Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces An American Childhood Analysis - Essay

Annie Dillard

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces An American Childhood Analysis

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...

(The entire section is 1229 words.)