Dillard's Microcosmos of the extremely privileged

Jamie Effros '03, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

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In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard marvels at her own ability to marvel at the world around her. The book is a verbose examination of the sensual experience of observation-- most of which she accounts from the seething microcosm of her back yard. Dillard's descriptions of the natural world are packed with imagery which is so steeped in self-importance, that as a reader, it is sometimes difficult to breathe. Her constant use of metaphor and simile re-contextualize the described so much that her images become muddled, forced, or unidentifiable through over-description.

These are morning matters, pictures you dream as the final wave heaves you up on the sand to the bright light and the drying air. You remember pressure, and a curved sleep you rested against, soft, like a scallop in its shell. But the air hardens your skin; you stand; you leave the lighted shore to explore some dim headland, and soon you're lost in the leafy interior, intent, remembering nothing. [2]

When taken out of context, This passage, like many in Tinker Creek may seem thoughtful and poetic. When read through the narrative flow of the piece though, passages like this do not stylistically stand far enough from the text to accentuate their meaning. Dillard attempts to pack the same level of poetic and over-determined imagery into nearly all the corners of her work, effectively negating the profundity of one thought in relation to the next. The result of this over-description is a complete lack of focus in the piece, causing the reader to insistently wonder at what in the text is important, and even more so, why it is important. Dillard even says at one point, "Why, why in the blue-green world write this sort of thing? Funny written culture, I guess; we pass things on" (49).

What exactly is Dillard passing on through her writing? On the next page it is an account of her goldfish and whether it feels the compulsion to swim toward warmer water in the winter. this comes after Dillard's passage on the proper implements for snowman eyes, of course. To me, what she is passing on is merely an obsession with her own ability to see and describe differently than the rest of this "curious human culture," on a strange planet which she is slowly "getting used to" (41). Dillard seems to me to be a gifted writer who leads a privileged enough life to be able to compose a 271-page book devoted to describing with painstaking detail, each and every thought which enters her mind as she wanders the length of her neighborhood creek. So much emphasis seems to be placed on the fact that Dillard has these thoughts, or sees things in a certain way, that the majority of the work comes off as terribly self-important and forced. My question comes down, very basically to, 'why should we care?' What does Dillard do to make us genuinely care about her descriptive ramblings through the natural and conceptual world. Do we get anything from this book? If the intent is to alter our conceptions of observation, does it succeed purely though Dillard's example, are we truly changed or informed by it?

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Last modified 3 December 2006