This profile appeared as the installment of my Nature’s Bookshelf column in Volume 8 Issue 6 of Hellbender Press (November/December, 2006), Knoxville, Tennessee. The publication was named for a large species of salamander (The Hellbender), native to the American southeast, and has since ceased publication.
Henry David Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately and was largely ignored as an author by his own generation. Unlike Thoreau, Annie Dillard lived in a cabin on Tinker Creek and emerged a Pulitzer Prize winning author. Although Dillard has been compared to Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists, many reviewers see her as more similar to Melville.
Many natural history writers concern themselves with the how – the great question of all science. Dillard is concerned with why, a question more at home in theology than in science. She comments in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that some people extol the thriftiness of nature where the leaves of trees are recycled into soil to grow more plants. She then asks if it wouldn’t be more efficient to keep the leaves on the trees in the first place.
Dillard is horrified at the wastefulness of nature. She notes that many insects lay thousands of eggs, only to have most of them eaten, sometimes by the parent. She compares this scheme to a railroad company building thousands of locomotives and turning them loose on a section of track that can accommodate only three. At the end of their experiment, the company would learn that only three locomotives were necessary. She imagines a board of directors chastising their managers for running the company in such a wasteful way. She then states that nature is wasteful in exactly such a manner.
Although this line of thought seems to put Dillard outside the mainstream of nature writers, she is in fact a keen observer of the natural world. Early in the pages of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek she sees a frog skin shrivel in the grasp of a predacious diving beetle. She observes a shed snake skin with a knot in it, a creek overflowing its banks and flooding the neighborhood, and a praying mantis laying eggs. She augments these observations with remembrances of her childhood experiences. She recalls viewing pond life through a microscope, and watching a moth hatch inside a glass jar.
In Holy the Firm Dillard continues her metaphysical probing. She asks what the relationship is between the temporal and the eternal. In the first chapter, she seems to be echoing the statements of Saint Francis of Assisi, who said “Praised be You our Lord through mother earth who governs and sustains us.” In the second chapter a child is badly burned in an airplane accident, and Dillard wrestles with the eternal question as to why the innocent suffer. She seems to receive the very answer received by the Old Testament character, Job. The answer is that suffering is part of the world and that we are too small and insignificant in view of the beauty and vastness of the universe to question its nature.
After publishing one book each in the genres of literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and memoir, Dillard returns to the narrative nonfiction style in her 1999 book, For the Time Being. Here she records travels in China and Israel. She observes Chinese peasants working in a field and a crab digging for water near a Kibbutz. She describes clouds and a tsunami off the coast of Bangladesh. She describes the extraordinary lives of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Tielhard de Chardin and the Ukrainian Hasidic Rabbi Baal Shem Tov. She continues to ask why suffering is part of the human condition, and why evil exists.
Aside from her many books, Dillard has published several poems and short works of fiction and nonfiction in periodicals. These are listed on her official web site, http://www.anniedillard.com. The site also includes a list of derivative works: paintings, music, and one act plays carried out by others but inspired by her work. Most of these are derived from Holy the Firm.
Dillard’s writing style is perhaps best illustrated by a selection from the first chapter of Holy the Firm. She had been reading by candle light one night when a moth, drawn to the light, got caught in the wax at the top of her candle. It was gone before she could respond. The following passage is a hallmark of observation and narrative:
“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 saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The month’s head was fire. She burned for two hours until I blew her out.
She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning – only glowing within, like a building 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 in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.”
Sidebar – Dillard’s Published Works
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel - Poems
University of Missouri Press, 1974
Several poems have titles indicating natural history, but are actually metaphysical. The title poem is an invitation for the eternal to break into the temporal.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Nonfiction Narrative
Harpers Magazine Press, 1974
Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction
This book received mixed reviews when it was released. Eudora Welty, the great Southern writer, said that she was uncertain of Dillard’s intent and that the writing left something to be desired. A portion of her review, and segments from other reviews, are available in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 3 (Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan).
Holy the Firm – Meditations
Harper and Row 1977
In this work she asked what relationship the temporal has to the eternal. She then asks why the innocent must suffer.
Living by Fiction – Literary Criticism
Harper and Row, 1982
This book is a technical work primarily useful to graduate students in university literature programs.
Teaching a Stone to Talk – A Collection of Essays
Harper and Row 1982
This book includes essays on natural history and metaphysics. The essay on the Galapagos Islands is an excellent investigation into creation and evolution.
Encounters with Chinese Writers – Journalism
Wesleyan University Press, 1984
The author identifies this work as jolly journalism.
An American Childhood – Memoir
Harper and Row, 1987
The author tells her own story.
The Writing Life – Narrative Nonfiction
Harper and Row 1989
This book includes some practical tips for writers. The author advises writers to edit ruthlessly and to throw out unnecessary prose, even if it is that on which they worked hardest. Several chapters appeared previously as essays in periodicals.
The Living – A Novel
Harper Collins, 1992
This fictional work is set on Bellingham Bay in Washington State.
The Annie Dillard Reader – Selected Reprints
Harper Collins, 1994
Mornings Like This – Found Poems
Harper Collins, 1995
Dillard mined old books on natural history, theology, and navigation for these lines. They are rearranged into poems. The meaning of the poems is far different from that of the original text.
For the Time Being –Narrative
After working in several other genres, Dillard returned to the nonfiction narrative for this book. The author weaves several themes together into a unified whole. The book includes narratives on birth, death, the nature of evil and current events. She includes stories of the Jesuit Palentoligist Teilhard de Chardin and the Hasidic Rabbi Baal Shem Tov who expressed religious fervor by dancing.