Book Reviews & Essays

The Annie Dillard Show

Review of The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard

A version of this article was originally published June 6 - 13, 2016 in The Nation

For an epoch defined by mass attention-deficit disorder, Annie Dillard would seem to be the perfect antidote. Dillard, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), is devoted to patience and to presence. “It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes open,” she has declared. She is thoroughly and ecstatically attuned to her surroundings, willing to wait hours for a glimpse of a muskrat. Her words are painstakingly selected and arranged. The contrasts with our screen-tethered, logorrheic selves hardly need to be belabored.

A chapter in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), called “Living Like Weasels,” is characteristic of her approach. At a pond near her home in Virginia, Dillard finds herself face to face with a wild weasel. “He was ten inches long, thin as a curve, a muscled ribbon, brown as fruitwood, soft-furred, alert. His face was fierce, small and pointed as a lizard’s; he would have made a good arrowhead.” Such descriptive sentences—as sinewy and vigorous as that weasel—are interspersed with whimsical anecdotes (sometimes seemingly apocryphal). Once, she reports, a man shot an eagle and, examining its carcass, “found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to the bird’s throat.” The assumption, she writes, is that “the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won.” Then, every so often, she slips in a more philosophical musing: “The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons.”

Dillard hasn’t written a book since the appearance of her novel The Maytrees in 2007, but now she has curated a new compilation, The Abundance, which includes the weasel essay. Though subtitled Narrative Essays Old and New, the most recent contribution (and apparently the only one not previously published in book form) is a 2002 essay from the literary journal Image. The Abundance is really a kind of greatest-hits collection culled from Dillard’s most famous books: excerpts from Pilgrim and Teaching a Stone to Talk, An American Childhood (1987), and The Writing Life (1989), among others. The pieces range from a brief, powerful account of a total solar eclipse to a long, somewhat cryptic essay that seems to compare attending church with visiting the Arctic. Cynically, the book could be seen as an attempt on the publisher’s part to squeeze some sales out of Dillard’s literary reputation. But it could also be read more generously: as a welcome occasion to discern the themes common to her work over time and to take stock of her legacy.

* * *

Annie Dillard (née Doak) was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, then a thriving steel town ruled by a WASP elite to which her family belonged. She was the eldest of three girls, and her parents, for whom she demonstrates great affection in her childhood memoir, were wholesome bon vivants; they liked to tell elaborate jokes and throw parties where the entertainment consisted of bringing out a one-man percussion band. Hers was a world in which people knew and cared whether you were Protestant or Catholic, Italian or Irish. The neighborhood belonged to the children. “My mother had given me the freedom of the streets as soon as I could say our telephone number,” Dillard writes in An American Childhood.

In Pilgrim, she recalls an impulse she occasionally indulged at age 6 or 7: She would hide a penny along a certain stretch of sidewalk, at the bottom of a sycamore or in a hole in the concrete, then draw arrows with chalk leading to the coin from both directions. “I was greatly excited,” she writes, “at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.”

When she was in her 20s, Dillard lived in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, whose waterways and wildlife she would vigilantly observe in Pilgrim. She made it plain that she took her inspiration from another pilgrim’s sojourn, at Walden Pond: “I propose to keep here what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’” she wrote. But in contrast to Walden, Dillard’s book is starkly free of context. She shares no memories of her past, no statement of her motives, no description of the house she inhabits. (This silence is explained in part by her circumstances. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, she was living with her husband at the time, but the book is a portrait of her exploration of solitude.) Unlike Thoreau, who holds forth on topics ranging from patched pantaloons to the spread of the railroad, Dillard offers no opinions about society.

Instead, we are privy strictly to her perceptions of the natural world and the reflections they provoke. It’s a realm where coins are everywhere discoverable, hidden only to those who willfully disregard the arrows. At Tinker Creek, “There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from some generous hand.” For Dillard, the world is crowded with marvels: sand grains, spiders, mist at dusk. As she repeatedly stresses, the marvels are unmerited, as opposed to rewards that we somehow earn. They are, in the religious diction she often favors, a matter of grace.

Dillard’s great talent is converting those moments into language. Her debut, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974), was a book of poetry, and those origins show in her prose. Throughout her work, the sentences are sharp and vivid, peppered with unexpected adjectives and with obscure, lovely nouns that sound like they come from some extinct Anglo-Saxon dialect: alpenglow, loess, chert. Her prose is almost completely purged of familiar phrases and clichés. When one does appear, she often twists it, taking it literally and bringing the dead language back to life. During the solar eclipse, she writes, it was “as dark as night, and eerie as hell,” which I take as an actual invocation of the netherworld. In a similar vein: “I’m blind as a bat, sensing from every direction only the echo of my own thin cries.”

In his incisive foreword to this new collection, Geoff Dyer praises Dillard for avoiding the “three ills of which nature writers should live in permanent dread: preciousness, reverence, and earnestness.” In my view, Dillard doesn’t avoid reverence, nor should she. But it’s true that she is often irreverent, in a way that can be surprising, even somewhat shocking.

Refusing to limit herself to passive observation, Dillard is not averse to disturbing the life she encounters. She wouldn’t, you suspect, heed the pleas of the signs we see at state parks and on hiking trails to leave only footprints and take only memories. She collects praying-mantis egg cases and takes them home. She tries to scare frogs. After reading that ancient Romans believed that echoes could kill bees, she goes for a walk and tries (without success) to test this theory.

Dillard displays a scientist’s penchant for meddlesome experimentation, and it can seem scandalous. Then again, in the course of daily life—driving, flying, shopping—most of us inflict far more damage on the animal kingdom. The harm is merely more indirect than Dillard’s micro-interventions, and we don’t see the consequences, or own up to them. On the rare occasions that we go camping or hiking, we may obey the rules, but our shyness with nature stems from our lack of intimacy with it. In this way, Dillard reveals her kinship with Thoreau. When chopping wood for his house, he writes in Walden, “I was more the friend than the foe of the pine tree, though I had cut down some of them, having become better acquainted with it.”

Similarly, Dillard sometimes comes across as strikingly blasé about suffering. On a trip to a South American village, she relates, she and her party saw a deer struggling to escape from a rope trap. “Its skin looked virtually hairless, in fact, and almost translucent, like a membrane. Its neck was no thicker than my wrist; it had been rubbed open on the rope, and gashed…. The raw underside of its neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the skin.” Later, she eats meat from a deer that had been caught in the same manner the previous day. “It was good,” she notes. “I was surprised at its tenderness. But it is a fact that high levels of lactic acid, which builds up in muscle tissues during exertion, tenderizes.” She seems intent to communicate her lack of faintheartedness, her lack of illusion about pain and the satisfactions that depend on it.

* * *

Broadly speaking, essayists tend to fall into one of two camps. The first is epitomized by Montaigne, who is said to have invented the essay form. This kind of essayist arrives at conclusions (if at all) through the course of writing; inquires and probes; invites the reader on an internal, sometimes circuitous journey. As Phillip Lopate— a disciple of this tradition—recently put it in The New York Times Book Review, “The great promise of essays is the freedom they offer to explore, digress, acknowledge uncertainty; to evade dogmatism and embrace ambivalence and contradiction; to engage in intimate conversation with one’s readers and literary forebears; and to uncover some unexpected truth.”

Another kind of essayist already holds a clear and firm belief system, and the essay’s act of discovery comes from applying that outlook to various subjects. Thoreau is one such essayist. The late Ellen Willis is another; her posthumous 2014 collection showcased her enduring commitment to a specific strand of feminism, defined by freedom and pleasure. Dillard, too, is of this second camp—for better and for worse.

The virtue is that her philosophy has a lot to recommend it. We could all stand to be reminded that the world is full of freely given beauty, that rapture is available, and that suffering is nonetheless real. She is wise to insist that we ought to pay attention and “discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”

There are, however, troubles with Dillard’s approach. You start to feel a little pummeled by all the exhortations to be astonished. While, for the most part, she represents the opposite of our narcissistic culture, her continual announcements of rapture can seem rather preening. “I am a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs,” Dillard writes in Pilgrim. “I live in tranquility and trembling.”

Her bravado is at once impressive and off-putting, and it erects a barrier between her and the reader. Put flatly, Dillard is not “relatable” or “likable.” To be sure, likability doesn’t equal literary merit, and she deserves respect for eschewing the tricks that essayists and memoirists use to ingratiate themselves with the reader. But she exudes a whiff of arrogance that can hinder both genuine inquiry and genuine intimacy, as when she casually dismisses the kind of novel that “aims to fasten down the spirit of its time, to make a heightened simulacrum of our recognizable world in order to present it shaped and analyzed.” She goes on, “This has never seemed to me worth doing, but it is certainly one thing literature has always done.”

Dillard is perhaps most interesting, then, when she seems to contradict herself. Her inconsistencies come most often in her meditations on pain, usually intertwined with her reflections on religion. She is not always nonchalant about suffering; at times, she expresses precisely the opposite attitude. In An American Childhood, she recounts that, as an adolescent, she quit the church by sending a letter to the minister, dismaying her parents. The reason for her disillusionment was the utter failure of religious texts to explain suffering: “They offered a choice of fancy language saying, ‘Forget it,’ or serenely worded, logical-sounding answers that so strained credibility (pain is God’s megaphone) that ‘Forget it’ seemed in comparison a fine answer.”

Certain episodes of suffering haunt her. When she was a child, one of her schoolteachers put the cocoon of a huge Polyphemus moth in a Mason jar so that the students could watch it emerge. But something went wrong: The moth didn’t have enough room to spread its wings and was permanently crippled. “He was a monster in a Mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather.” Later, at recess, the young Annie saw that it had been let out, onto the driveway next to the playground. “Someone had given the Polyphemus moth his freedom, and he was walking away.” There is something devastating about her word choice here: Insects don’t walk; they fly or they crawl. The image of the walking moth lets us see its disfigurement, while also making it (or, in Dillard’s pronoun, “him”) feel poignantly human.

While this vignette could be read as a parable about humans meddling with nature, Dillard doesn’t dwell on that lesson. Indeed, unlike many contemporary environmental writers, she typically focuses more on the cruelty of nature than the cruelty done to it. She once saw a giant water bug eat a frog alive—sucking its body through a puncture and leaving its skin “formless as a pricked balloon.” This scene also obsesses her, but she eventually reaches a sort of reconciliation:

Cruelty is a mystery, and a waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings on the skull…. [T]here seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous.

It is telling that she singles out not love or compassion as the compensation for suffering, but rather beauty. This emphasis dovetails with her conception of the world, and of nature, as a “show,” another word that recurs frequently in her work: “We watch television and miss the show.” In the Roanoke Valley, “New shows roll in from over the mountains and the magician reappears unannounced from a fold in the curtain you never dreamed was an opening.”

Dillard’s writing is also much like a show, often a beautiful one. In felicitous language, she enables us to see the world afresh. But there is always a distance, a sense of performance, and this feeling is reinforced by the curious paucity of people and relationships in most of her work. Pilgrim features only a handful of neighbors, essentially as extras; even the affectionate portraits of her parents in An American Childhood feel like sketches.

But Dillard’s aloofness may be inseparable from what makes her extraordinary: her capacity for solitude and elation, her borderline arrogant detachment from ordinary life and society. As she writes of Tinker Creek, “There are the waters of beauty and mystery…. And these are also the waters of separation. They purify, acrid and laving, and they cut me off.” Alone in her Eden, she ranges “wild-eyed, flying over fields and plundering the woods, no longer quite fit for company.”

Source: The Nation

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