An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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An American Childhood

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Readers of Dillard’s previous books will not be surprised to find that she approaches her subject in a quirky way. (How does one classify PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK? HOLY THE FIRM? ENCOUNTERS WITH CHINESE WRITERS?) The basic facts of autobiography are here: Dillard was born in 1945, the eldest of three daughters of Frank and Pam Doak. She grew up in Pittsburgh at a time when American industry was enjoying unparalleled prosperity; through a family firm, the perfectly named American Standard, the Doaks shared in that well-being. Annie went to school, played baseball, read books and collected rocks, and metamorphosed into a rebellious teenager.

There is no straightforward chronological narrative in which these experiences are related, however, nor are Dillard’s emphases--what she includes, what she leaves out--those of the conventional memoirist. Her controlling subject is not the growth of her individual sensibility; rather, she uses her experience to re-create the fall into time, the growth of awareness that every human being experiences: “I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years.” Indeed, it is this “awakening” that makes human beings unique among all the creatures of the Earth: “Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be?”

Whether she is remembering her early perception of nuns (“those white boards like pillories with circles cut out and some bunched human flesh pressed like raw pie crust into the holes”), her passion for drawing (one favorite subject was her baseball mitt), or her fascination with the French and Indian War (“The names of the places were a litany: Fort Ticonderoga on the Hudson ...”), Dillard does not merely describe “what happened"; she shows us a child’s consciousness opening to the world.

Bibliography

Clark, Suzanne. “Annie Dillard: The Woman in Nature and the Subject of Nonfiction.” In Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. Clark’s analysis probes Dillard’s prose style in order to question how one knows that this is “woman’s” writing.

Gunn, Janet Varner. “A Politics of Experience: Leila Khaled’s My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary.” In De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. A somewhat advanced study, this essay is nevertheless useful for providing a comparison to Dillard’s focus on the significance of landscape to memory.

Johnson, Sandra Humble. The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992. A study of literary epiphany, this work examines all Annie Dillard’s writing as a “perusal of illumination.” Includes a secondary bibliography and a thorough index.

Scheick, William. “Annie Dillard: Narrative Fringe.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. This essay discusses Dillard’s narrative technique as a metaphysical concept.

Smith, Linda L. Annie Dillard. New York: Twayne, 1991. This biographical work sums up Dillard’s career and anticipates its future direction.

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