Annie Dillard: Essays Background

Annie Dillard: Essays Background

Annie Dillard is an American writer who writes of growing up in Pittsburgh, PA in her memoir An American Childhood. She won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction at the age of 29 for her seminal work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. That particular book proved to be both a boon and an albatross around the author’s neck. Her career took off with its publication which turned her into a major literary figure. At the same time, however, it has misrepresented her as an environmentally-conscious nature and as a writer of essay collections.

Although much of the subsequent works of non-fiction by Dillard explore subjects related to nature and the natural world, the themes she pursues with this interest are more spiritual or philosophical in nature than they are didactic tracts about ecology and going green. Dillard’s style is to explore the natural world as a mystic might—isolating the microcosmic as a way of penetrating through to the cosmic. The life of a spider taking up residence in the bathroom becomes, in this fashion, as significant as the sun and moon passing in the sky to darken parts of the world for two minutes during a solar eclipse. Explorations of faith, spiritualism, and religion are as pervasive as passages about nature but it would be just as misleading to categorize Dillard as a religious writer as it is to describe her as a “nature writer.”

She has also taken exception to descriptions of certain books as “essay collections” and insists that the 1982 publication Teaching a Stone to Talk is the only one of her books that can appropriately be classified as such. Other non-fiction books that take the form of individual essays as chapters such as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Writing Life, and An American Childhood are coherent non-fiction narratives. That last point is another one in which her role as an essayist strays from the convention. While the essay form is the preferred literary form for expressing opinions and points of view, Dillard generally avoids such conventions in favor of pursuing a narrative. From this narrative journey, digressions into history, philosophy, politics, science, and other disciplines allow her to explore divergent aspects related to the thematic foundation supplying the narrative backbone.

Although Dillard published eleven major book-length works (including novels and poem collections) between 1974 and 1999, she has published a novel and a collection of previously published essays spanning her entire career since then. She was also an English professor at Wesleyan University from 1980 to 2001.

Dillard has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including the 1975 National Book Award for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the 1985 John Burroughs Medal for Outstanding Nature Writing, and the 1998 Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Nonfiction. Her work has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Governor's Arts Award from the State of Connecticut. Additionally, Dillard has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, four Pushcart Prizes, and numerous other awards and honors.

Dillard's work has been widely anthologized, and her books have been translated into several languages, including Spanish, German, French, and Italian. She has also lectured widely and participated in readings, performances, and television interviews in support of her publications. Her writing has been described as lyrical, observational, and experimental, exploring themes of faith, nature, and identity. She is particularly celebrated for her ability to transform every day into the extraordinary, to uncover the spiritual in the physical, and to weave together scenic description, scientific observation, and personal reflection into her work.

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