Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard
"The teacher in me says, ‘The way to learn about a writer is to read the text. Or texts."
- Annie Dillard

Induction Category:
Writers & Journalists

Born: 1945

Inducted: 1997

Town: Middletown

Award-winning author Annie Dillard was born Annie Doak in Pittsburgh, Pa., to affluent parents Frank and Pam Doak.  Raised in a privileged lifestyle, during her high school years she rebelled against her parents and began reading Ralph Waldo Emerson and writing her own poetry. She went on to study English, theology, and creative writing at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., where she earned both a B.A. and a Master’s degree in English, graduating in 1968. It was at Hollins that she met and married her first husband, Richard Dillard, who was also her writing teacher. Though the couple later divorced, Annie has kept her first husband’s name throughout her writing career.

After several years of teaching at Western Washington University, Dillard moved to Middletown, Conn., where she was a professor of English and a writer-in-residence at Wesleyan University from 1979 to 2000. In her words “it was time to come back East—back to that hardwood forest where the multiple trees and soft plants have their distinctive seasons and their places in sun and shade.” Though she may have come to New England for the forest, during her time in Middletown, Dillard preferred to live on a residential street near the campus with her husband, biographer and professor Robert Richardson, and their daughter Rosie.

In 1974, Dillard published a small book of poems, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, and her nonfiction Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The latter was an overnight success, meeting with immediate critical and popular acclaim. The work contains observations, meditations, and reflections on the natural world Dillard experienced during a period of time spent at Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Praised for its graceful prose, its astute observations of the natural world, and the meditative reflections of its author, Pilgrim is often compared to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (on which Dillard wrote her Master’s thesis). In 1975, Dillard received the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She went on to publish numerous essays, poetry collections, memoirs, works of literary criticism, and novels. Respected for her narrative style, Dillard is the author of Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (1982), An American Childhood (1987), and The Living (1992), her first foray into the world of the novel. Her most recent publication is The Maytrees, a novel published in 2007. The Maytrees was named one of the ten best books of 2007 by the New York Times.

In addition to writing and contributing to over a dozen books, Dillard herself is the subject of many studies, including a full-length book in the Twayne U.S. Authors Series. The Annie Dillard Reader, a collection of her best known narratives, uncollected essays, and several new pieces was published by Harper in 1994. Dillard’s many honors include a New York Press Club Award, Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award (1993), a best foreign book citation (1990) in France, and honorary doctorates from Boston College, Connecticut College, and the University of Hartford.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice

Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”

A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.

Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.

Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.

A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.

Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent.  Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.

The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.