marriage, Carin and Shelly, continued to play a large part in Dillard’s life, as they had since 1976. In 1982 Dillard published the comparatively minor Living by Fiction, and a crucial volume, Teaching a Stone to Talk.
Living by Fiction is “metaphysics in a teacup.” Critics liked it. Contemporary modernist fiction (Borges, Coover, Nabokov) is an art of flat surfaces, like abstract expressionism. Meaning resides inside the art work’s relationships. Ultimately more compelling is traditional fiction in depth, using rounded characters, like perspective-using easel painting, because it alone can address our demand for meaning in events.
Teaching a Stone to Talk, subtitled Expeditions and Encounters is, according to the author's introductory note, “not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work; instead this is my real work, such as it is.” The book begins with “Total Eclipse,” one of Dillard’s finest short pieces, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates as among the twentieth century’s 100 best essays. On the surface, “Total Eclipse” is a narrative of Dillard’s trip with her husband east across the Cascade Mountains to Yakima, Washington, to see a solar eclipse. But the real story is the eclipse of more than the sun. It is the eclipse of reason, daylight faith, and the conscious mind. An avalanche had blocked the road through the Cascades, and Dillard plunges into an avalanche tunnel bulldozed out by highway crews. In the story this entrance is the entrance to the irrational, wild, subconscious underworld. Dillard stops in a hotel, where a surreal irrationality abounds in the lobby. Reflecting on the eclipse itself-the blackness at midday—she probes what humans find in “the deeps” –violence and terror. “But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether that buoys the rest, that gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil.” Everything depends though, on human’s being awake. Dillard’s literary role has been, and continues to be, one of dragging her readers to wakefulness. “Total Eclipse” is a brilliant description of a real eclipse, with its dark onrushing shadow of the planet, the silent and scientific watchers on the hills with their telescopes, the screams. It is also a descent into the cold nightmare world of the unconscious, a sharp probe at the hidden axis of the mind.
“An Expedition to the Pole” consists of two cross-cut stories, a narrative of noble and ill-advised polar explorations, particularly those by Scott and Franklin, and the clumsy events of everyday church services. Its tone is both distant and hilarious; the method prefigues For the Time Being. Its subject, dignity’s obstruction of holiness, is a recurrent theme.
In “Living like Weasels,”another Dillard story widely preserved in anthological pickle, Dillard recalls a story Ernest Thompson Seton told about a man who “shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is,” Dillard says, “that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.” The piece is about commitment, about holding on, about dying aloft like any artist, perhaps. “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure,” she concludes, “to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.”
“The Deer at Providencia,” first published in 1975, and central to Teaching a Stone to Talk, takes place in the Ecuador jungle. Dillard sees a trapped, roped, injured deer, waiting in terrible pain for death. The city men in the party watch Dillard for her woman’s reaction. It is tougher than theirs. The story concludes with the parallel story of Alan McDonald who blew himself up by accident with gasoline, then healed and got exploded on again. “Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Providencia in his dignity, what is going on?”
The last piece in the book is a carefully structured story in which a thirty-five- year- old narrator and an unnamed young girl go off for a weekend. Time accelerates as playing cards flap in a bike wheel’s spokes as it starts down the hill. A country weekend is a metaphor for a lifetime. The essay ends in contemplation of death as she faces the arrival of autumn in a gust of wind that “blackens the water where it passes, like a finger closing slats.”
In 1984 Dillard published Encounters with Chinese Writers, a work of (hilarious) journalism about her trip to China with a group of American writers and her helping to host a delegation of Chinese writers to the U.S. The book is as remarkable for its ironic insight into Chinese literary life under communism as it is for its portrayal of Allen Ginsberg and the Chinese writers at Disneyland.
In 1987 Dillard published An American Childhood. Ostensibly a book about growing up in Pittsburgh, An American Childhood is not really a memoir in the usual sense. It is not about Dillard herself; it is about parents, sisters, the neighborhood, the world she experienced while growing up. The real subject of the book is coming to consciousness. “Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along,” she writes. “Like any child I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips in the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection, wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.” It is a book of intelligence and charm; the writing seems effortless; the prose, like the childhood, is utterly American. The San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle said the book “helps cement Annie Dillard’s reputation as one of our major writers.” It is very funny, and it has moments of great beauty that catch a reader by the throat. She makes an exploratory pinch of her mothers’ skin and sees how older people’s “hands are loose inside their skins like bones in bags.” She listens to her father hone the edge of a joke; “frog goes into a bar.” She sees a powerline downed by a tornado “loosing a fireball of sparks that melted the asphalt….I stood and watched the thick billion bolts swarm in the street. The cable was as full as a waterfall, never depleted; it dug itself a pit in which the yellow sparks spilled like water. I stayed at the busy Penn Avenue curb all day staring, until, late in the afternoon, someone somewhere turned off the juice.”
One winter evening during the second week of the big snow of 1950, a neighbor girl named Jo Ann Sheehy ice skated alone under the street light outside the dining room window. “Once, the skater left the light. She winged into the blackness beyond the streetlight and sped down the street; only her white skates showed, and the white snow. She emerged again under another streetlight, in the continuing silence….Inside that second cone of light she circled backward and leaning. Then she reversed herself in an abrupt half turn—as if she had skated backward into herself, absorbed her own motion’s impetus, and rebounded from it; she shot forward into the dark street and appeared again becalmed in the first streetlight’s cone. I exhaled. I looked up. Distant over the street, the night sky was moonless and foreign, a frail, bottomless black, and the cold stars speckled it without moving.”
By such bladed turns back into her own mind, this live wire tells about waking to baseball, boys, books, science, and snowballs. To be alive, she says, is to stand under a waterfall. “You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it….Can you breathe here?” Yes, she answers, “you can breathe even here.” You could learn to live this way, to live under the rush.
In 1988 Dillard and Clevidence divorced, and Dillard married Robert Richardson, a professor, scholar, and author of well-received biographies of Thoreau (1986) and Emerson (1995). In 1989 she published The Writing Life, a book she repudiates except for the last chapter, the true story of stunt pilot Dave Rahm. The piece spirals and dives in a narrative flight that is both heart-stopping and metaphorical; any good writer is a stunt pilot. The reviewer for the New York Times liked the part about the stunt pilot, commented that there were many such bits, then concluded, “unfortunately, the bits do not add up to a book.”
In 1992, Dillard published her first novel, The Living. An earlier version, a long short story of the same title, appeared in Harper’s in 1978. She rewrote it as a novel. Then, in 1994 she rewrote the original story for The Annie Dillard Reader. Set in the Pacific Northwest in the later half of the nineteenth century, The Living is about the lives of three generations of pioneers and settlers of the region around Bellingham Bay. Reviewing the book for the New York Times, Thomas Keneally noted Dillard’s “tremendous gift for writing in a genuinely epic mode.” The book’s vast canvas takes in the sea-coast, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, the Indians, the farms, the logging, the Chinese, the coming of the railroads, the boom times, the growing towns, and the labor troubles.
The first settlers come by ship in 1855 “to the rough edge of the world, where the trees came smack down to the stones….as if the corner of the continent had got torn off right here, sometime near yesterday, and the dark trees kept on growing like nothing happened.” The reader follows the lives of a group of settlers and their children from 1855 to 1897. Some survive everything the wilderness can throw at them, while others die arbitrary, hard, and sudden deaths.
Dillard wrote The Living during the boom times of the 1990s. The main action of the novel takes place in 1893, during those earlier boom times. The dominant figure –one much praised by critics-- is the antagonist, Beal Obenchain, a dark, original character driven by unfathomable malignity. Obenchain is a crazed, cruel man, a swollen distended intellectual who draws up poison from books. He lives alone inside the stump of what had been a huge Douglas fir. The protagonist is Clare Fishburn, whose name suggests ‘clear Christ aflame,’ a young man of enormous decency who was once a teacher of Obenchain’s. Obenchain decides to threaten to kill Fishburn. His idea is not actually to kill the man, but to watch how Fishburn lives under the threat of imminent death. Obenchain is widely known to be both crazy and lethal. He once tied a Chinese man to a piling at low tide, leaving him with a lighted lamp by which to watch the rising of the tide that would drown him. Walking on the mudflats by Bellingham Bay, Obenchain enjoys the interesting possibilities of not killing, but threatening to kill, Fishburn. “You tell a man his life is in your hands, and, miraculously, his life is in your hands. You own him insofar as he believes you. You own him as God owns a man, to the degree of his faith.”
Fishburn is a family man who would do a favor for anyone; he hates anything fussy; “he enjoyed enjoyment, he sought deeds and found tasks, he was a giant in joy, racing and thoughtless, suggestible, a bountiful child.” Readers follow this man and his wife,-- since Fishburn confides in her that he is going to be killed—living in the face of death. This contrast of Fishburn’s life and imminent death creates a gripping narrative focussed on the natural world and on Fishburn’s loved ones. Because Fishburn expects death, he each day observes the natural world with a sense that it will be his last vision of the place. The result of living this way is for Fishburn an awakened life.
Fishburn constantly chooses life in the face of death, and Obenchain grows more angry and hateful toward this man “in his control.” Ultimately Obenchain exerts his “control” one more time. He arranges to meet Fishburn and tell him he is NOT going to be killed. Clare, crossing a trestle to meet Obenchain, expects his death and sees his life “burrowing in the light upstream.” Even as the earth is plowing men and horses under, no generation sees it happening, and the broken fields grow up forgetting. Fishburn’s response is the climactic realization of life in death. He rejects Obenchain’s reprieve. Of course he is going to die. That is what it means to be among the living, Fishburn now knows. Nothing, certainly not Obenchain, can take this treasure from him. “All the living were breasting into the crest of the present together. All men and women and children ran up a field as wide as earth, opening time like a path in the grass, and he was borne along with them. No, he said, peeling the light back, walking in the sky toward home; no.”
Obenchain meets a gruesome, satisfying end. At the close of The Living, it is the next generation, Hugh Honer and his sweetheart Vinnie, who are the nephew and niece of Clare Fishburn and his wife , who carry on the living, who work, sail, study medicine, build fires on the beach, hear about the Yukon gold strike, and go for a midnight swim. Hugh Honer climbs many rungs up an old fir tree to a platform high above a pond. A huge old thick rope hangs higher up yet and serves as a swing. The platform is crowded with dark forms, the pond is invisible below. Hugh grabs the rope and launches out. “As he swung through the air, trembling, he saw the blackness give way below, like a parting of clouds, to a deep patch of stars on the ground. It was the pond, he hoped, the hole in the woods reflecting the sky. He judged the instant and let go; he flung himself loose into the stars.”
The Living demonstrates Dillard’s ability to use the physical scientific perspective of the nature writer and the visionary eye of the Romantic writer to convey the consummate human journey “toward the light upstream.” Fishburn, like the narrator of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, faces upstream to the unknown future where the “wave explodes over my head…the live water and light” from “undisclosed sources” bringing renewed “world without end.”
The critic Barbara Lounsberry has observed that “the majority of reviewers agreed with Clif Mason, who, in Western American Literature (Spring 1993) called the novel the intellectual and stylistic culmination of Dillard’s career.” Both New York Times critics praised her characters as did Booklist, Newsweek, Publisher’s Weekly, the Antioch Review and the Nation. But Louise Sweeney for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and the Atlantic found them flat. David Plante in the Yale Review found its plot wrecked its second half; other readers found only the second half alive. The Living continues to have a following in Canada and France as well as the USA who regard it as a major contribution to the literature of North America.
In 1994, Dillard published The Annie Dillard Reader, in which she made some minor changes to “Living Like Weasels,” rewrote the short story “The Living” into a novella, made very slight alterations to Holy the Firm, and first published some of the found poems that would later appear in the volume titled Mornings Like This, which was published the following year, 1995. The Reader was also the first and only Dillard volume to collect her piece “The Book of Luke.” In 1998 and 1999 Dillard issued, under the imprint HarperPerennial, new and slightly revised editions of several of her books. To The Living she added a cast of characters with birth and death dates, and she shortened the opening. She made changes to The Writing Life. She altered Holy the Firm slightly, changing the three part’s subheads to to clarify her intentions.
In the late 1990s Dillard taught less and less; she and her husband spent more and more time in Key West, Florida. They still spent summers on Cape Cod, but they also spent more time in the South, some of it in North Carolina, but most of it in Key West.. Dillard left Wesleyan in 1998 after 21 years. That same year she published For the Time Being. Critic Ira Levin of the Toronto Globe and Mail was the first to notice that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, and For the Time Being form a trilogy of narratives about natural evil.
For the Time Being shows a wild mix of things: a visit to Israel, the life of a French paleontologist in the Gobi Desert, a series of Hasidic thinkers, science, gags, and journalism – which, as a reader progresses through seven short chapters, depict a single broad view of who we, as individuals are, and where. Its form, which grows organically from its material, is not comparable to any previous book of hers. From these disparate materials Dillard has welded an austere, funny, intellectually compelling book. Other writers consider it her best book. It is made up of a storm of mostly nonfiction narratives, like notes found in bottles washed up on the last beach of the twentieth century. For The Time Being sounds, in different places, like Ecclesiastes, like the Bal Shem Tov, like Simone Weils’ notebooks, like a space age version of Wind, Sand, and Stars, like a modernist Upanishad or a post-modern Anatomy of Melancholy. Dillard’s knife cuts close, following bone. “We live on mined land. Nature itself is a laid trap. No one makes it through; no one gets out. You and I will likely die of heart disease.” Another bit begins “Los Angeles airport has twenty-five thousand parking spaces. This is about one space for every person who died in 1985 in Colombia when a volcano erupted. This is one space each for two years worth of accidental killings from land mines left over from recent wars. At five to a car, almost all the Inuit in the world could park at LAX.” Ira Levin praised Dillard’s “sharing her expansive mind, with all its tomes and texts and memories and thoughts, and sharing her capacious heart.” Boston’s Michael Gross noted the book’s “balance of love and horror” and, like many other critics, noted her fearlessness.
Dillard binds this book together by her ambition to write a book about the human condition. What propels it from one page to the next is the prose Dillard has been perfecting for thirty years. She uses as high a proportion of verbs as any writer in English, as many as Samuel Johnson -- a full twenty percent. She almost never uses the passive voice. Finding a few passive constructions in An American Childhood, she forbade herself their use entirely after that book. She has said that what she looks for in student writing is any two words together she has never seen together. Her own readers must be able to get from Meister Eckhardt to LAX without a map. Her sentences stay relentlessly in the senses, avoiding abstraction and “theory”as one avoids cholera. When someone asked her if he could “be a writer,” she replied “Do you like sentences?”
In For The Time Being Dillard throws everything, including a hospital sink, into her own paleontological search. “”Spiritual path” is the hilarious popular term for these night -blind mesas and flayed hills in which people grope, for decades on end, with the goal of knowing the absolute. They discover others spread under the stars and encamped here and there by watch fires, in groups or alone, in the open landscape. They stop for a sleep, or for several years, and move along without knowing toward what or why….They don’t quit. They stick with it. Year after year they find themselves still feeling with their fingers for lumps in the dark.” The reviewer for the New York Times confessed to being uninterested in both religion and nature and, naturally, panned the book. Other reviewers found it “intense and humane” and “a dazzling triumph.” At the very beginning of the book, Dillard quotes Evan S. Connell, Jr. “The legend of the Traveller appears in every civilization, perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers and symbols.” Once driving with a companion through Connecticut, Dillard drove under an old stone railroad bridge. On one side was painted “Jesus is Lord.” On the other side was painted “Rock till you drop.” She said, “my philosophy in a nutshell.”
All of Annie Dillard’s books have been in print without a break since they were first published. Most have been translated into French, German, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. They have been published in England. Three of her works appear on four different lists of the twentieth century’s best American books. They have, at this writing, won the Pulitzer Prize (1975, general nonfiction), twice the Coindreau (a French prize for the best book translated into French), an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Guggenheim and NEA fellowships. Her work has been set to music in a dozen different forms; it has been interpreted in plays, operas, and in innumerable paintings and sculptures. She has never appeared on television or allowed herself or her work to be filmed. Her books, she says, are literature or they are nothing. Buckminster Fuller said some time ago that her writing “archingly transcends all other writers of our day in all the simple intimate and beautiful ways of the natural master.” Almost thirty years after Pilgrim at Tinker Creek her reputation has grown to the point where a permanent place in the front rank of American literature seems assured.
Copyright © 2019, Annie Dillard. All Rights Reserved.