Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard (1945– )

Annie Dillard is a poet, essayist, and memoirist known for her intensely poetic and precise prose and her exploration of the natural environment. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dillard graduated from Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, where she married her writing instructor and mentor while still an undergraduate. In 1975, she won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for her collection of narrative essays, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The book, which brought Dillard quick and unexpected fame, was inspired by her stay in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and partly modeled on Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854), the subject of her master's thesis topic. Dillard taught in Washington State before joining the faculty of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1979, first as a scholar-in-residence and then, in 1983, as a full professor. MORE...

 

Meta Ann "Annie" Doak was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 30, 1945, to parents Frank Doak, a voice in radio commercials, and Pam Lambert Doak, whom Dillard has described as "completely irrepressible." The oldest of three daughters, Dillard grew up in the upper-middle-class comfort afforded by her great-great grandfather, who founded the company that would become American Standard, a plumbing manufacturer. She attended Ellis School, a private all-girls school in Pittsburgh. In her 1987 memoir, An American Childhood, Dillard describes spending many hours in Pittsburgh's 600-acre Frick Park and chafing against her Presbyterian upbringing and the social limitations placed on girls.

At the age of seventeen, Dillard enrolled at Hollins College in Roanoke and on June 5, 1964, while still an undergraduate, she married her writing instructor and mentor, R. H. W. Dillard. Graduating with a BA in English in 1967—future writers Lee Smith and Anne Goodwyn Jones were her classmates—Dillard stayed on at Hollins and earned a master's degree in 1968.

Dillard's first poetry collection, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, was released in 1974 while she lived alone in the woods on Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. That same year she authored Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a collection of narrative essays modeled to some extent on Walden—meditations on solitude, religion, writing, and her natural environment, "what Thoreau called 'a meteorological journal of the mind.'" The book, whose prose is intensely poetic and precise and whose subjects are often violent and disturbing, was reviewed in the New York Times by the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty. "A reader's heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled," she wrote. "It is this intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare." Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 1975.

Dillard's solitude soon came to an end, as did her marriage. In 1975, she left Virginia for Bellingham, Washington, where she was a scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University until 1979. In Washington, she met Gary Clevidence, an anthropology professor, and together they moved to Middletown, Connecticut, in 1979. There, Dillard was a distinguished visiting professor at Wesleyan University, marrying Clevidence on April 12, 1980. The couple had a daughter, Cody Rose, in 1984. In 1983 she became a full professor and, in 1987, a writer-in-residence. From 1974 until 1981 and from 1983 until 1985, Dillard also served as a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine.

A collection of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, was published in 1982 and, like Tinker Creek, explored the natural environment with large doses of religious imagery and metaphorical and sometimes actual violence. In the New York Times, critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who had loved Dillard's Pulitzer Prize-winning work, was less convinced with the new essays. "Sometimes I wonder if Miss Dillard isn't doing more—or is it less?—than proving she can stare unblinkingly at nature's indifference to suffering," he wrote. "At times I wonder if she isn't simply trying to spook us." In 1982, Dillard traveled to China with the U.S. Cultural Delegation and used the trip as inspiration for Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984).

In 1988, having divorced a second time, Dillard married Robert D. Richardson Jr. In 1992, her first novel, The Living, was published. A historical epic about Washington State, The Living is "an august celebration of human frenzy and endurance," according to novelist Thomas Keneally, writing in the New York Times, and proof of Dillard's "apparent crabwise indirection" and "utter thoroughness" as a novelist.

Dillard's numerous regional, national, and international awards include the New York Press Club Award for Excellence (1975), grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1982) and the Guggenheim Foundation (1985), the Appalachian Gold Medallion (1989), the Campion Award (1994), the Academy Award in Literature (1998) from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Maurice-Edgar Coindreau Prize for Best Translation in English (1999, 2002).

The Maytrees, Dillard's novel about a married couple on Cape Cod, was published in 2007 and became a finalist for the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award.

Major Works

  • Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974)
  • The Weasel (1974)
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)
  • Holy the Firm (1977)
  • Living by Fiction (1982)
  • Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1982)
  • Encounters with Chinese Writers (1984)
  • An American Childhood (1987)
  • The Writing Life (1989)
  • The Living (1992)
  • Mornings Like This (1995)
  • For the Time Being (1999)
  • The Maytrees (2007)

Time Line

  • April 30, 1945 - Meta Ann "Annie" Doak is born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
  • June 5, 1964 - While still an undergraduate at Hollins College in Roanoke, Meta Ann "Annie" Doak marries her writing instructor and mentor, R. H. W. Dillard.
  • 1967 - Annie Dillard graduates from Hollins College in Roanoke with a BA in English. Her classmates include future writers Lee Smith and Anne Goodwyn Jones.
  • 1968 - Annie Dillard earns a master's degree from Hollins College in Roanoke with a thesis on Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854).
  • 1975 - Annie Dillard leaves Virginia for Bellingham, Washington, where she is a scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University. She will stay in this position until 1979.
  • 1979 - Annie Dillard moves from Washington State to Middletown, Connecticut, where she serves as a distinguished visiting professor at Wesleyan University.
  • April 12, 1980 - Annie Dillard marries her second husband, Gary Clevidence, an anthropology professor.
  • 1983 - Annie Dillard becomes a full professor at Wesleyan University in Middlebury, Connecticut.
  • 1988 - Annie Dillard marries her third husband, Robert D. Richardson Jr.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Smith, L. E. Annie Dillard (1945– ). (2014, June 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Dillard_Annie_1945-.

MLA Citation:
Smith, L. E. "Annie Dillard (1945– )." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: June 15, 2009 | Last modified: June 2, 2014


Contributed by Leanne E. Smith, an English instructor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.