An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature An American Childhood Analysis

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In keeping with the spirit of “waking-up” that Dillard sees as essential to coming alive, An American Childhood analyzes how that “waking-up” begins and functions. The author’s discussion of Pittsburgh, for example, notes the city’s own consciousness from an unruly preindustrial dreamscape into an industrialized urban landscape. Similarly, her father “wakes up” one day to fulfill his dream of leaving Pittsburgh. Like Dillard, her father is deeply moved by books; after years of reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), he leaves his young wife and three daughters to cruise downriver to New Orleans. Dillard presents the act as a natural adventure for her father to undertake; she is marked for good by his adventure, and because of it she will see her own, slower and less deliberate departure as equally appropriate.

Dillard’s coming awake was a gradual discovery of her own recklessness. She asks, “Was everything beautiful so bold?” answering “yes” by building up narratives laced with a reckless and disturbingly bold beauty. One scene finds her family staring in awe at little Jo Ann Sheehy skating on the frozen street one icy winter night. “Here were beauty and mystery outside the house,” writes Dillard, “and peace and safety within.” Because her parents did not disapprove of such a scene, the young Dillard not only is captivated by the beauty of recklessness but also sees its value. That was the originating moment for her own unstoppable boldness.

The slight adventures Dillard recounts are for her as exemplary of freedom as Saint Augustine’s stolen pears were for him. Even at age five, she learns how to enter the imaginative inner world of fiction deliberately or the outer world of reason at whim. At seven, Dillard roams the neighborhood freely, arming herself with memorized street names and phone numbers. She describes an incident in which a driver whose car she and some friends have pelted with snowballs in turn chases them across the neighborhood backyards until, finally, exhilarated by the hunt, Dillard believes she could now die happy.

Eventually, Dillard’s joy in the beauty of recklessness develops into an overriding search for information about the dangerous and volatile world that she inhabits. She becomes a bookish child, and her frequent trips to the Homewood branch of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library throw her into the “passive abyss of reading” while raising her from the stupor of childhood. Dillard is still seeking freedom but now within books, which make her delirious but reverential. Reading broadly, she eventually becomes immersed in The Field Book of Ponds and Streams . She lovingly studies every part of its surface and pores over its contents; the book shocks her with the revelation of strange worlds. One world, certainly, was that of ponds and streams, but she is more shocked by what the book suggested: Its full lending card indicated that many other readers joined in her fascination with pond life. Even more noteworthy was the revelation of her own world: Most of the other readers of this book were African Americans, people who lived in the poverty-stricken area of Pittsburgh in which the library was located. She thought that such people had neither microscopes nor money nor time to study plankton, making their avid reading of this book all the more surprising. It was a revelation of social injustice. Moreover, she denies that the book was authored by a woman—although her name is clearly stated on the title page—imagining from the authority of the voice and freedom of its subject that its author had to be a man. Although she does not dwell on such insights, her...

(This entire section contains 926 words.)

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attitude toward the discovery of social and gender inequality suggests that these issues are central to her own intellectual and moral education.

She discovers boys, too, as a curious naturalist might: She wakes one day and notices them at dancing school, a place centrally significant in her social milieu. Her attitude toward them is endearing; the boys are “cute,” their rituals together novel and attractive. At age ten, they already seem to her as larger than life. Even at fifteen, they seem like “walking gods who conferred divine power with their least glances.” The distinction she sees between the sexes is that while the boys were becoming responsible members of their world, learning self-control and real information about the world outside, girls “had failed to develop any selves worth controlling,” and were instead “vigilantes of the trivial.” While the tone here is as factually distant as when she is cataloging her rock collection or listing the books she has read, the diction suggests a bitterness over an inequity that she could only articulate from the distance of adulthood. In the middle of it, she is as certain of her own negligibility as a girl as were the boys whom she believed always shared that view.

Dillard’s adolescence is feverish. Her “girlish” lack of self-control rockets into no control at all, exasperating her parents, her teacher, and to a lesser extent, her own self. Because she feels her “self” so keenly, she disproves her theory that girls do not develop selves. While other girls may have failed to notice the world outside, Dillard brought home every scrap and ounce of it, cataloged and ordered it, examined it critically and enthusiastically, and eventually transfigured it into her own self. The melancholy for the past she reveals at the end of her narrative indicates that life has not been without struggles for her, but she nevertheless finds the current view fine.

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