An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


An American Childhood is a 1987 memoir written by Pulitzer Prize–winning American author Annie Dillard. In it, Dillard remembers her childhood and adolescence and describes her life growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Plot Summary

The story begins when Dillard is five years old and continues until she is eighteen. At the age of five, she thinks that there is a monster coming into her bedroom at night, then later realizes the monster was only headlights. It is at this point in time that she discovers how to incorporate reason alongside her vivid imagination in her “interior life.” She also recalls looking for old coins, which her father tells her have value, and sneaking out to go to a local park to watch the “bums” who live there. Even at a young age, Dillard is very sensitive and introspective, enjoys people-watching, and reads extensively.

In part 2, Dillard develops an interest in several nonfiction topics in her reading, such as the French and Indian War. She comes across a book about drawing at a neighbor’s house and is surprised that there are books about things people do; she has been drawing for a few years herself. She takes the book’s advice and draws every day, following a rigorous schedule. As she doesn’t have a model that she can practice drawing, she instead draws her baseball mitt. This leads to an interest in working as a detective and drawing profiles based on descriptions. Dillard soon realizes how difficult this technique is in practice and gives it up. In her readings, she moves on from the French and Indian War to World War II, which captivates her imagination and seems more real to her because people who lived through the war are all around her. She relates to the stories she reads in books about World War II because she is herself living through the Cold War; she wonders how long her family could survive in their basement in the case of an atomic explosion. The end of part 2 finds Dillard maturing into her adult self, engaging in adult activities such as attending dinner parties and dances. 

Part 3 is shorter than the previous two, and in it Dillard chronicles her teenage life. She begins with a reflection on the origins of Pittsburgh, her home city. She regards Andrew Carnegie as its founder and appreciates his benefactions to local museums and other public works. She takes a weekly art class at one such museum. Dillard’s fascination with life and knowledge continues, but her teenage years bring her to new levels of frustration, anger, and passion as she develops stubborn opinions, reads books over and over again, and plays music until her fingers bleed and instruments break. At this time, Dillard becomes more cognizant of herself; her formerly unobstructed view of the world is now impeded by a burgeoning self-consciousness, an awareness that her own thoughts and emotions mediate her perceptions of the world. 

Dillard’s parents become exasperated with her during this era of her life: she quits her church and is suspended from school and grounded for smoking. Part 3 ends with Dillard recalling the beginning of her preparations for college, including her assignment to Hollins College by her school’s headmistress and her love for the campus. 

In her epilogue, Dillard reflects that it is not her own personal story—nor that of the reader—that matters, but the experience of “coming awake.” As an adult writing this book, she still experiences this sensation many times a day. She concludes by recalling the period before she left for college—the excitement of which proves that she will continue to pursue a life of passion, intensity, and curiosity.

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