On February 26, 1979, writer Annie Dillard (b. 1945) and her husband, Gary Clevidence, watch a rare solar eclipse from a hillside in the Yakima Valley. The day before they drove to Eastern Washington from their home in Bellingham to get into the path of totality, crossing Snoqualmie Pass after finding it blocked temporarily by an avalanche and taking a hotel room in a valley town. On the early morning of the eclipse, they climb a hill outside of town. They stand with other watchers as the shadow passes by. Their visit results in Dillard's acclaimed essay "Total Eclipse," which will appear first in the magazine Antaeus in 1982 and then be included later that year in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk.
Annie Dillard was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Born Meta Ann Doak in 1945 to a wealthy family, she earned her B.A. in 1967 and her M.A., in 1968, both in English, at Hollins College in Virginia. As a 20-year-old sophomore at Hollins, she married her professor Richard Dillard and took his name. She painted, drew, and eventually wrote her way to national fame when in 1974 she published both a book of poetry and the nonfiction Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
After Pilgrim won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, Dillard relocated and began a job as writer-in-residence at Western Washington College (later University) that same year, partly to avoid the limelight. Fame never came easily to her. Both in life and in the character she created for herself in her books, she was a kind of hermit whose reclusiveness was due in part to her commitment to the writing life. In 1977, two years before she witnessed the eclipse, she set her second book of nonfiction, Holy the Firm, on Waldron Island in Puget Sound. She would move back East in 1979.
"Total Eclipse" is among the twentieth century's most highly regarded short works of American literary nonfiction. Reprinted in dozens of anthologies, on the curriculum of hundreds of high school and college courses, it is written in Dillard's signature style of awe and revelation in the face of natural phenomena. The essay is a classic in large part for its close observation of the particulars of the eclipse as both a social and a scientific phenomenon. The essay differs from Dillard's other work by venturing relatively little into metaphysics and theology.
The essay describes how, traveling with her second husband, Fairhaven College anthropology professor Gary Clevidence, Dillard finds herself stranded by an avalanche that blocks them for a time on Snoqualmie Pass, surprised by the arid landscape on the eastern slopes of the Washington Cascades, and put off by the drab fixtures in the Yakima Valley hotel. The indoor environs and the "drunks" (11) in the hotel lobby set up contrasts with the astronomical marvel soon to take place. (The page numbers given for quotations are from "Total Eclipse" as it appears in Teaching a Stone to Talk).
Arising early the next day, they drive to the viewing site and climb a hill with others to ready for the early-morning eclipse. Once the eclipse begins, the advancing shadow of the moon takes the narrator's breath away. It terrifies her. She hears screams from fellow watchers that further unnerve her. "I have since read that screaming, with hysteria, is a common reaction even to expected total eclipses" (25). Numerous metaphors heighten the grandeur of the marvel they witness. "Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him," she asserts, "or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane" (14).
The moment the moon obscures the sun on that February day in 1979, the narrator undergoes an epiphany. Her charged vision integrates images from druidic times and from Stonehenge. Her excited state also builds upon knowledge of how planetary life would end without the sun.
That total solar eclipse was the first in many years to have darkened the region and it would not be repeated until another four decades had passed, when the path of totality for the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, crossed Oregon and Idaho some distance south of the 1979 path. Dillard's essay (which notes that the Yakima area will not experience totality again until 2086) is arguably the best record in our belles lettres of that 1979 event. The essay is a milestone in the life of this notable writer whose work draws extensively from the four years she spent in the state of Washington.