- “A Woman Need Not Be Sincere”: Annie Dillard’s Fictional Autobiographies and the Gender Politics of American Transcendentalism
“So another thing I left out, as far as I could, was myself. The personal pronoun can be the subject of the verb: ‘I see this, I did that.’ But not the object of the verb: ‘I analyze me’ . . . . Since the subject of this book is not me, other omissions naturally follow.”Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”
‘And I Am Gone’: Dillard’s Transparent Fictions
Throughout her putatively “documentary” works, the contemporary American naturalist Annie Dillard locates her voice using the framework of nineteenth-century American transcendentalism, and specifically Emersonian pantheism; she seeks knowledge, inspiration, and even identity from an impersonal nature coded predominantly as male. In Dillard’s writing, pantheism functions as a discourse of exclusively male merger with nature, leaving her protagonist in a closed system where the endless transformation of pre-existing bodies supplants sexual reproduction. In some ways, Dillard even wants figuratively to transcend or erase her own voice and body and replace them with those of an explicitly male nature; this desire is foregrounded in her Emersonian wariness of all forms of self-consciousness. Even when the subject of Dillard’s text is Dillard—as in the autobiographical An [End Page 75] American Childhood—the observing “I” cannot be the focus of her work. But her still female observer, and the observer’s body, never entirely vanishes from the tale. Most strikingly, Dillard’s work is not the autobiographical or non-fiction nature writing of a contemporary woman, but the trickster fiction, or tinkering, of a postmodern confidence woman impersonating a male voice that is much older, in a number of contexts. Winning a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—which more appropriately should have won a National Book Award as a postmodern novel—Dillard anticipates an era of James Freys and falsified memoirs and journalistic accounts; but Dillard’s “transgressions” are epistemologically, ontologtically, and aesthetically deliberate. She subverts two genres, women’s memoirs and nature writing, that many readers trust as inherently authentic, by treating them as inherently subject to manipulation. Dillard merrily leads readers astray until she gives up the pretense of writing non-fiction altogether.
Little has been written concerning the discordant effects of Dillard’s (possibly disingenuous) use of a transcendental male persona as I attempt to elucidate them in this article. But critics have noted that “realist nature writing . . . and Transcendentalist literature” often posit “a male speaking subject and a female object of discourse, and further assume a hierarchical relationship . . . in which the masculine subject appropriates the feminine object to his own purposes” (Stein 26). (In addition, critics such as Donna Haraway have argued that “feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and the splitting of subject and object” .) Dillard’s anomalous transcendental project simultaneously inhabits, recapitulates, and possibly subverts this gendered, hierarchical tradition of nature writing. Dillard’s rehabilitation of pantheistic male views of nature, developed from the male writers of the American Renaissance, acts less as a form of influence than a constrictive grammar of self-construction and literary production in her work.
Transcendental writers like Emerson and Melville initiated a vocabulary of nature in which men reproduce without women or sexual reproduction, and must cease being in order to see (or narrate) All. They seemed to “transcend” gender and materiality by disembodying their characters—turning them into transparent eyeballs or invisible narrators—though their writing turns out to be predicated on the figurative amputation, rather than reproduction, of bodies. Dillard’s blend of [End Page 76] naturalism and mysticism revives this transcendental mistrust of female bodies associated with the material world. Dillard follows this model of the asexual or exclusively male reproduction of texts, and writes consistently not just in a male persona, but deploying a male epistemology. At the outset of her career, Dillard inaugurates Pilgrim in the “first person, as a [fifty year old] man” (“To Fashion” 145) in this case a phrase redundant in its transcendental ontology.1 Dillard everywhere implies that American Renaissance transcendentalism is inherently male, but almost never explicitly...