It’s important that Annie Dillard fills An American Childhood to the brim with allusions, brief references to people, places, historical events, or other literature, because while An American Childhood is a story about what she did as a young child, it’s even more a story about what she read. From what you’ve read of the novel, I’m sure you can tell that she’s a prolific reader, and her frequent allusions to books that she’s read and obscure topics that fascinate her give insight into her character--instead of the narrator directly telling you “I was precocious for my age,” or “ I am fascinated by history,” she weaves her knowledge into the novel itself. Some readers might see this as slightly show-offy, but you can make up your own mind!
In the beginning chapters of An American Childhood, Dillard often uses allusions to create a sense of place. Her hometown, Pittsburgh, is located at the merging of three rivers, which she describes on page 4. She alludes to a famous story about George Washington’s decision to build a fort at this merging, which was a risky move considering that the French already occupied this territory. It’s an interesting story--however, for an autobiography of a young girl growing up in the mid 1900s, it seems very random, right?
However, through this allusion, Dillard accomplishes several things…
She connects her personal story to a much larger story, the story of her hometown. By doing this, she gives the small events of her life meaning; as a part of a larger narrative, she’s not an individual anymore, lonely and disconnected, but part of a story and equal to George Washington.
Mentioning Pittsburgh’s history is effective as at the time of her writing, Pittsburgh was the center of steel production, but also known as one of the most polluted cities in America. For many readers, it may not have seemed a very interesting or exotic place, particularly for a full-length work to be set. Dillard reclaims Pittsburgh’s proud and interesting history for her readers.
- Dillard’s allusions celebrate knowledge. Think of her as a collector of rare and obscure facts. These facts delight her and knowing them makes her who she is. Even if the allusion might not exactly seem appropriate, it gives us insight into Dillard as a reader, and therefore, from her perspective, as a human.