At the Feet of Annie Dillard, Memoirist, Essayist, Observer of the Real

Much-read copy of "The Abundance," by Annie Dillard. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My marked-up copy of “The Abundance,” by Annie Dillard. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Ask me to name the writers I’d most like to sit down to dinner with and I’d say Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson — and Annie Dillard. Civilized people all, and writers I have eagerly entrusted myself to over the years.

I would add Ernest Hemingway to my little soirée — I love his prose and we could swap Michigan stories — but he’d probably drink too much and swear a lot and say mouthy things to get a rise out of the females at the table. Hemingway is much smarter in print, I suspect, than he was in person.

Of the five authors, Dillard is the most recently published, book-wise. I’ve had her “The Abundance,” a collection of essays old and new, in my hands for months now. I’m finally finding a moment between mother-of-the-bride and grandmother stuff to tell you about it.

Dillard’s 1987 memoir, “An American Childhood,” is pitch-perfect. It’s one of the best memoirs out there. But elsewhere in her writing Dillard sometimes goes in for prose that is too rich for my taste. There’s this from “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” for example:

It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice or birth.

Not my cup of tea. But on the plus, plus side, Dillard is a master of low-key, almost invisible humor. This passage, “From Teaching a Stone to Talk,” sneaked up on me and bowled me over:

One wonders, after reading a great many such firsthand accounts, if polar explorers were not somehow chosen for the empty and solemn splendor of their prose styles — or even if some eminent Victorians, examining their own prose styles, realize, perhaps dismayed, that from the look of it, they would have to go in for polar exploration.

What I love most about Annie Dillard, however — what makes me want to dispense with the literary dinner and just sit at the writer’s feet — is her eagle-sharp eye for the world as it truly is. Here’s this, from “The Writing Life:”

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed? . . . Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? . . . We should amass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at one another, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.

That would be me. I’m a big television watcher these days. Give me “Project Runway.” Give me “Mom.” Give me “Girls.” Give me “The Big Bang Theory.” Give me “Who Do You Think You Are?” It’s not easy to tear me away from these shows — shaking gourds all. But you could get me up from the couch, if you set the table for Annie, Marilynne, Jane and Leo.

And maybe Ernest.

More about the writing life at “The Trouble With Daffodils — And My Writing.”



  1. Linda Spencer says:

    Hi Barbara – I too struggled with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and as a result haven’t read her other books. You have given me new insights and options for revisiting her work. THANKS!

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