Annie Dillard is still best known for her 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Even though most of her subsequent books have treated spiritual and mystical themes (sometimes to the exclusion of the natural world), the public views her as a “nature writer.” Both her visionary probings of nature and her explorations of Christian mysticism shed much light on her latest work, a first autobiographical volume, An American Childhood.
The title is ironic. It implies an averageness and typicality which in fact was not Dillard’s lot. Born and reared in Pittsburgh, of a white, Protestant, upper-middle-class family, part of the elite of the city, she knew little about ethnic diversity, working-class poverty, or racial tension. She had two younger sisters, a father who was a business executive, and a mother who did not work “outside the home.” There was a black maid and a boat, and the children were sent to private schools, weekly dancing classes, and the elite Presbyterian church.
Yet Dillard was not even a typical aristocrat. Her writing and, more important, her perception of childhood, may be unique in American letters. She will take a usual occupation of a ten-year-old—drawing or rock collecting, for example—and delve deeply into herself as that child, so that the occupation is no longer typical but uniquely her own. She writes, “When you pry open the landscape, you find wonders.” That sentence could be an epigraph for all Dillard’s life and work.
Moreover, the unique intensity of Dillard’s experiencing of her own life places her in a position far above the average. The dust jacket says, “Dillard’s ecstatic interest in the world begins here in childhood.” The word “ecstatic” describes Dillard’s work perfectly. The Greek origin of “ecstasy” is “a being put out of its place”; the word also means a trance or “overpowering religious emotion or rapture.” “Ecstasy” is one of a series of words with religious overtones that Dillard often uses: “passionate,” “exultant,” “enthusiastic,” “ecstatic”—all these describe the young girl’s attitude toward the world and life. The very vocabulary underscores the theme of all Dillard’s work—the spiritual pilgrimage, the mystic quest.
Dillard’s autobiography is centered on two contradictory processes: coming to conscious awareness and the periodic ecstasies of transcending self and losing consciousness in the glory of experience. The excitement derives not from losing identity but rather from gaining consciousness after having lost it. Ironically, if one is awake and conscious all the time, one cannot have the ecstatic experience of coming to consciousness. It is Dillard’s thesis that children come to consciousness gradually, and this process is a visionary and passionate one. At ten, says Dillard, “I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” Thus Dillard’s mission is to continue to awaken to consciousness, to capture the sensation of aliveness one has in standing under a waterfall or seeing an amoeba in the microscope. Recalling Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the project is to continue to be open to moments of pure transcendence, as when—while patting a puppy in the gas station—she watches the sun break through the clouds on Mount Rogers. One recalls also her describing “the tree with lights in it” that the newly sighted recount.
In order to live in this way, one must learn to notice. All creative conceptual work begins in the same place, with noticing, and Dillard the scientist, the philosopher, the poet, and the artist learns early its craft. As a child, she sketches the same baseball mitt every day for a month, memorizes faces and makes police artist drawings, painstakingly identifies and catalogs 340 rock specimens, memorizes “miles” of Bible verses (whose rhythms sing in her head as she writes poetry), and finds one-celled animals in pond water with her microscope. Her pun on the process is pure Dillard: “One took note; one took notes.” She concludes near the end of the book in a sentence-paragraph typical of her style. She gives the general point, then a long series of detailed descriptors, the whole ending with a philosophical, often epigrammatic thought to ponder:It all got noticed: the horse’s shoulders pumping; sunlight warping the air over a hot field; the way leaves turn color, brightly, cell by cell; and even the splitting, half-resigned and half-astonished feeling you have when you notice you are walking on earth for a while now—set down for a spell—in this particular time for no particular reason, here.
The structure of the book complements the double theme of consciousness and self-consciousness. The prologue has two main sections. The first is a lyrically historical overview of Pittsburgh’s topology that ends with the first settlers (“tall men and women lay exhausted in their cabins, sleeping in the sweetness, worn out from planting corn”). The second introduces her father and juxtaposes the many Pittsburgh suicides her father watched from his high office window with his quitting his job to sail down the Ohio River on a small boat. Part 1 of An American Childhood encompasses Dillard’s early childhood memories; it closes when she is ten, “awake now forever.” Part 2 is the center of the book and covers the wonderful preadolescent years of ecstasy—consciousness and...