Dillard, Annie (b. 1945)

  • By Paul Lindholdt
  • Posted 4/10/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20537
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Place has primacy in the writing of Annie Dillard, and the history and geography of Washington figure notably in several of her books. Even though she resided only four years in the state, two of those books are set entirely in Washington -- Holy the Firm (1977) and The Living (1992) -- as are portions of Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982) and The Writing Life (1989). Her Washington settings are chiefly Bellingham in Whatcom County and Waldron Island in San Juan County. Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1975 and moved to Bellingham that year. She taught until 1979 as writer-in-residence at Western Washington University and Fairhaven College.

Family and Early Years

Annie Dillard was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as Meta Ann Doak. Her paternal great-great-grandfather Theodore Ahrens, German by ancestry, founded American Standard Corporation in 1848. Annie and her sister consequently enjoyed a life of privilege and comfort. Her father, Frank Doak, was an only child. He quit his position in the family business and sold his interest in 1955 when Annie was 10. That footloose father, a fan of jazz music and Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road, set off on his 24-foot cabin cruiser down the Mississippi River. He intended to go all the way New Orleans, but he made it only as far as Louisville, Kentucky. Annie's mother, Pam Doak, a homemaker and a collector of contemporary art, was active in social causes and liberal political campaigns. The family was fun-loving and free-spirited, at least as far as Dillard's memoir An American Childhood (1987) depicts them.

Given leisure to pursue her intellectual curiosities as a child, the slender, towheaded Annie collected bugs and rocks, peered through microscopes and telescopes, and read books prodigiously. From an early age her favorite focus was human consciousness. She grew fascinated with how perception develops, how we individuate ourselves in our families and communities. She made grids of her neighborhood and traced excursions through them. She wrote poetry, she sketched with concentration and discipline, she excelled in badminton and softball and tennis. She investigated those floating dark specks that appear in our vision and discovered they are named muscae volitantes (literally, "flying flies") and are created by vitreous liquid within the eyes. In the books that she began writing and winning awards for in her twenties, the act of seeing became key. In the Presbyterian church she learned early that she had an affinity for religious matters, a penchant that would inform all her books. Contrary to the eccentricity and liberality of her parents, she enrolled in the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, a staid preparatory academy for girls.

In her early teens, according to her own report, she discovered she was an angry adolescent. "I morally disapproved most things in North America, and blamed my innocent parents for them," she wrote in An American Childhood (67). She rebelled openly against the social conventions that dictated respectable behaviors for girls of prestigious upbringing like herself. She flagrantly dated inappropriate boys, partook in drag races, and began to smoke. (That habit intensified as she matured and continued into her late middle age.) Suspended from school for the habit, she baffled and frustrated her parents, who advocated for a ladylike college education in the South.

College Years

The colleges she chose to visit included Hollins, Randolph-Macon Women's, and Sweet Briar. All three are elite, private, and located in Virginia. Her headmistress at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh was an alumna of Hollins who recommended it to her parents as an institution that would smooth the "rough edges" of problem children (Parrish, 129). The oldest chartered women's college in the state, Hollins was also one of the first colleges in the nation to establish a creative writing program, founded in 1957 by Louis D. Rubin Jr. Annie was drawn further when she learned that William Golding, author of the dystopic novel Lord of the Flies, was its writer-in-residence. She had decided by 1962 to become a writer. As for her rough edges, she wrote, she "had hopes" for them: "I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world's surface, and exit through it" (An American Childhood, 243). Mentored by professors who excelled at fine writing and admired it, Annie Doak prospered intellectually. She wrote a regular column, "Out of My Mind," for the student newspaper. She used the column as a forum to criticize the college administration for its overly restrictive rules for female behavior (Parrish, 131-32).

On June 5, 1965, as a 20-year-old sophomore, Annie Doak married her creative-writing professor, Richard Dillard. He was then 26 years old. Their marriage proved to be cerebral, intense, and at the same time rebellious in that it defied family expectations and the proprieties of women's colleges. By all accounts the marriage soothed her contrary streak, though. She began to write and study seriously. She finished her B.A. in 1967 and her M.A. in 1968 with a thesis on Henry David Thoreau. Afterward she read and painted, penned poetry and fiction, all while working on her breakout book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a narrative testimony of a year observing nature and speculating metaphysically. When it won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, Dillard's life changed forever. The publicity following the award proved difficult to handle.

A Sojourn in the West

Overwhelmed with offers to speak, to appear on TV, to judge contests, and to grant interviews, Dillard lacked the privacy she needed to keep writing and to maintain the discipline, the practice, and the artistic momentum she had spent years developing. All the media proved distracting, and her habit of cloistered concentration fell away. It became clear she was a cultural peculiarity, not just because she as a woman had won the nation's highest literary prize, but because the press was showcasing her as a woman whose attractiveness virtually upstaged her talent. To find herself a commodity proved repellent and undignified. In one tabloid, she was posed peeping from behind trees for a photo spread. Afterward, some writers and students ridiculed the exploitation as "Cheesecake at Tinker Creek" (Lindholdt recollections). Annie Dillard came to regard the spectacle of her celebrity with revulsion and dismay. She yearned for a change of scene.

In part to avoid the limelight, the same year that she won the prize Dillard moved to Bellingham in Northwest Washington. She also divorced her husband. In Bellingham she settled into a routine of writing and teaching. As writer-in-residence at Western Washington College (later University) and Fairhaven College, her national stature often filled classrooms to overflowing. Teaching exclusively undergraduate classes in creative writing, she admitted a few graduate students to private seminars and directed studies. By turns disorganized and inspiring, prickly and brilliant, as a teacher, she chain-smoked in class and led discussions on topics such the nature of evil. She required her students to foot-stomp aloud the meter of favorite poems, including "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. She asked her students to pledge an allegiance as writers. Her Spartan office held an ashtray, legal pad, pencil, bag of chocolates, and a bedroom pillow to cushion her on an oaken desk chair.

In 1976 Dillard married Fairhaven College anthropology professor Gary Clevidence. The pair divided their time between Bellingham and nearby Waldron and Lummi islands. Island life proved suitable for Dillard to gain the space away from obligations that impeded her focus on her craft. She wrote and published a short poetic narrative, Holy the Firm, that focuses on evil and commitment and pain. She researched the history of the region and in 1978 published in Harper's magazine "The Living," a story set in the late nineteenth century in what is now Whatcom County. That story would eventually develop into a long saga of novel with the same title that appeared in 1992.

A Productive Life

Dillard left Washington in 1979, returning for visits between stints at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Her one child, Cody Rose, was born in Connecticut in 1984. She and Clevidence remained married until 1988, the same year that she wed Bancroft Prize-winning biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. The two had met after she penned him a fan letter in praise of his book Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Dillard served as an adjunct professor at Wesleyan until she retired from teaching in 2001.

In 1996 her wariness of the limelight deepened after she made a confession at a conference in Florida. She admitted that the arresting scene featuring a fighting tomcat that opens Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had been appropriated with permission from a graduate student at Hollins College. "After all," Dillard had written in a 1972 journal entry while composing the book, "we've had the nonfiction novel -- it's time for the novelized book of nonfiction" (Saverin). Some purists of the nonfiction genre reacted with disapproval to the disclosure, their reactions sending waves through creative-writing communities. Having retreated from the limelight for two decades, Dillard found the limelight again unfriendly. Subsequent to that event, she retired from teaching and grew increasingly reclusive and removed.

Over the course of her varied career, Annie Dillard steadily produced a series of books that continue to enhance her reputation as a unique voice in American literature. Her last full-length work was published in 2007. Since that time her silence baffled her critics, reviewers, and fans. That silence was attributable to poor health. Her official website, as accessed in April 2018, opened with a statement offering an indirect explanation: "I can no longer travel, can't meet with strangers, can't sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can't write by request, and can't answer letters" (Annie Dillard website). She and husband Robert Richardson, by then also retired, had homes in Florida and Massachusetts.

Here follow descriptions of Annie Dillard's several books that are set entirely or partially in Washington.

Holy the Firm (1977)

Set on Waldron Island, Holy the Firm is the first book written after Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize. It is her favorite book, also her most experimental and difficult to read. Penned on a legal pad as a 43-page manuscript, the published book itself is a mere 76 pages. Scholars classify it as a theodicy: a vindication of divine justice to allow for physical and moral evil. Initially Dillard could not decide whether to structure Holy the Firm as poetry or prose; she had previously published a book of poetry, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, in 1974. Holy the Firm ultimately became a prose work of narrative testimony and poetic symbolism. At its core is the story of a young girl Dillard knew -- identified by the pseudonym Julie Norwich -- whose face was disfigured by fire after they met. Julie's fate, portended by a moth that plunges into the wax of the narrator's burning candle at a campsite, is to become "a flame-faced virgin gone to God" (17). Holy the Firm divides into three sections: "Newborn and Salted," "God's Tooth," and "Holy the Firm."

One sequence in Holy the Firm was broken out and published as a standalone essay titled "The Death of the Moth." That essay has been reprinted widely in anthologies and adopted in literature and writing classes. Set on an unnamed island in Puget Sound, the essay integrates a flashback to a moth attracted by a candle's flame; the moth dove into the wet wax. The death of the moth triggers an extended meditation on sacrifice and devotion to the writing life. In context in the book Holy the Firm, the moth event presages the injury of Julie Norwich. Both events are framed by the element of fire.

Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982)

The essay "A Field of Silence" from this collection, set on Waldron Island, is one of the many revelations that qualify Dillard as a mystic or natural theologian for some readers. In the essay she lives on a farm in relative isolation. Her reclusiveness or solitude contributes to a mystical vision when she witnesses angels whirling three or four feet above the ground. The angels are whirling clockwise. The whirling-angels vision recalls the baptism of Christ on the beach that she reports, all credulously, in Holy the Firm. Those angels also recall the tree with lights that she witnesses in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a sight that alludes in turn to the Bible's burning bush.

Another Washington-based essay in Teaching a Stone to Talk, one that readers deem to be among of the century's best, is the most frequently anthologized narrative in the collection. Titled "Total Eclipse," it centers on a solar eclipse that took place on February 26, 1979. Dillard travels with then-husband Gary Clevidence from Bellingham to the Yakima Valley to get in the path of totality. The moment the moon blots the sun, the narrator endures a heightened visionary experience that extends for hundreds of words, a vision compounded by images of antiquity and death. The imagery of antiquity draws upon Stonehenge and the sun that inspired the construction of Stonehenge. The imagery of death builds upon scientific knowledge about how planetary life would lapse in the absence of the nurturing sun. Notes of the sublime, an aesthetic compounded of awe and terror, infuse this widely acclaimed essay.

The Writing Life (1989)

This book of seven chapters is less a how-to manual than a compilation of figurative accounts of the writing process. As is usual in her work, Dillard places herself front and center as a devoted and even obsessive advocate for the writing craft. Her three husbands have all been writers and academics, and the book is dedicated "For Bob," for Robert Richardson that is, whom she had married just the year before. Those portions of the book that focus on Washington are short anecdotes of island life, its rigors, distractions, and the lessons that solitude taught her.

People play a larger part in this book than in most of Dillard's other nonfiction works. People on Lummi and Waldron islands befriend her. One is the late painter Paul Glenn, who taught art at Fairhaven College. Another is her graduate student Charlie Butts, whose idiosyncratic writing habits fascinated her. Other people, her neighbors, helped her learn to chop wood, took her flying in an airplane, and acquainted her with patterns of the tides -- all of which are made to bear the weight of analogies of the writing process as she encountered it.

The Living (1992)

This straightforward work of fiction is the first of Dillard's two novels. A sprawling nineteenth-century pioneer epic, it is set in four separate communities that later fused to become Bellingham. Her cast of dozens of characters includes those of European, Nooksack, Skagit, Lummi, and Chinese heritage. The book begins in 1855 when immigrants Ada and Rooney Fishburn carve out a farm and begin to witness the run-amok land speculation that later overtakes the place. John Ireland Sharp, a school principal, loses his youthful idealism when fellow socialists drive Chinese laborers out. Beal Obenchain, who lives as a recluse in a cedar stump, murders a Chinese immigrant for no explicable reason. Afterward, he dangles the threat of death above a fellow townsman.

Assiduously researched regional history enriches the tales of these families across more than 400 pages. We learn about the felling of trees by burning their roots, hop farming using stumps as trellises, hazardous logjams on the Nooksack River, and the hope that James J. Hill (1838-1916) might locate the terminus of his transcontinental railway in Whatcom County instead of Seattle. Such details impart realistic tension to the evolution of Washington through 42 years of plotline. To prime herself to write the book, Dillard says, she spent months reading only histories written before 1883. She scrutinized the etymology of every word to avoid the trap of anachronistic diction. She made lists of idioms spoken by pioneers, later peppering her people's speeches with those sayings.

The Living is less a departure from the themes of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm than it is their fictional extension. As a child attending church camp, Dillard felt herself come alive to religious ideas -- ideas that drive this novel in cooler ways than her sometimes overheated first-person nonfiction. Her third-person narrator distances her from the novel's grim events, all while she pursues the knotty problem of evil. A young Indian man on a vision quest is impaled on a stake by members of a warring tribe. While white watchers try to decide whether to lift him free or end his misery, he dies. His death, like many others in this book, is unlamented and unremarked. Death in the book becomes a defining fact of frontier life. Those who survive, "the living," are bluff, outwardly oblivious, and mostly mute. They need to carry on and they do.

Among novels set in Washington, The Living digs profoundly into the past. It also stacks up well against such other novels of the frontier or the West as Willa Cather's My Antonia (1918), A. B. Guthrie Jr.'s The Big Sky (1947), Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (1971), and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (1985).

In 2014, Annie Dillard was photographed at the White House, where President Barack Obama (b. 1961) awarded her a National Humanities Medal. Since then, she has made no public appearances.


Annie Dillard, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1974); Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982); Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: Harper & Row, 1987); Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1989); Dillard, The Living (New York: Harper & Row, 1992); Dillard, "How I Wrote the Moth Essay -- and Why," in The Norton Sampler ed. by Thomas Cooley (New York: Norton, 1986), 13-21; Annie Dillard website accessed April 4, 2018 (www.anniedillard.com); Bob Richardson, "Biography of Annie Dillard," Annie Dillard website accessed April 4, 2018 (www.anniedillard.com/biography-by-bob-richardson.html); Paul Lindholdt interview with Daniel Butterworth (Dillard's literary executor), February 5, 2018, Spokane, Washington; Sandra Humble Johnson, The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1992); Linda L. Smith, Annie Dillard (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991); Nancy C. Parrish, Lee Smith, Annie Dillard, and the Hollins Group (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998); "Annie Dillard, Writer, Weds," The New York Times, December 11, 1988 (www.nytimes.com); Mary Cantwell, "A Pilgrim's Progress," Ibid., April 26, 1992; Rafal Reyzer, "40 Best Essays of All Time (With Links)," May 5, 2016, Rafal Reyzer website accessed February 20, 2018 (http://rafalreyzer.com/40-best-essays-of-all-time/); Paul Lindholdt, personal recollections of Annie Dillard, Fairhaven College, 1977-1980; "Annie Dillard's Classic Essay: 'Total Eclipse,'" The Atlantic, August 17, 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/annie-dillards-total-eclipse/536148/); Diana Saverin, "The Thoreau of the Suburbs," The Atlantic, February 5, 2015 (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/02/the-thoreau-of-the-suburbs/385128/); Andrea Chambers, "Her Pilgrimage This Time Is into Her Past," People, October 19, 1987 (http://people.com/archive/annie-dillard-her-pilgrimage-this-time-is-into-her-past-vol-28-no-16/); Christopher Beha, "Metaphysics in a Teacup," Harper's Magazine, May 2016, pp. 85-86, 88-89; Laura Rubenstein, "Professor Emerita Annie Dillard to Receive National Humanities Medal," September 4, 2015, News@Wesleyan website accessed February 17, 2018 (http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2015/09/04/dillardhumanitiesmedal/); "Awards and Honors: 2014 National Humanities Medalist Annie Dillard," National Endowment for the Humanities website accessed Feb. 17, 2018 (https://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/annie-dillard).

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