An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction An American Childhood Analysis

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Dillard chose to write a book of reflections and memories, some of which were published elsewhere first. Through fluid, often rhapsodic prose she creates a fully developed character whose highly charged precocity and sensitivity affirm human potential and significance. Although written for an adult audience, the book speaks to young adults in its subject matter and tone.

An American Childhood leaves no doubt as to what makes life matter. Dillard loved her parents with her whole heart, and they gave her love, security, and a passion for knowing. Her father cultivated the scientist part of herself: He engaged her natural curiosity; encouraged collecting, sorting, labeling, and experimenting; and explained the intricacies of technology. Her mother nurtured the artist within, the interior self “where the life of the senses mingles with the life of the spirit,” by giving her freedom and modeling a heightened sense of moral principle and anticon-formity. Dillard dedicates her book to both parents.

It was Pittsburgh that gave Dillard roots, and though she describes an occasional excursion to Florida, Pittsburgh is at the center of the book. It is where she lives, moves, and discovers her being. She pronounces it “a great town to grow up in.” More than people and place, however, it was books that shaped Dillard’s life. Initially, the visible world piqued her curiosity and sent her to the neighborhood library, where she was soon given adult privileges of choice. Books introduced her to more natural wonders, which in turn propelled her back to the world. Her appetite was voracious—she wanted to know and remember everything—and the attention and effort that reading demanded she wanted to apply equally to life. Hence, she reveled in pitching ball not so much as recreation than as a disciplined means of total concentration. She would dash down Penn Avenue full speed, like a maniac, for the sheer exhilaration of letting energy carry her to the limit. Life, if it was to have meaning, had to be lived with passion. Books nurtured that passion.

In addition, books nurtured her interior life. They awakened her moral imagination, filled and expanded it toward a radical sense of being that eventually would separate her from the familiar people and places of childhood. Reading imparted a secret joy and hope: that there is a life worth living where “courage is still prized” and “ideas are worth dying for.” What Dillard sought in books was “a world whose people and events actually matched the exaltation of the interior life.” Perhaps the closest that she came to tasting such ideals was not at home or in Pittsburgh but on weekend retreats with the Schoyer family to a country farm in West Virginia, where she gloried in the simple beauty of a cow path through a dewy pasture and in drawing well water with a bucket and cooking pancakes in the cabin’s fireplace. It was here that she began “the lifelong task of tuning my own gauges.”

Those gauges pointed away from the weekend country club dances and film dates of her adolescent years. They pointed away from the promising sons who would inherit corporate Pittsburgh and who had ambitions to make a million dollars before turning thirty, away from the conformity imposed on those with wealth and status, and away from Pittsburgh. For the young woman who had read the French symbolists and the American realists, who had learned about ghettos and gas chambers, and who had committed to memory long passages from Shakespeare and the Bible, there could not be a comfortable niche within a prestigious Pittsburgh neighborhood. A life that matters, a passionately engaged life, lay elsewhere.

For Dillard, in such a life “you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall.” That life is “riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping.” It is remembering your mortality. That is living—and writing—at its best.

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