President Barack Obama is set to award National Humanities Medals to nine people and one organization Thursday — and one of them will go to a part-time Key West resident, writer Annie Dillard.
Dillard, 70, is receiving the award “for her profound reflections on human life and nature,” according to a release from the White House. “In poetry and in prose, Ms. Dillard has invited us to stand humbly before the stark beauty of creation.”
Dillard said she considered the medal “a great honor.”
“Especially from this president, who’s a writer and a totally excellent president,” she said. “I’m just thrilled to meet him.”
Dillard’s second book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1975 and is still her best-known title, though Dillard said it’s far from her best book.
“It’s about fourth,” she said. She said she considers her best work to be For The Time Being, published in 1999.
Dillard has written essays, poetry, memoir and novels, but “her most characteristic books,” according to her husband, the literary biographer Robert D. Richardson, are “imaginative nonfiction narratives — witnessings or accounts, stories and speculations that resist classification.” Both Pilgrim and For The Time Being fall into that non-category.
Dillard grew up in Pittsburgh.
“She was an avid collector of both rocks and insects. She had a chemistry set and a microscope, with which she found a single-celled world full of wonders. She played The Poet and Peasant Overture and boogie-woogie on the piano,” Richardson wrote in his biography of Dillard, published on her website. “Her inner world was, if anything, more active than her outer one. She took drawing and painting classes, and sat in her room for hours drawing detailed studies of remembered faces, of her left hand, of candles, of shoes, of her baseball glove.”
Drawing and painting were lifelong passions but “above all she was a reader,” devouring everything from novels about World War II to classic Victorian literature to field guides.
“Her teachers had little idea what was going on inside her,” Richardson wrote. “By the time she was 15-17, what they did know they didn’t care for.”
According to Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood, one of those teachers said, “Here, alas, is a child of the twentieth century.”
In 1982, she published a book of what she calls “unlicensed literary theory” called Living By Fiction.
While writing that book, “I talked myself into writing an old-fashioned novel,” Dillard writes on her website. “The result was The Living (1992). It tells the story of the first European settlers plunked down on the Pacific Northwest coast. (They watched the ship sail away.) During the many years of its writing I never allowed myself to read anything that postdated the year I was writing about, nor did I use any anachronistic word.”
After The Living, Dillard returned to nonfiction with For The Time Being.
“The true-story topics in each of the seven chapters are ‘birth, sand, China, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, thinker, evil and now,’” Dillard wrote. “It tells many short journalistic stories, and a few long ones: Hasidism, Teilhard de Chardin and fossil Homo erectus, the formation of sand, the critical importance of the individual in a world of almost 7 billion individuals, and the absurdity of the doctrines of divine omniscience, divine mercy, and divine omnipotence.”
Her most recent work is her second novel, The Maytrees, published in 2007. She has a collection of old and new essays, The Abundance, set for publication in the spring.
Dillard said she is especially delighted that one of her fellow honorees is an old friend, the writer Larry McMurtry.
Besides McMurtry, other medal recipients include architect and preservationist Everett L. Fly, philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, historian Everlyn Brooks Higginbotham, writer Jhumpa Lahiri, professor Fedwa Malti-Douglas, historian Vicki Lynn Ruiz, chef and author Alice Waters, and the Clemente Course in the Humanities.
At the same time, President Obama will award the National Medal of Arts to nine people and two organizations. The honorees in that category include actress Sally Field and writers Stephen King and Tobias Wolff.