Nature girl

For all her words about shrews and muskrats, at heart Annie Dillard's work is a record of her search for God.

Published March 9, 1999 12:34PM (EST)

Annie Dillard is nature girl. A bookworm. A Hasidic Christian. An erudite eccentric. One of the most coldblooded horror writers of the 20th century. She may also be out of her mind.
Most readers think of Annie "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" Dillard as a nature writer à la Thoreau, although historian Don Scheese points out that Tinker Creek has never been on the "American roster of sacred places to visit" like Walden Pond. Dillard's body of water is too Gothic and psychedelic. "You cannot have mountains and creeks without space," she wrote. "And space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death." Dillard's personifications baffled poor Eudora Welty, who wrote in the New York Times, "I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times."
Ah, but the crazy are always misunderstood. Dillard, born Annie Doak in 1945 in Pittsburgh, was merely a result of the eccentric bloodlines she was born from. Her father, who was financially comfortable from American Standard family money, once quit his job to float down the Mississippi like Mark Twain, while Dillard's mother was a "card" who would accost strange men in zoos and claim to be their ex-girlfriend, implying Annie was their illegitimate daughter. Dillard herself had a Salingeresque childhood studying her own pee under a microscope and reading Augustine's "Confessions." As a teen, her vices were cigarettes (she got kicked out of school for smoking) and drag racing (a practice that led to a date in juvenile court). In the early 1960s, Dillard was shipped down South like other "troubled" girls to Hollins College in Virginia. She married her writing teacher, R.H.W. Dillard -- 10 years her senior -- when she was just a sophomore. She credits R.H.W. with influencing her sense of aesthetics. He was also a connoisseur of horror films and likely responsible for Dillard's monster-movie view of nature, such as "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek's" bloodcurdlingly poetic descriptions of a frog being sucked dry by a water bug, as well as her meditations on the fatal sex life of the male praying mantis.
The book itself may or may not have been started in the early 1970s because she was bored with her marriage. Or because she had stopped smoking. In one interview she says an almost fatal bout of pneumonia is responsible -- she became "scared of everything, I couldn't sleep nights."
"Pilgrim" started as a third-person novel about a male metaphysician in Maine. Then Dillard switched to the first-person masculine voice and reset the story in Virginia. Finally, she abandoned the fictional format and used four
years of journals to fashion "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." It was published
in 1974, several months after her first book of poems, "Tickets for a Prayer
Her poetry was ignored. "Pilgrim" wasn't. Eudora Welty may have had misgivings about Dillard's "Death dog," but "A reader's heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled," the older woman
wrote. The Washington Post called Dillard a "Southern Sibyl" and speculated
that "West Coast hipsters" felt she was a "female Castaneda ... smoking mandrake roots." Later the next year, Dillard was washing lettuce in her kitchen when an unidentified man phoned to tell her that she'd won the Pulitzer Prize. "Don't you realize you'll never have to wash lettuce again?" the stupid fellow asked.

Dillard didn't let the Pulitzer go to her head, speculating to a New York
Times reporter that maybe her success was due to her long yellow hair and
"beautiful legs." Dillard left her husband that year but kept his last
name. She took her beautiful legs to Puget Sound in Washington to teach at a
university "so there'd be someone who'd notice if I died in my sleep."
If "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" was influenced by vampire films,
Dillard's next book, the slim, 76-page "Holy the Firm" (1978), was
influenced by the French horror cult flick "Eyes Without a Face," directed by
Georges Franju. In exquisite, but horrifyingly blunt prose, Dillard's
"Holy the Firm" meditated on the plight of a small girl whose face had been burned
off by a gob of fiery airplane fuel. "Little Julie with her eyes naked and
spherical baffled. Can you scream without lips? Yes. But do children in long
pain scream?"

This horror story was dedicated to Gary Clevidence, Dillard's anthropology
professor/lover. In 1980, the two married and moved east, where Dillard began
teaching at Wesleyan University. They lived on Cape Cod from May through
October, working in little writing huts out behind their house,
named "Old Plum." During the next 12 years, the hut-bound Dillard
produced a memoir, a novel and several books about writing. In 1982, a
collection of miscellaneous nature/horror essays, "Teaching a Stone to
Talk," was published. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wondered in the New York
Times if Dillard dwelled on the horror in nature because she wanted to
"spook" us.

That same year, Dillard trained her cold eye to Borges/Nabokov-style prose in "Living by Fiction." Most critics figured the book was pro-modernist, yet
Dillard referred to it as a "horrible dull book that I never should
have published" that said "good-bye to new-fashioned fiction." Six years
later, Dillard's "love me, love my exploding typewriter" account of her
profession, "The Writing Life," was published. The Nation suggested that
Dillard was reduced to "navel-gazing" because the "epiphanies" no longer came.

Between those two unfortunate books, Dillard gave birth to her first daughter, Cody Rose, in 1984, which compelled the author to complete her splendid memoir, "An American Childhood," in 1987. Unlike the 1990s "I fucked my daddy"
memoirists, Dillard deliberately did not "kiss and tell" about the boys she
drag-raced with. "It's not ladylike. It's not proper," she told the
Washington Post's deliciously named Charles Trueheart. Even though Dillard
gave her family the right to edit the manuscript, her mother complained to
People, "There's a bit of vomit in [the book]." Adding, "Annie loves us
very dearly, but she doesn't particularly like us."

The year the book came out, a curious report came from Connecticut that Dillard's yellow Plymouth had turned 20 and that she held a "small ceremony" to note the occasion. Sometime after the ceremony, she separated from her husband, marrying writer Robert Richardson Jr. on Dec. 11, 1988. She met the fellow after sending him a mash note about his biography of Thoreau. Dillard insisted to writer Mary Cantwell that she and her husband did not sleep together before marriage -- instead they had "two lunches and three handshakes." Dillard never reported at what point during the lunches they shook.

By 1989, Harper and Row gracefully reprinted the dust jacket of "The Writing
Life" to the alleged tune of $10,000 because Dillard objected to being
described as a mere writer of "essays." She also brooded about authoring a "big
book," writing in the New York Times Book Review "It is no less
difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in 'Moby Dick.' So you
might as well write 'Moby Dick.'"

In 1992, her "Moby Dick," "The Living," came out. "The most obvious thing
to say about [this] splendid solid novel ... is that it could have more easily
been called 'The Dead,'" started one review. In it, Dillard
described humans burning, drowning and dying of disease with as much splendid
minutiae-ridden prose as she had previously unleashed on murdered frogs in
"Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," writing, "Human bodies were thin-skinned
parcels out of which the force of life leaks at a prick."

For the rest of the 1990s, Dillard treaded water artistically,
publishing a volume of found poetry and editing her best book into a reader.
Now, as the millennium looms, Dillard has returned to her favorite subjects:
God, antiquity and the endless terror of nature. "For the Time
Being" is a disjointed but brilliant book that reveals the Protestant-born
Dillard's Hasidic nature. "I grew up certain I was Jewish," she once told
Women's Wear Daily. She told People that she was a Hasidic
Christian. In this new work, Dillard uses Jewish holy books to sum up God more
succinctly than she ever has before. The Talmud reports that God, himself, prays. Yes. The omnipotent one, responsible both for perfect snowflakes and lobbing gobs of gasoline in children's faces, apparently prays: "May it be my will that my mercy overcome my anger."

Finally, for all Dillard's words about shrews and muskrats, at heart her work is an accounting of a Pittsburgh girl's search for God. In 1992,
Dillard made an amazing admission to Mary Cantwell in the New York Times
Magazine, saying that she spent the night "crying uncontrollably" over
Cantwell's questions about the writer's faith. "Just because I'm religious
doesn't mean I'm insane," Dillard insisted.

In America, if a woman has to publicly claim, "I'm not insane," it pretty much means the opposite. The great question in Dillard's case is whether it is the quest for God that made her so intense. Or whether in her arrogance she mistook her hereditarian drag-racing craziness as evidence of holy
omnipotence. Neither answer diminishes the power of Dillard's many important
books and, yes, essays.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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