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Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Midstream

by Peter S. Hawkins

Peter S. Hawkins taught religion and literature at Yale Divinity School, and is now professor of religion at Boston University. professor of religion at Boston University, where he also directs the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts. He is the author of Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford University Press). He and Paula Carlson are editors of the series Listening for God: Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 7-14, 1989. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at
www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Flannery O’Connor once said that any novelist who could survive her childhood had enough to write about for a lifetime. Had she herself lived longer she might have added a corollary: the writer who survives middle age will invariably want to tell the story of that childhood directly, in autobiography. It’s not that the events of one’s first ten or even 20 years are themselves particularly remarkable. Rather, it is the retrospective discovery (or creation) of significance that matters; the discovery that one has survived with a sense of purpose, or at least with a past. Looking backward from midstream reveals something unnoticed in the living: a pattern to events, the strange alternation between predictability and surprise, and most important of all, the private moment that turns out to seem of general interest.

This impulse to tell one’s story comes at a time when the end of life is suddenly all too imaginable. All of the past (but especially the years of childhood) becomes an endangered species worthy of memory’s protection. The urge to hold on tight takes over with the realizations usually reserved for Forty Something: parents can die, relationships meant to last forever come to an end, and the once invulnerable flesh proves astonishingly frail. At a point one hopes to be no less than halfway through – "midway in the journey of our life," according to Dante -- it is time at last to come to oneself.

Shoring up the fragments of the past against the future’s ruin (and savoring all the riches that in fact remain) , the autobiographer comforts us with the record of a continuous self and a coherent history. Self-indulgence is transcended as one person’s memoir becomes an open invitation to remember. It can also be an act of love. For just as we alone among the creatures are given the difficult gift of imagining our own death, we are also uniquely endowed with the ability to tell our stories to one another, to give ourselves away in narrative.

St. Augustine is usually credited as the one who invented the giveaway. Writing the Confessions in his early 40s, he remembered schoolboy fears, a pear tree plundered, books that shaped his life, the death of his mother -- all recalled as threads in a tapestry woven according to the inscrutable design of another. C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner have carried on Augustine’s memoir of conversion, less confident about the clarity of the design perhaps, but clear about the hand behind it. Annie Dillard is yet another case in point. Readers who know Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) , Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982) are not only familiar with the autobiographical turn of her writing, but also with the power of a religious imagination that, while recognizably Christian; roams free. We have watched her haul congregational communion wine in her knapsack and endure the longueurs of guitar masses. But it is outside the church that she is most at home. Like a worldly Julian of Norwich set loose on Thoreau’s pond, she has looked through to nature’s bottom and managed, without sentimentality, to find all manner of things to be well. If well, however, things are always cloaked in mystery and contradiction; the glory often hurts.

Or at least it used to. In An American Childhood (1987) , Dillard explores primarily her own life, and the social and historical world she recollects is largely free of nature’s tooth and claw; fewer creatures sputter into flame. It is a loving recollection with surprisingly few shadows: a happy middle age remembers this enviably happy childhood. Written midstream in her own life and career, the book stretches from her birth in 1945 ("on the day that Hitler died") to her departure for college in 1963. But the dots of significance with which Dillard constructs her tale do not conform to a discernible plan. They are all connected by faith alone; the hand that made us, here at least, is not divined. Dillard is indeed what her headmistress once despaired of: "a child of the twentieth century." The lament, however, should be taken as a compliment. This is an autobiography that rings true to contemporary readers.

As she grows, so does the history of the town. Beginning with its origins in the forest primeval – so dense, people said, that a squirrel could run the length of Pennsylvania without ever touching ground -- she leads us through its evolution: frontier fortification of the 18th century, industrial giant of Carnegie, Frick and Mellon, and "clean city" of the 1950s, dominated from the beginning by Scotch-Irish and Germans, political conservatives, and staunch Presbyterians, all driven by that "powerful Calvinist mix of piety and acquisitiveness." . Dillard comes from this elite. And until in adolescence Pittsburgh proved to be golden cage, it offered her childhood demiparadise, a perfect place to grow up.

Yet from the very beginning it seem to have been a paradise meant to be lost or at least left behind. Dillard’s story properly begins with her father’s cutting loose when she is ten. After years of reading Life on the Mississippi, he decides to quit his job in the family firm and sail his boat downriver to a New Orleans where Dixieland reigns supreme and music is always loud. The adventure soon palls and he returns to the wife and three young children he left behind. But Dillard is marked for good by the recklessness of his setting out, by the power of a book to go to one’s head, and by her father’s having confused leaving Pittsburgh with living.

What An American Childhood recounts as Dillard’s own waking up is her gradual discovery of this recklessness for herself. As a little girl she remembers standing at the window of her family’s big, warm house. Outside a snowstorm has transformed the neighborhood, and Jo Ann Sheehy defies the fates by skating in the open street, turning this way and that within the streetlamp’s yellow cone of light. "Was everything beautiful so bold?" The answer invariably is Yes. And so we watch as risks become revelations. A little girl roams free in an off-limits park; she pelts a car with snowballs and then runs breathlessly as the motorist pursues; she is mesmerized by the sight of a downed powerline -- a live wire -- as it melts the asphalt beneath it, "all but thrashing like a cobra and shooting a torrent of sparks"; she remembers being old enough to know better and yet running down Penn Avenue with arms flapping, risking pride and dignity in a zany attempt to fly.

For Dillard these small adventures are as exemplary of freedom as Augustine’s robbing the pear tree is of sin; indeed, they are Emersonian exhortations to "cobble up an original relation with the universe." For some it may be easy to explain this predilection for daring as the result of high-spirited, indulgent parents and the cushion of inherited wealth. Little girls may grow bold with impunity when there is a big warm house to return to, and when it looks down on Pittsburgh from the rarefied heights of Glen Arden Drive ("The next step was a seat at the right hand of God"). Yet it is precisely the privilege of Dillard’s background that she knew would clip her wings and force another life upon her: the country club and its obsessive cultivation of a suntan; years of dancing school and white cotton gloves; the fate of young ladies to take custody of unquestioned codes, to be "vigilantes of the trivial," to accept their destiny ("to marry Holden Caulfield’s roommate, and buy a house in Point Breeze, and send our children to dancing school")

Long before she takes off her cotton gloves there is an event, a "searing sight," that serves as a premonition of what is in the works. A Polyphemous moth hatching from its cocoon is maimed before Dillard’s eyes simply because the mason jar enclosing it is too small for its wingspread. Intending all along to set the moth free, her science teacher lets the crippled thing make its way along the school driveway, past "fine houses, expensive apartments, and fashionable shops," heading for certain death. The child felt pity and terror; the autobiographer breathes a sigh of relief. She got out in time.

Before adolescent rebellion made the getaway, however, Dillard learned to live in Pittsburgh with unalloyed joy, fully awake and close in touch with "this speckled mineral sphere, our present world." She stalks the backyards of her neighborhood, digs the earth for buried treasure, and learns honor and accuracy from baseball. But most of all, she reads. When her father is swept away by Life on the Mississippi, she is held fast in the arms of Kidnapped. Many other novels follow and later poetry. But it will come as no surprise to those who have watched Dillard scout Tinker Creek and Puget Sound that it was the natural history section of the Homewood Library that captivated her.

The Field Book of Ponds and Streams was her first discovery, "a small blue-bound book printed in fine type on thin paper, like The Book of Common Prayer." Another field guide to mineralogy guides her rock collection; there are books on butterflies, moths and insects to embolden her to "touch the rim of nightmare"; then a microscope to match her reading of Microbe Hunters. During this time of reading and looking, The Natural Way to Draw is also teaching her to record what she sees. It seems an exhilarating education, but also a solitary one. For while school bells ring throughout An American Childhood, neither classes nor teachers are memorable -- except, that is, for the informal instruction in joke-telling offered at home by both parents. What matters is what she read and what she saw by herself: "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world."

Acquired in this reeling back and forth is information, what the boys learned while the girls got tan. But Dillard pursues not a research scientist’s compilation of interesting facts but the transfiguration of data into vision -- the exploration of invisible worlds that are revealed within the visible. Given the theological cast of her writing, one might expect to find in her memoir a portrait of the artist as a young Jonathan Edwards -- someone who (shortly before he went off to college) observed the curiosities of the flying spider, analyzed the optics of the rainbow, and then celebrated the glory of the creator as revealed in the natural creation. This, after all, is what the pilgrim in Dillard has been up to ever since Tinker Creek (even if under her watchful eye the sparrow seems to fall as often as not, and the rainbow stretches over many that are drowned). But the book does not show us a mystic in the making, or suggest that the girl bent over her microscope was looking beyond the hydra and rotifers into mystery. It does something better. It shows how a religious upbringing as attenuated and perfunctory as Dillard’s own -- she describes her stock as lapsed Presbyterian and believing Republican -- could yield an adult sensibility so extraordinarily rich and strange. To be sure, that story is only hinted at here. We have memories of Sunday school and Bible camp; an early suspicion of adult Christianity as hypocrisy; a sense of complicity between church and dancing school -- both drawing on a common list of acceptable folk and equally mad about white cotton gloves. Mild, mainline stuff. But there are also indications of a great deal more going on.

Later on Dillard catches that case of opposition, but it turns out that church is part of what she feels called to reject. The morning after her first "subscription dance," she finds herself sitting in the balcony of the Shadeyside Presbyterian Church, looking down her teenage nose at the Pittsburgh she presumes to know all too well. Imprisoned in a robber baron’s stone temple, she surveys the carpeted marble aisles, the women in mink and sable, the men accumulating dignity -- everybody "occupying their slots." She knew enough Bible to damn the whole lot of them to hell; she had also spent enough time in the whited sepulchre to do the next best thing and "plain quit." But insult is added to injury when she realizes that she would have to sit through an eternity of Communion. In a state of outrage against "the grape juice, the tailcoats, British vowels, sable stoles," she looks at the boys from dancing class in the expectation of fellow suffering and a shared smirk. "Was all this not absurd?" Apparently not.

To her astonishment she realizes that her friends are actually praying. Their eyes are tightly shut, their jaws work mysteriously -- in fact, they, are as inscrutable as the adults gathered beneath her, bowed and silent in a room where no one seemed to be breathing. "I was alert enough to feel, despite myself, some faint, thin stream of spirit braiding forward from the pews . . . There was no speech nor language. The people had been praying, praying to God, just as they seemed to be praying. That was the fact. I didn’t know what to make of it." For the first time in her life she doubts her own omniscience; she realizes, almost with the force of conversion, that there is more than she knows.

Such realizations are not enough to keep her in church, however. And so she decides to "plain quit," submitting her resignation to a minister who tells her, "I suppose you’ll be back soon." Dillard does not give us that return here; instead she leaves us at the point where her childhood left off, in an American dream of open roads and music loud enough for freedom. More than 20 years later, she finds herself no longer in Pittsburgh or with her parents, but "here now," at an unspecified latitude -- a seasoned pilgrim. "And I still break through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day, as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive." We can only hope that when it’s time she will once more dive down into the past and bring her progress up to date.


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