Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard does not provide the young adult reader with a chronological history of childhood adventures and experiences, though some are included. There is no continuous narrative and no actual plot. Rather, Dillard renders a vivid account of the growth of a mind, of a self. Through a short prologue, the author introduces the two main ingredients of her story: setting and self-consciousness. Pittsburgh, as setting, functions more like a major character with a history, topology, and personality, its importance underscored by the inclusion of an early Pittsburgh map. At the age of ten, when her father set off on a river journey to New Orleans, Dillard awakened to an extraordinary consciousness that informs all the book.

In part 1, Dillard takes the reader back to 1950 and early childhood. Hers was a privileged childhood. The oldest of three children, the author grew up in an affluent home that afforded her a private education, as well as training in art, dance, and music. Her parents were wonderfully eccentric people. Her father loved acting, finger-snapping loud music, and fast dancing; her mother taught her children both to curtsy and to play poker, and she liked to shock the world with her outrageous pranks. Both parents prized and polished the fine art of telling and remembering jokes, but they were also highly cultured and provided a rich and nurturing environment for their children.

For Dillard, that environment included the...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

With An American Childhood, Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), has written an eloquent account of her youth in Pittsburgh. The book covers the years from her birth until her departure for Hollins College in Virginia, yet its form is not that of a traditional autobiography. There are few references to dates or chronological details in Dillard’s portrait of her childhood; rather, the book is a series of vivid impressions and recollections which assume a loosely chronological order as her life unfolds. Its five sections—three parts, a prologue, and an epilogue—divide her childhood into three segments, the first ending when she is ten, the second covering early adolescence, and the third carrying her through her high school years.

The child of well-to-do parents and the eldest of three sisters, Dillard was born in 1945. An American Childhood recalls the people, the events, and the driving intellectual curiosity that shaped Dillard’s early years. An exceptionally bright child, Dillard discovered the world of books at an early age. Seized at intervals by passions for subjects as varied as rock collecting, drawing, insects, and the French and Indian War, she explored them with the aid of her local branch library—and now shares them in detail with her reader. For Dillard, the story of her youth is the story of her intellectual awakening, and she brings it to life with an...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Writing about childhood and consciousness, Annie Dillard reveals in An American Childhood a pattern to her early life that clearly formed her as a writer. Growing up the eldest of three girls with loving, indulgent parents in comfortable, postwar Pittsburgh, she perceives herself as being able to feel alive from the inside, a quality she learned to recognize by vast amounts of reading. While those around her believed in Pittsburgh society, Dillard found alternative worlds through long hours spent reading all sorts of books. An American Childhood begins with small adventures in her early childhood, culminating in major teenage rebellions that leave even her understanding parents bewildered and distraught. All through her narrative, Dillard equates this feeling of distinctiveness with “waking up.”

Childhood is when one first notices that one is alive, suggests Dillard. Therefore, she writes about the self-consciousness of children, using herself as an example. She equates her skills at classifying the elements from nature (such as butterflies), acquired as a youth, with the skills required of her as an autobiographer—analyzing and classifying the experiences from her past. Although she has claimed that she learned a good many things about herself and her family in writing the book, she put none of it in because she is not the subject. An American Childhood is not a book about how Dillard became who she is. She crafted the...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize at age thirty for her first prose book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Her autobiographical work An American Childhood observes one woman’s life with the same priorities of the natural scientist as the earlier book. Although such writers as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, and Maxine Hong Kingston had previously written autobiographical works chronicling their lives as women writers, Dillard’s work was widely praised as an “American” childhood—an inward and intellectual history, not specifically an American woman’s intellectual history. Dillard suggests that in examining the small but powerful dramas of one’s childhood, one finds those moments of self-awareness without regard to gender.

Her dissatisfaction with the inequities, the unquestioned codes of her social landscape forced her—as a highly-conscious, well-read, spirited young woman—to leave her childhood landscape behind. While other people saw in her “rough edges” that needed smoothing, she wanted a can opener to cut herself a hole in the world’s surface and exit through it. Dillard’s work does have its detractors in those who argue that she cares more about the intellectual life than the physical or bodily life of a woman, or that in her drive to establish her childhood as American she glosses over the physical distinctiveness of female development. Other critics point out that as a study of the childhood of a natural scientist, An American Childhood sorts, catalogs, and examines the author’s life in the most appropriate way.

An American Childhood

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Annie Dillard is still best known for her 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Even though most of her subsequent books have treated spiritual and mystical themes (sometimes to the exclusion of the natural world), the public views her as a “nature writer.” Both her visionary probings of nature and her explorations of Christian mysticism shed much light on her latest work, a first autobiographical volume, An American Childhood.

The title is ironic. It implies an averageness and typicality which in fact was not Dillard’s lot. Born and reared in Pittsburgh, of a white, Protestant, upper-middle-class family, part of the elite of the city, she knew little about ethnic diversity, working-class poverty, or racial tension. She had two younger sisters, a father who was a business executive, and a mother who did not work “outside the home.” There was a black maid and a boat, and the children were sent to private schools, weekly dancing classes, and the elite Presbyterian church.

Yet Dillard was not even a typical aristocrat. Her writing and, more important, her perception of childhood, may be unique in American letters. She will take a usual occupation of a ten-year-old—drawing or rock collecting, for example—and delve deeply into herself as that child, so that the occupation is no longer typical but uniquely her own. She writes, “When you pry open the landscape, you find wonders.” That sentence could be an epigraph for all Dillard’s life and work.

Moreover, the unique intensity of Dillard’s experiencing of her own life places her in a position far above the average. The dust jacket says, “Dillard’s ecstatic interest in the world begins here in childhood.” The word “ecstatic” describes Dillard’s work perfectly. The Greek origin of “ecstasy” is “a being put out of its place”; the word also means a trance or “overpowering religious emotion or rapture.” “Ecstasy” is one of a series of words with religious overtones that Dillard often uses: “passionate,” “exultant,” “enthusiastic,” “ecstatic”—all these describe the young girl’s attitude toward the world and life. The very vocabulary underscores the theme of all Dillard’s work—the spiritual pilgrimage, the mystic quest.

Dillard’s autobiography is centered on two contradictory processes: coming to conscious awareness and the periodic ecstasies of transcending self and losing consciousness in the glory of experience. The excitement derives not from losing identity but rather from gaining consciousness after having lost it. Ironically, if one is awake and conscious all the time, one cannot have the ecstatic experience of coming to consciousness. It is Dillard’s thesis that children come to consciousness gradually, and this process is a visionary and passionate one. At ten, says Dillard, “I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.” Thus Dillard’s mission is to continue to awaken to consciousness, to capture the sensation of aliveness one has in standing under a waterfall or seeing an amoeba in the microscope. Recalling Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the project is to continue to be open to moments of pure transcendence, as when—while patting a puppy in the gas station—she watches the sun break through the clouds on Mount Rogers. One recalls also her describing “the tree with lights in it” that the newly sighted recount.

In order to live in this way, one must learn to notice. All creative conceptual work begins in the same place, with noticing, and Dillard the scientist, the philosopher, the poet, and the artist learns early its craft. As a child, she sketches the same baseball mitt every day for a month, memorizes faces and makes police artist drawings, painstakingly identifies and catalogs 340 rock specimens, memorizes “miles” of Bible verses (whose rhythms sing in her head as she writes poetry), and finds one-celled animals in pond water with her microscope. Her pun on the process is pure Dillard: “One took note; one took notes.” She concludes near the end of the book in a sentence-paragraph typical of her style. She gives the general point, then a long series of detailed descriptors, the whole ending with a philosophical, often epigrammatic thought to ponder:It all got noticed: the horse’s shoulders pumping; sunlight warping the air over a hot field; the way leaves turn color, brightly, cell by cell; and even the splitting, half-resigned and half-astonished feeling you have when you notice you are walking on earth for a while now—set down for a spell—in this particular time for no particular reason, here.

The structure of the book complements the double theme of consciousness and self-consciousness. The prologue has two main sections. The first is a lyrically historical overview of Pittsburgh’s topology that ends with the first settlers (“tall men and women lay exhausted in their cabins, sleeping in the sweetness, worn out from planting corn”). The second introduces her father and juxtaposes the many Pittsburgh suicides her father watched from his high office window with his quitting his job to sail down the Ohio River on a small boat. Part 1 of An American Childhood encompasses Dillard’s early childhood memories; it closes when she is ten, “awake now forever.” Part 2 is the center of the book and covers the wonderful preadolescent years of ecstasy—consciousness and...

(The entire section is 2291 words.)


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Clark, Suzanne. “Annie Dillard: The Woman in Nature and the Subject of Nonfiction.” In Literary Nonfiction: Theory, Criticism, Pedagogy, edited by Chris Anderson. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989. Clark’s analysis probes Dillard’s prose style in order to question how one knows that this is “woman’s” writing.

Gunn, Janet Varner. “A Politics of Experience: Leila Khaled’s My People Shall Live: The Autobiography of a Revolutionary.” In De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. A somewhat advanced study, this essay is nevertheless useful for providing a comparison to Dillard’s focus on the significance of landscape to memory.

Johnson, Sandra Humble. The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992. A study of literary epiphany, this work examines all Annie Dillard’s writing as a “perusal of illumination.” Includes a secondary bibliography and a thorough index.

Scheick, William. “Annie Dillard: Narrative Fringe.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. This essay discusses Dillard’s narrative technique as a metaphysical concept.

Smith, Linda L. Annie Dillard. New York: Twayne, 1991. This biographical work sums up Dillard’s career and anticipates its future direction.