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Last Updated on October 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

In An American Childhood Dillard uses herself and her experiences growing up in Pittsburgh to examine the nature of American life. She claims that the book is not an autobiography but is rather a capturing of what it means for a child to come of age in the United States. Dillard seems to be uncomfortable with revealing information about herself; despite the fact that An American Childhood is intensely autobiographical, she denies that her purpose was to compose a memoir. Nevertheless, it is her account of her inward intellectual journey, offering incidents in her life through her mid-teenage years, the time Dillard says that the consciousness that directs her perceptions of the world as an adult was formed. She believes that it is as a child that one is truly alive, can feel most deeply, and is affected most strongly by experiences.

Perhaps Dillard feels compelled to attempt to escape the merely personal because she intends, as she says, to make a commentary on the universal nature of her experiences. Perhaps she also so strongly asserts the separation between her personal life and the life that she presents in this book because she is a genuinely private person. It is rare that Dillard gives interviews, does readings or lectures, or provides information about herself. She repeatedly insists that the personality of the writer is not what is important; rather, it is the ideas an individual conveys about the meaning of life, nature, and meaning that count and are what both readers and writers should pursue. She does not like the limelight because it takes away from the time she needs to read, reflect, and write. An American Childhood, then, offers readers a rare glimpse of the private side of Annie Dillard.

Her intention was to use herself as an example so that she could examine the way in which a child comes to consciousness—that is, arrives at the perceptions and attitudes that will guide her as an adult. She is by no means the first writer, American or otherwise, to attempt such an undertaking: Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850) are three oft-cited examples of this mode. An American Childhood is particularly reminiscent of Wordsworth’s famous spiritual epic. Like Wordsworth, who is regarded as one of the most important poets of nature, Dillard provides her readers with accounts of those childhood events that caused her to have such a passionate regard for and interest in the natural world. Also like Wordsworth is Dillard’s intense focus on the spiritual, mystical, and violent aspects of the natural world and her need to fit herself and, by extension, all of life into a meaningful pattern that makes sense of the seemingly senseless aspects of the natural realm.

Like Wordsworth, Dillard was a youthful rebel, always out of place in her upper-class environment. In An American Childhood, she explores the values that she could not adopt, the goals that she did not share, and the manners that she would not practice in order to examine the alternatives she ultimately chose.

Wordsworth was a child who needed solace; nature in all of its terrible majesty gave him the comfort that he could not find in other people. Dillard, too, needed an escape from her fears; for her, knowledge—in particular, knowledge about the natural world—gave her the power to triumph over her fears.

An American Childhood also provides readers with glimpses of Dillard’s family that tell more about Dillard than about her parents and siblings. It is not so important that these events be true as it is that she thinks that her interpretations of them are accurate. We see a loving family that does not quite know what to do with a daughter who rejects their Presbyterian religion, craves and seeks out solitude, is wild and unruly at school. The reader sees the psychic place in which Dillard grew up, and that view, no matter what she says to the contrary, offers readers a closer look at her as a person than did her earlier works. Even so, the book still maintains a distance between the reader and the person of Dillard.

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