October 19, 1987 12:00 PM

On a cloudless late summer day on Cape Cod, a tall, imposing woman with tousled blond hair runs to the water’s edge and collapses on the beach. Cupping a handful of sand, Annie Dillard inspects her treasure with the kind of adoration she bestows on her 3-year-old daughter. When a dozen sea gulls swoop overhead, interrupting her reverie in the sand, she fixes on them with equal fascination. “See,” she marvels, “they have patches of lightness on their wingtips that look like mirrors.”

The outdoors, with all its quirks and beauties, is the fragile fabric of everyday life to Dillard. At 42, the author and naturalist views the world with the excitement of a child and the wisdom, reviewers have said, of Henry David Thoreau. She may devote an entire book to the intimate exploration of the flora and fauna in a Virginia valley, as she did in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Similarly she is capable of creating a book out of her reflections during three days on an island in Puget Sound in a tiny house with “one enormous window, one cat, one spider and one person,” as she did in 1977’s Holy the Firm.

Though Dillard claims that very little happens in her seven books (which include a volume of poetry and Living by Fiction, a collection of thoughts about the theories and contributions of some modern writers), she is wrong. Concentrating her elegant, sometimes esoteric prose on, say, a dying frog (“His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent”), she creates small but powerful dramas. “A reader’s heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled,” Eudora Welty once wrote of Dillard.

Now the country girl has invaded urban terrain for her first book in three years, a best-seller called An American Childhood (Harper & Row, $17.95). In her lyrical, meandering fashion, Dillard writes of growing up in Pittsburgh in the ’50s. This is less a book about steel and smoke in the town that Carnegie built than it is about boys and baseball, imagination and insect-collecting. “I didn’t want to write about me,” says Dillard, “just a book about noticing that you’re living.”

Dillard immerses herself delightedly in recapturing bicycle rides and bloodied lips and such matters as what children do in their rooms: “They are reading the same paragraphs over and over,” she writes, “dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege.”

The author emerges from her carefully etched memories as a brash, defiant young woman. Christened Meta Ann Doak, she lived comfortably and attended private schools—from one of which she was suspended at 16 for smoking—thanks to money amassed by her great-great-grandfather, founder of the company that became American Standard. Her father went from one job to another, finally settling in a firm that recorded radio commercials. “Our family was on the lunatic fringe,” says Dillard. “My mother was always completely irrepressible. My father made crowd noises into a microphone.”

Dillard’s disapproval of the social milieu in which she grew up creeps into her writing, and the family has taken note of it. “There’s a bit of vomit in [the book],” says Annie’s mother, Pam Doak, who feels her famous daughter “loves us very dearly but doesn’t particularly like us.” Adds Amy Fields, one of Annie’s two sisters: “She thinks I could put my life to better use.”

At 17, Annie happily left home and enrolled at Hollins College in Virginia. She soon fell in love with her professor of creative writing, R.H.W. Dillard, and married him at the end of her sophomore year. She went on to earn a master’s degree in English in 1968, then spent her time painting. “I had to make an elaborate religious justification for what I did,” she says. “God gave me a talent to draw. I ‘owed’ it to him to develop the talent.” About that time, she also decided that one of her purposes on earth was to read. Consuming the classics, books on nature, literary criticism and poetry, she kept careful journals on her reading and general observations about the world.

After recovering from a nearly fatal case of pneumonia in 1971, Dillard determined to experience life outside literature and went on camping trips. It was one such trip that inspired Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which suddenly made Dillard, then 29, a big-name writer—much to her amazement. “I thought 40 monks would read it,” she says. When a friend called to tell her she had won the Pulitzer, Dillard was in the kitchen washing lettuce. “The Pulitzer is more useful than meaningful,” she says. “What I felt at the time was that I had to finish washing the lettuce.”

Uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving, Dillard fled to the Northwest, where she landed a position as a scholar-in-residence at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Her marriage to Dillard was over by this time, though she says their problems had nothing to do with her success. There Dillard fell in love with another academic—Gary Clevidence, an anthropology professor at Fairhaven College. They moved to Middletown, Conn., where Annie began teaching at Wesleyan University. She and Gary married in 1980. The birth of their daughter, Rosie, in 1984, led Dillard to begin writing about her own childhood.

Though motherhood has, according to her sister Amy, made Dillard a bit more approachable, she still craves what she calls “life in a bubble.” Summers are spent on Cape Cod, where she has been working on a mysterious new book started earlier this year. “It’s about what something feels like,” Dillard says tantalizingly. “As far as I know, it has never been written about before.”

Recently separated from Clevidence, Dillard is devoting her energy to writing and is looking forward to taking up her writing course next semester. “When I teach, I preach,” she says. “I thump the Bible. I exhort my students morally. I talk to them about the dedicated life. I often get very choked up.” Dillard has strong feelings on this subject, as on everything else. “It just seems so important to tell them to give their lives to something larger than themselves—to literature or peace or helping others or the life of the senses. Status-seeking has to be fought anew in every generation. The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart.”

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