An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Annie Dillard begins An American Childhood in a way that takes the focus entirely off herself. Rather than jumping right in to memories of her childhood, she instead reflects on America—specifically, the topography of Pittsburgh, where most of her memoir takes place. In this short first section of the prologue, she describes Pittsburgh’s landscape and skyline along with a bit of American history. Each new section of An American Childhood begins as such, with a wider picture than Dillard’s individual life, hinting that the book is about something larger than her. 

After this idyllic beginning to her memoir, the second chapter of the prologue comes across as rather sudden, as readers are thrown into Dillard’s story. The chapter’s beginning is made even more blunt by the fact that the first memory Dillard recounts is when she is ten years old, whereas the actual memoir begins when she is five. Readers are plunged into the middle of Dillard’s childhood so that Dillard can set up a motif that she uses to frame the entire book: her father’s fascination with New Orleans and decision to travel there by riverboat. She mentions specifically her father’s love for New Orleans jazz, which she returns to in the epilogue. 

While Dillard names specific events in her childhood, such as when she began attending dancing school or when her father left for New Orleans, she tends to divide her life into stages of her “interior life” rather than actual events. One of the ways she tells her story is by tracing the development of her consciousness—a theme she establishes in the prologue. At the age of ten, Dillard is just beginning to “wake up” and discover topics that will fascinate her for years, such as geology and biology. When Dillard returns to her ten-year-old self later in the memoir, readers better understand this concept of “waking up” and that Dillard is gaining consciousness of herself. She realizes that she exists in time, just like the people, places, and objects around her. 

Fittingly, then, the youngest version of Dillard that readers are exposed to is five—that is, when she first begins to experience this revelation. She describes her childhood self as “mindless”; she is ignorant of herself, observing only the world outside of her, unconscious of her place in it. However, she soon begins to alternate between “being,” or losing herself in her studies of the world around her, and “knowing you be,” or seeing herself in addition and in relation to the world around her. This dynamic reaches its climax in her adolescence, at which point she can no longer forget herself. As a teenager, she longs to lose herself in the world as she did as a child—but try as she might, she is “in [her] own way,” fully self-conscious.

The way Dillard recounts the story of her childhood reflects this theme of coming in and out of self-consciousness; Dillard frequently draws her readers into close examinations of her childhood interests. In these detailed descriptions of Dillard’s parents’ skin, a child ice-skating in the street, and rock collections, the reader is frequently taken out of Dillard’s narrative and permitted to see the world as Dillard saw it in her unconscious moments. In passages like the first chapter of each section, which Dillard begins with histories of places or philosophic contemplations, the reader can forget momentarily that the memoir is about Dillard, just as Dillard as a child frequently lost sight of herself in observing the world around her. 

Dillard also divides her story into stages by her childhood interests and awareness of the world. As...

(This entire section contains 999 words.)

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Dillard’s consciousness matures and as she is less able to lose herself in the world around her, her knowledge and awareness of the world expands. It begins small, with her observations of the kitchen, household daily life, her hands, and her parents’ skin. She then begins to explore her neighborhood by walking and biking, and the boundaries of her world expand. When she takes to reading, her world grows infinitely, and she explores other places and times than those of the suburban Pittsburgh life she has lived thus far. The expansion of the boundaries of Dillard’s world is completed in the epilogue, in which Dillard writes of her preparations for college, when she will break free of Pittsburgh and travel to new places herself, like her father once did in attempting to sail to New Orleans. 

Part 3 of the memoir is shorter than the other sections, and it ends abruptly. It mainly addresses Dillard’s teenage life and ends just before she goes to college. Dillard doesn’t write much about college at all—only that she has been assigned to a college by the headmistress of her school and likes the campus. Although this might leave readers curious about Dillard’s college experiences and later life, it is appropriate for the book: the “childhood” from the memoir’s title has ended, and she has moved on to a new era of her life. She returns in the epilogue to her father’s fascination with New Orleans jazz, wondering in the last sentence if the music in New Orleans will be loud enough—if the life she will find in college and beyond will contain enough excitement to satisfy her desire for a passionate and thrilling life. 

Dillard’s “American Childhood” is not one that every American child experiences; she has financial stability, parents that love her, a private school education, and frequent vacations with a wealthy grandmother. However, An American Childhood is not so much a chronicle of Dillard’s individual life events as it is an exploration of the various stages of consciousness any person moves through while growing up. Because she emphasizes the development of consciousness in childhood and adolescence instead of her own story, Dillard’s childhood is one that many can relate to.

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