An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces An American Childhood Analysis

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With An American Childhood, Dillard places herself outside the mainstream of autobiography. Eschewing the conventions of the traditional life history, she opts instead for a book which chronicles the details of her internal, rather than external, life. The story she tells so eloquently is that of her intellectual awakening and her growing awareness throughout her childhood of herself as a conscious being with a place in the world.

Dillard describes this process as exactly that—an awakening—noting early in the book, “I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again.” She begins her story with her father’s Ohio River journey when she was ten, a time when she found herself “awake” more often than not—a crucial turning point in any life. For young Annie, lost in the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886), her father’s trip, although ultimately unsuccessful, comes to represent the courage to follow one’s dreams to their conclusion, whatever the result. It is a stance to which she will hold throughout her childhood as she pursues each new interest with a passion and dedication that shine clearly in her recounting of those years.

Chief among her passions is reading; it forms the basis for all of her subsequent endeavors and offers to her the window she seeks onto the world beyond her young life. Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study (1941) leads her to set up a studio in the family’s attic, where she spends hours at a time sketching her baseball mitt, while a rock collection passed along to her by her grandfather’s paperboy sends her to the library for a guide to rocks and minerals. Venturing well beyond the confines of “juvenile literature,” she devours From Here to Eternity (1951), Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854), Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913), and Ulysses (1922). A key book is The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, which provides a tremendous revelation in the form of its library lending-card. Perusing it, Annie discovers to her astonishment that many other patrons have also checked it out—a fact which causes her to realize for the first time that intellectual curiosity is a shared trait, one which connects her with countless readers she will never know.

One of the joys of Dillard’s writing is her ability to communicate the enthusiasm and energy of her youthful interior life, the intensity of each new interest, the full measure of her absorption in it, and the heady excitement it brings her. As a bright and sensitive child (a claim she never makes for herself but which shines through in the spirit that informs the book), she possesses a restless mental energy that leads her to throw herself wholeheartedly into every endeavor. Her observations of the world around her are keen and often perceptive beyond her years, and Dillard walks a fine line between offering a child’s perspective on her world and her own adult interpretations of her memories.

Dillard gives her self-portrait a specific sense of time and place: Pittsburgh in the postwar era, as prosperity and economic growth provide the country with a sense of well-being. The polio epidemic and the arrival of the Salk vaccine are momentous events, and her view of the world is shaped by the vast numbers of books and articles concerning the war and Nazi atrocities, including Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl , 1953). Overall, however, Annie’s interests lie with the natural...

(This entire section contains 1229 words.)

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world—insects, rocks, microbiology—and the world of literature, and she explores both with a curiosity that seems all-consuming.

Yet Dillard was not the withdrawn bookworm her interests might have led her to become. An avid baseball fan, she spends hours perfecting her pitching technique, playing two-handed games with a friend’s brother, and bemoaning the absence of girls in the Little League. Her fascination with the world around her also makes her bicycle one of the most important features in her life, and she uses it to explore ever-widening areas surrounding her familiar neighborhood. Images of neighbors and friends, specifically recalled moments come vividly to life as the book sketches in the setting that contains and sparks her ceaseless intellectual growth. In one exhilarating passage, she remembers her attempt at flight, hurtling headlong down the sidewalks flapping her arms with all the magnificent faith of childhood in the project’s outcome.

The shift which Annie’s life undergoes in adolescence is a painfully accurate portrait of that awkward age. Experiencing another awakening, she comes face-to-face with the world of privilege in which her family lives, noting, “I longed for the fabled Lower East Side of Manhattan, . . . where the thoughtful and feeling people in books grew up. . . . Instead, I saw polished fingernails clicking, rings flashing, gold bangle bracelets banging.” It is an environment she comes to hate, chafing against the course mapped out for her life. She quits the church, argues with her parents, retreats to the isolation of her room, and attempts, unsuccessfully, to incite her classmates to rebellion. Her next few years resemble an angry, walking breakdown, a time she describes as “a fast path into a long tunnel. . . . I was going to hell on a handcart, that was all, and I knew it and everyone around me knew it, and there it was.” Dillard conveys the fury and confusion of this period in her life with harrowing intensity, capturing the impatience, the sense of life rushing forward, and the combination of uncertainty and superiority that mark those on the brink of adulthood.

Dillard sees her eventual departure from her family and Pittsburgh as prefigured by her reading and the very environment that shaped her. She notes near the end of the book, “As a child I read hoping to learn everything, so I could be like my father. . . . But the books were leading me away. They would propel me right out of Pittsburgh altogether.” Her father and his river trip also figure in her longing: “Possibly because Father had loaded his boat one day and gone down the Ohio River, I confused leaving with living, and vowed that when I got my freedom, I would be the one to do both.” Although her two sisters, surprisingly, figure only peripherally in her story, An American Childhood contains an evocative, often-amusing portrait of Annie’s life with her family. Her parents and grandmother, in particular, emerge as memorable characters, and a long segment is devoted to her mother’s and father’s love of humor and telling jokes, which they pass on to their daughters with enthusiasm.

An American Childhood is a beautifully written book, dazzling in its descriptive passages and full of insight, intelligence, and passion. Flashes of dry wit and a stunning command of language are the hallmarks of Dillard’s style as a writer, and she brings all of her talent to bear on this chronicle of her youth. Suiting her language to the emotions of childhood and adolescence, she achieves the difficult objective of expressing in eloquently adult terms the essence of a young girl coming eagerly to life as an intellectual being. It is perhaps the very task for which a childhood spent lost in a world of books best prepared her.

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