Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” (1974) was such a surprising and tenacious book that when it came out I longed to be able to write a book like that. I still feel that way. I know many people misinterpreted it as the report of a sort of maladjusted and solitary nature freak. Or the blonde photo made them fantasize about wood nymphs. I know many people thought of it as a book by the person Sylvia Plath would have been if she’d been able to get the Bell Jar off her head, and others were affronted by what turned out to be a woman who married a professor (among others) and lived a normal life -- well, on university terms.
Then came “Holy the Firm” (1974) which I didn’t really understand until seminary, which was one of the reasons I went to seminary. Her subject was often Evil and always as much full of local stories as Annie Proulx’s compilations. But she is on a high intellectual plane, supported by husbands of great grasp and, evidently, sharing. All the facts at her own website: anniedillard.com. She rejects Wikipedia and other sources as false and misleading.
Dillard’s subject in these two books and the one I just read “The Maytrees” (2007), is the nature of loose communities in specially concentrated places (Tinker Creek, a Puget Sound island, Provincetown/Cape Cod) and the bonds of love. The plot is simply the life-arcs of one little set through adulthood to death. One man, two women, various babies.
Dillard is a genre-buster. Let English professors weep and obsess over things like narrative, poetry, imagery, subtext, blah blah blah. This book is short sentences, often aphorisms, sometimes approaching haiku, and then longer bits of memoir or documentary -- something like that. Enough to let you reminisce if you are inclined or surprise you if you haven't known about East Coast enclaves.
I am of Dillard’s generation but not her social class, though I grazed it for a few years at universities in Chicago. NU was the moneyed people except for the students of theatre, who were like the characters in this book; U of Chicago was the sophisticated people, the ones who knew things. I didn’t fit with either group, but in my UU years they were almost always nearby. When I was interning in Hartford, I rode my moped sixty miles to visit Dillard, but she was gone that day. I looked at her desk (facing the wall) and her trunk.
Dillard is a note-taker, journal-keeper, which must have been pretty useful for this book. Human beings are sensory reflective creatures and she knows that, uses that skillfully and with considerable impact. I try to emulate her in my blogs when it comes to sensory detail and metaphor, but I don’t keep journals. I don’t take notes. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s about privacy. People pry, mock, and even misunderstand so clear a writer as Dillard. Writing is vulnerable that way.
But this strategy, on its less poetic end of the scale, is useful for writing about the small industrial ag town of Valier or the tumbled confusion of the Blackfeet Rez, both places full of images and tragic stories of Evil and endurance, artistic discarding of convention, and long arcs of people’s lives. I’ve been here fifty years off and on, and see those tracks clearly. Many have ended, all have left small changes and marks. Always the surprises.
Here’s a paragraph near the beginning: “The Maytree’s lives, like the Nausets’, played out before the backdrop of fixed stars. The way of the world could be slight, then and now, but rarely, among individuals, vicious. The slow heavens marked hours. They lived often outside. They drew every breath from a wad of air just then crossing from salt-water to saltwater. Their sandspit was a naked strand between two immensities, both given to special effects.”
People like these don’t usually write -- more likely, read. Or paint. Writing about them very much will introduce viciousness. Scriver Studio when I first found it was a late summer afternoon calm with plenty of time to talk and paint. When the Montana Historical Society came in 1999 with every U-Haul available in Helena to remove every part of the Scriver estate they could detach, one of the MHS staff told me he had never been in an atmosphere so thick with hatred. Money.
But Dillard’s story is nothing like that. There is no hatred between successive wives. There is caring. Money is incidental. Sea dirge and star gyre are what count. This is a reconsideration of houses built on sand, at least those that can last long enough for people who only build nests like birds anyway. In the end they come back to be buried nearby. Life is only an interval of temporarily organized cosmic gases. The mistake is to try to hold the sand in place instead of reconciling to the swing of maintenance that prevents mice and snakes from sharing too much, coming in through the crevices between boards or the holes made by popped knots in pine.
In a way, the account of Lou’s nature and fate, left alone through days swollen with time, could be seen as an explanation for Dillard’s life, or maybe more accurately as she would like it to be. Or maybe what she has managed to partly be. Once the media gets hold of a writer, that individual will have no real peace or excess of time. Then it becomes hyena-writers against the peaceful notebook scribblers. We don’t have enough vocabulary to distinguish between blood-mongers jonesing pop money and those who truly weave words for their own sake. Instead we obsess about factuality, which we mistake for truth.
I should just end this with sentences to ponder, but I didn’t mark them as I went along, nor did I mark the four big words I didn’t know. They were too big for my reading chair dictionary and I didn’t want to stop reading to go to the computer or the big unabridged. You’ll just have to read the book.
I admire this sentiment: “Throughout her life she was ironic and strict with her thoughts.”
Here’s a whole paragraph: “Later he stood on the foredune’s lip and looked at the stars over the ocean. A wider life breathed in him, and things’ rims stirred and reared back. Only the lover sees what is real, he thought. Only the lover sees the beloved truly, inwardly. Far from being blind, love alone can see. Watching the sky now, and forever after, doubled the world. He felt he saw through Lou’s eyes as an Aztec priest, having flayed an enemy, donned the skin. Or somewhat less so."
Provincetown, Truro dune shack art show at Seashore