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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek | Context

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Walden Pond to Tinker Creek

Walden Pond and Tinker Creek are among the best-known bodies of water in American literature. The pond was immortalized in 1854 by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: or, Life in the Woods, a book still read and admired in the 21st century for its ideas about how to live a simple life of self-reliance in nature. The creek became famous 121 years later when the young poet Annie Dillard won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

The geographic distance from Walden Pond in Massachusetts to Tinker Creek in Virginia is nearly 700 miles, but the two books are much closer, at least in their genre and narrative structure. Dillard consciously modeled her book after Thoreau's. Like him, she writes about what she observes in nature over the course of one year. The two authors both use their richly detailed observations of the wild as springboards for discussions about what nature has to teach them.

But at this point the two books start to diverge, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek becomes hard to categorize. Thoreau gives specific instructions for how to live in the woods; Dillard does not. Thoreau's experience of solitary living confirms his beliefs as a Transcendentalist, a member of the secular 19th-century philosophical movement emphasizing the inherent goodness of both humanity and nature. Dillard's observations of the natural world lead her to the opposite conclusion. She constantly batters readers with gruesome examples of the violence and death inherent in nature, a situation that at times leads her to startling spiritual epiphanies.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is about nature, but not in the way readers may expect. It is not a field guide about flora and fauna or a scientific treatise about the environment. It is not a survival guide or a how-to book about living off the grid. It is not an action tale about climbing a mountain or hacking through the jungle or circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat. When it was first published, the book did not fit neatly into a tradition of nature writing, which included Thoreau and others such as wilderness preservationist John Muir (1838–1914) and marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson (1907–64). Many readers in 1974 were not sure in what literary genre to place it. Even Dillard herself was perplexed, writing in her journal, "I am going nuts over this book. What kind of book is it?" Is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek about nature or religion?

Physical and Metaphysical

Dillard eventually decided her book was about both nature and religion. Looking back on her creative struggles in an afterword to the 25th anniversary edition, she recalls the moment she realized precisely what she wanted to do: "Why not write some sort of nature book—say, a theodicy?" she writes.

Theodicy is a spiritual term theologians use to reconcile the existence of suffering in the world with the concept of a loving and all-powerful creator. Dillard is not writing about nature on a purely physical level, as if this were a guide to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Although she wanted to share with readers the beauty and awe of the mountains—certainly such descriptions appear in the book—a specifically metaphysical purpose exists behind those passages. Dillard uses nature as a vehicle to help her understand the divine.

Her metaphysical purpose is evident as well in the organizing structure she uses. She appropriates two approaches used since ancient times by philosophers and theologians thinking about God: the via positiva (assumption of the presence of God) and the via negativa (description of what a thing is not). She also refers to stories from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, includes anecdotes about Eskimo shamans and Native American myths, and shares troubling dreams and exalted visions she has experienced. The book continually oscillates between the two polarities of the physical and the metaphysical: nature observed for itself and nature analyzed and interpreted, plumbed for deeper spiritual meaning. She even refers to herself in the title as a religious seeker, or pilgrim.

Narrative Nonfiction

Whether seen primarily as a book about nature or a book about religion, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is clearly nonfiction. The narrator, Annie Dillard, is a real person, and Tinker Creek is a real creek. But what kind of nonfiction is it? Through the years, Dillard has bristled at reviewers who call the book a collection of essays. To be fair, three chapters of the book were printed independently in magazines (including Sports Illustrated) before the book was published, and two chapters of the book appear in Dillard's collection of essays The Abundance (2016). So it is easy to see why many people consider Dillard an essayist despite her rejection of the label. But even though each chapter can be read and understood separately, the book contains a narrative thread: the duality, or dichotomy, of beauty and cruelty in nature. This thread runs through the text like connective tissue, linking the individual chapters and joining them into a unified whole.

Thus the book is considered to be part of the literary genre known as narrative nonfiction, which uses storytelling techniques to shape factual events in a way that is as entertaining as it is informative. As writer and university professor Lee Gutkind explains in his book The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007), narrative nonfiction seeks to "communicate information, just like a reporter, but ... in a way that reads like fiction." Examples of the genre include American writers Truman Capote's true crime story In Cold Blood (1966) and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997), a memoir of a doomed expedition to Mt. Everest.

Fact or Truth?

Writers of narrative nonfiction differ on how much license to grant themselves when embellishing the truth or even inventing things to make their books more dramatic. They differentiate between facts—by which they mean information that can be objectively verified by witnesses or documents—and truth, which is the deeper meaning of the story. Dillard has long acknowledged she "novelized" events when writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: "After all," she wrote in one journal, "we've had the nonfiction novel—it's time for the novelized book of nonfiction."

What events did Dillard invent? For example, the bloody tomcat scene on the first page did not actually happen to her. After Frank McCullough, a graduate student at Hollins College, told her the story, she asked his permission to borrow it for her book because she thought it was a vivid and compelling image she could use to suggest a kind of baptism by nature.

Dillard claims most of the creative license she took in writing the book has to do with omission rather than invention: "I didn't obscure anything, I just left it out." By never stating otherwise, she allowed readers to believe she lived alone in a rustic cabin by an isolated creek in the mountains. In reality she lived with her husband in an ordinary suburban house in a neighborhood within the city limits of Roanoke, Virginia, population just under 100,000 at the time. Tinker Creek ran through her backyard, not far from a busy street. And she wrote the second half of the book not on a sycamore log over the creek, or even in her home, but in a study carrel in the stacks of the Hollins College library, with a window overlooking the parking lot.

But the core of the book is true. Dillard actually experienced the natural events about which she writes, and in reflecting on them, she came to revelations of deeper truths about the world. Thoreau did the same with Walden, changing the calendar of real events to fit the one-year timeline of the book and omitting inconvenient facts such as his proximity to town. And yet his book remains a classic because it conveys a level of meaning that goes beyond mere facts: "Walden, shaped as it was," Dillard states, "nevertheless told the truth." So too does Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

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