Annie Dillard

(b. 1945)

Annie Dillard has carved a unique place for herself in American literature. She has written essays, a memoir, poetry, and a novel. In every genre, she distinguishes herself with carefully crafted language and keen observations.

Annie (Meta Ann Doak) Dillard was born April 30, 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her memoir An American Childhood chronicles her early years of collecting insects, playing baseball, and reading—especially her favorite book, The Field Book of Ponds and Streams. She used her fertile imagination to "see" what is not observable—a notion that has become a common theme in her writing.

Dillard left home at the age of 17 to attend Hollins College. She fell in love with her professor of creative writing, Richard H. W. Dillard, marrying him at the end of her sophomore year. She continued her education, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1967 and receiving her master's degree in English in 1968. She was involved in an anti-poverty program, spent time painting, and developed an insatiable appetite for reading.

Dillard wrote a column for the Wilderness Society in The Living Wilderness from 1973 to 1975 and was a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine from 1973 to 1985. She wrote a book of poetry, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, published in 1974.

In 1971, Dillard almost died of pneumonia. After this experience, she decided she needed to do more than read about life—she needed to experience it firsthand. She began taking extended camping trips, spending most of the day observing nature and most of the evenings reading or writing. One result was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a personal narrative focusing on the paradox of beauty and violence existing side by side in the natural world.

The book was an instant success. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, Dillard, with only one other book to her name, suddenly became a well-known writer at the age of 29.

Uncomfortable with the acclaim and in the middle of a divorce, Dillard moved to Washington State to become scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University in Bellingham. There, she met an anthropologist, Gary Clevidence, whom she married in 1980. The couple moved to Middletown, Connecticut, where Dillard began teaching at Wesleyan University. After the birth of their daughter Rosie (Cody Rose), Dillard began writing about her own childhood in An American Childhood.

During the years between Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood, Dillard wrote three nonfiction works: Holy the Firm, Living by Fiction, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. The Writing Life was published in 1989, and her first novel, The Living, came out in 1992. Dillard continues to spend a great deal of time reading, writing, and teaching literature and writing.

"I am no scientist," writes Dillard, "but a poet and a walker with a background in theology and a penchant for quirky facts." In fact, many poets and other writers like Dillard have been people who "see a world in a grain of sand/and a heaven in a wild flower" (William Blake) and help others to see this world through their writing. Such writers are often able to see lessons about life, religion, beauty, goodness, and love through nature.

Many critics have compared Dillard to Henry David Thoreau, who also left the comfort of home to live close to nature. In the woods near Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote his thoughts about nature and mankind. Like his friend and contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he believed that the natural world reflects the human spirit and can help mankind understand himself, his place in the universe, and universal truths.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Gene Stratton Porter were popular writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who wrote about nature on the American frontier. A host of poets—from Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Ina Coolbrith to modern poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, and Elizabeth Coatsworth—have expressed their poetic insights on nature.

Recently, many nature writers have also voiced their concerns about mankind's abuse of the earth. Rachel Carson in Silent Spring was one of the first to raise the environmental consciousness of her readers. Others include Wallace Stegner, Loren Eiseley, and Mary Austin.