By Jay Parini
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Additional info for American Writers, Supplement VI
Focusing first on Dillard's life history through a discussion of An American Childhood, this essay will examine her work from the perspective of several literary contexts and explore "I WOKE IN BITS, LIKE ALL CHILDREN": PERSONAL HISTORY, PLACE, AND PEOPLE "I woke in bits, like all children," affirmed Dillard in An American Childhood, and a wakeful stance, an openness to experience and attention to her own perceptions, is what she brought to the pages of this book. The oldest of three daughters, Dillard was fortunate to have parents who encouraged nonconformity and creativity.
Crossing another border, she married her creative writing teacher, Richard Henry Wilde Dillard, in 1964. A poet, critic, and novelist, Richard Dillard was nine years her senior; according to Dillard, he was extremely influential in shaping her writing, especially her poetry, while she was an important source for his own work. A. in 1968. Her thesis, "Walden Pond and Thoreau," indicates the admiration she felt for her predecessor, Henry David Thoreau, whose work has inspired her own. During the next few years, she placed poems in journals that included The Atlantic Monthly and The American Scholar; she also suffered from a nearly fatal case of pneumonia that may have sparked her to reconsider her life goals.
Near the beginning of the book, Dillard describes for the reader another burning: a moth drawn to her candle is quickly consumed by the flame, yet is transformed into a kind of wick, burning side by side with that of the candle. By the end of the book, she converts these striking images that structure the volume into a reaffirmation of faith, in spite of the horrible suffering of an innocent child. Such a reaffirmation is possible, she indicates explicitly, only through the transformative powers of the artist: "What can any artist set on fire but his world?