Panel: Mixing and Unfixing Identities and Genres
Copanelists: Monika Boehringer and Li Zhanzi
Throughout her putatively “documentary” works, the contemporary naturalist Annie Dillard locates her voice and self using the framework of nineteenth‑century American transcendentalists; she seeks knowledge, inspiration, and even identity from an impersonal nature coded predominantly as male. 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 American Childhood—the observing “I” cannot be the focus of her work. Rather than the purely autobiographical nature writing of a contemporary woman, Dillard’s work also represents the trickster fiction of a postmodern confidence woman. Dillard’s putatively autobiographical non-fiction works are explicitly written from the perspective of older male narrators; and they incessantly fabricate putatively autobiographical experiences (e.g., the cat that claws “Dillard” at the opening of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek belonged to and clawed one of her graduate students, not Dillard); the length and nature of her experiences; and even entire characters (the allegedly burned girl “Julia Norwich” in Holy the Firm represents an in-joke regarding Dillard’s obsession with the mystic Julian of Norwich).
When Dillard proposes to an interviewer that her use of the (male) first person is “merely a narrative device—a kind of floating eyeball, a unifying device”—referencing Emerson’s transparent eyeball, and his notion that the self can only know itself by disappearing and losing all self-consciousness— we can only wonder if Dillard’s autobiographical essays contain anything but narrative ploys. Dillard also reminds us that while we’ve learned to read labyrinthine male novelists, we “haven’t yet gotten the message that a woman need not be sincere,” even in her supposed autobiography. My paper then focuses on the ways Dillard creates autobiography as postmodern fiction, yet also resuscitates transcendental male models of self-representation, and the transcendental split between male observer/autobiographer and observed male self.
Richard Hardack earned a PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley and a JD from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. He currently teaches appellate advocacy and legal research and writing at Santa Clara University.