Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
By choosing to emphasize the growth of her interior life in her autobiography, Annie Dillard has carved a niche for herself among those writers whose life stories move beyond the details of dates and chronologies of events into the realm of thought and ideas. One senses from the book that what she finds important in her life is her intellectual progress and those elements which contributed to it. The result is an account that grips its readers with the inherent drama of intellectual discovery and speaks directly to those whose own lives have also been shaped by a passion for knowledge and growth.
That Dillard has chosen to label her childhood specifically “American” is also an important consideration, and the fact that her formative years were far from typical, both in the depth and breadth of her reading and in the near-total absence of television as an influence in her development, does not undercut the validity of the title. Born into the postwar era, young Annie possesses all the confidence and energy that the country itself experienced in those years, and her breathless rush toward her awakening as a conscious being has reverberations in the growth and prosperity of the 1950’s. As Annie enters adolescence and the country enters the 1960’s, however, questions and doubts arise, rebellion begins, and everything that has gone before is held up to criticism and reexamination. Indeed, the course that Dillard traces through her childhood is one with striking parallels to that of the United States itself, culminating in Dillard’s departure from Pittsburgh for college and adult life—a striking symbol of the dramatically increased mobility that has become an intrinsic part of the fabric of American life.
Within the scope of Dillard’s own work, An American Childhood can be seen as a companion piece to, or perhaps a logical extension of, the author’s prizewinning Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. In that book, Dillard chronicles the course of one year spent at Tinker’s Creek in Virginia, using her reflections and observations on the natural world as a means of exploring her own thoughts and feelings. The same urgency and absorption in life and nature that inform the earlier book are present in Dillard’s autobiography, and An American Childhood emerges as a vividly realized meditation on one writer’s childhood journey toward intellectual awakening.