An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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What literary devices does Annie Dillard use in pages 77-109 of An American Childhood?

Quick answer:

Dillard (1987) combines figurative language with allusion to create vivid and moving descriptions of Pittsburgh, her experiences growing up there, and the way she was transformed by it. These literary devices enrich the reader’s experience of the novel and allow us to feel as Annie did as a child.

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Annie Dillard is known for her deft use of rich and exquisite language in her work, and An American Childhood is no exception. Nearly every paragraph of the novel contains literary devices in the form of figurative language that enrich the reader’s experience. In the section in question, pp. 77-109, there are many examples of several types of literary devices. Let’s look at a few of each.

Probably the best-known type of figurative language is the simile, which compares one thing with another, usually with the prepositions ‘like’ or ‘as.’ Dillard (1987) uses a simile when she describes the way they jumped onto their bikes ‘in one skilled gesture like cowboys mounting horses’ (p. 79). She uses another when she compares time and her consciousness to rivers coming together: ‘I felt time in full stream, and I felt consciousness in full stream joining it, like the rivers’ (p. 81). There is an allusion in this example, as well, when she mentions ‘the rivers.’ In the Prologue she tells us ‘[t]he three wide rivers divide and cool the mountains’ (p. 9), an allusion to the city of Pittsburgh, which is where the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers converge. She uses simile, comparing Pittsburgh to Rome or Jericho: ‘Our Pittsburgh was like Rome, or Jericho, a palimpsest, a sliding pile of cities built ever nearer the sky’ (p. 83). But she also, in the same sentence, uses metaphor. Unlike simile, metaphor dispenses with the prepositions and compares two unlike things as equals, which is what she does when she says her Pittsburgh was ‘a palimpsest, a sliding pile of cities.’ She does not say Pittsburgh is like these things, she says it is these things. Another example is when Dillard (1987) describes some of the sights they see as they explore the city: We saw the low-slung stripes of steel factories by the rivers; we saw pyramidal heaps of yellow sand at glassworks by the shining railroad tracks’ (pp. 84-85). She does not say the factories looked like stripes or the yellow sand looked like pyramids; she uses metaphor to say one thing is another. One of the most powerful metaphors in this section is an extended metaphor, Dillard’s (1987) comparison of books of fiction to bombs. Again, notice that she does not say books of fiction are like bombs; rather, she says they are bombs, and the effect is much, much stronger:

A book of fiction was a bomb. It was a land mine you wanted to go off. You wanted it to blow your whole day. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of books were duds. They had been rusting out of everyone’s way for so long that they no longer worked. There was no way to distinguish the duds from the live mines except to throw yourself at them headlong, one by one. (p. 96)

Here, not only are books bombs, they are also land mines, rusting duds, and live mines. She also compares readers to soldiers being thrown at these bombs to see if they go off…or not.

Another literary device Dillard uses is personification, a type of figurative language in which animals, inanimate objects, or ideas are given human characteristics. One of the first examples in this section occurs on page 81, where Dillard (1987) imbues the wind and the shadows with human abilities: ‘The wind rattled the windowed sunporch walls beside me. [. . .] The blue shadows of fast clouds ran over the far walls and floor.’ Wind itself cannot rattle anything, nor can shadows run. These are, however, human abilities. Dillard also uses personification when she tells us how a large vein of coal ‘ducked far underground and ran up into Nova Scotia, dove into the water and crossed under the Atlantic, and rolled up again thick with coal in Wales (pp. 83-84). A vein of coal cannot literally duck, run, dive, cross under something, or roll up onto anything, but a person can.

In one of my favorite examples of personification, Dillard (1987) tell us about drawing her baseball mitt: ‘I drew my baseball mitt’s gesture—its tense repose, its expectancy, which ran up its hollows like a hand. I drew its contours—its flat fingertips strung on square rawhide thongs’ (p. 88). A baseball mitt cannot ‘gesture.’ It is not an animate object, possessing life and able to move of its own accord. Neither, then, can it have repose or expect anything, but Dillard’s use of personification here allows readers to live in the moment she is drawing, to feel what she is feeling, to see what she sees, to allow her words to guide our hands and participate in the drawing of the glove and thus help us see the glove as something worthy of drawing. This is the power of personification.

Finally, there is allusion, an indirect or passing reference meant to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly or directly. I mentioned one example above, but in one of my favorite examples, Dillard (1987) writes about Pittsburgh’s industrialist history and how that has contributed to the Pittsburgh in which she grew up:

The nineteenth-century industrialists’ institutions—galleries, universities, hospitals, churches, Carnegie libraries, the Carnegie Museum, Frick Park, Mellon Park— were, many of them, my stomping grounds. These absolute artifacts of philanthropy littered the neighborhoods with marble. Millionaires’ encrusted mansions, now obsolete and turned into parks or art centers, weighed on every block. They lent their expansive, hushed moods to the Point Breeze neighborhoods where we children lived and where those fabulous men had lived also, or rather had visited at night in order to sleep. Everywhere I looked, it was the Valley of the Kings, their dynasty just ended, and their monuments intact but already out of fashion. 

All these immensities wholly dominated the life of the city. So did their several peculiar social legacies: their powerful Calvinist mix of piety and acquisitiveness, which characterized the old and new Scotch-Irish families and the nation they helped found; the walled-up hush of what was, by my day, old money—amazing how fast it ages if you let it alone—and the clang and roar of making that money. (p. 85)

Here, Dillard uses many allusions: to Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick, all famous, and wealthy, industrialists who helped build Pittsburgh; to their wealth, referring to the marble, which so many of the homes freely and ostentatiously utilized, and to the amount of money they had: ‘Millionaires’ encrusted mansions’;  to—and interestingly, this is also a metaphor comparing the industrialists with Egypt’s pharaohs and the industrialists’ homes to the pharaohs’ pyramid tombs—ancient Egypt’s pharaonic past; to the Calvinist religion that was predominant among many Scotch-Irish immigrants; to the railroad and steel industries that made these men so wealthy. And you can see the power in using allusions; Dillard has created an entire world for readers without weighing them down with unnecessary details.

There are many, many more examples of each of these literary devices, these types of figurative language in Dillard’s work, but these are a few of my favorite examples in this section.

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