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Annie Dillard was a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine from 1973 to 1985, with a brief hiatus in 1982.
Dillard’s first contribution to Harper’s was sent to the editors as an unsolicited manuscript. “Monster in a Mason Jar: The lethal liturgy of the praying mantis” (August 1973) was the first of four excerpts from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) to appear in the magazine. The book was published by Harper’s Magazine Press in 1974, when Dillard was twenty-nine, and won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in the same year. “Pilgrim is really a book of theology,” Dillard told an editor at the magazine in 1974. “It’s the result of one year’s walking around and thinking about what kind of god gave us this kind of world. I decided that it must have been a very carefree, exuberant one, saying ‘Here, have a tulip! Have a beetle! Have another beetle!’”
Dillard’s first book was the poetry collection Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974). Among her nonfiction works are Living by Fiction (1982); Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982); An American Childhood (1987), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and For the Time Being (1999), an excerpt of which appeared in the January 1988 issue of the magazine. Dillard also wrote two novels: The Living (1992), excerpts of which were published in the November 1978 and August 1991 issues, and The Maytrees (2007), which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Dillard taught at Wesleyan University from 1979 to 2000. She serves on the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and paints.
Taking our century’s measure
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”