Annie Dillard was born Meta Ann Doak on April 30, 1945, the eldest of the three daughters of Frank and Pam Lambert Doak. Affluent and well connected in Pittsburgh society, the Doaks were energetic, free-spirited people who raised their daughters to be independent and adventurous. Not churchgoers themselves, they still made sure their daughters went to the Presbyterian Church, Sunday school, and church camp in the summers. The girls attended Pittsburgh’s prestigious Ellis School and were involved in their country club’s social activities.
As a child, Annie explored the natural world in the neighborhood and through the public library. Discovering The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, Annie began her methodical studies of insects, plants, and rocks, using her microscope and making drawings of what she observed. She briefly rebelled against her Presbyterian upbringing and the hypocrisy of churchgoers, and was suspended from high school for smoking. In her autobiographical An American Childhood (1987), Dillard recalls being encouraged by the Ellis headmistress to apply to Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, where “her rough edges” would be smoothed off; Annie herself hoped that those rough edges would be “a can opener, to cut … a hole in the world’s surface” through which she could escape (p. 243).
In the fall of 1963, Annie entered Hollins where she studied literature, writing, Christian theology and philosophy, and the natural sciences. The idealism and liberal social consciousness absorbed from her parents prompted Annie to work in antipoverty programs, read for the blind, and challenge paternalistic restrictions in the women’s college. In 1965, at the end of her sophomore year, she married R. H. W. Dillard, one of her writing professors. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Hollins in 1967, and a master’s degree in 1968, writing her thesis on Thoreau’s Walden. In 1974, her first books were published: Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, a collection of poems, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which