An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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What is the author's purpose in writing An American Childhood?

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The author's purpose in writing An American Childhood is to explain precisely how she became the person she is today. Specifically, she wants to show readers how she emerged from a self-absorbed childhood into the wider world.

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An American Childhood by Annie Dillard is a memoir of growing up. Like all such memoirs, it acts as a kind of bridge between childhood and adulthood; it deals with the often difficult transition between the former and the latter.

In setting out in considerable detail the events of her formative years, Dillard reveals that she was an intellectually curious child, keen to learn so much about the big wide world. And yet, in looking back, Dillard realizes that she remained self-absorbed, a condition from which she needed to wake up in order to experience life in all its richness and depth.

The process of writing the book was almost therapeutic for Dillard in that it represented a way of keeping alive that sense, derived from the original act of waking up to the world in childhood, that life is for living in the present moment.

In Wordsworth's famous words, the child is father to the man. In this particular case, we see the child as mother to the woman. In Annie Dillard's remarkable childhood, marked as it was by a prodigious intellectual and spiritual curiosity, we observe the seeds of her later life being sown, a life characterized by voluminous writings, intellectual endeavor, and the development of a unique perspective on the world and everything in it.

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What is the author's purpose in writing the book An American Childhood?

Dillard's purpose in writing is to remember her childhood, of course. But more than that, she is trying to explain her own origin story—how she came to be the person that is writing the book. This is bound up in her experiences growing up in Pittsburgh in the 50s, but also in the experience of her parents.

For instance, in her prologue, normally a place where a writer explains her purpose, Dillard tells a few seemingly unconnected stories. First, she describes the topography of Western Pennsylvania and the history of this wilderness, culminating with George Washington's surveying expedition to what would become Pittsburgh in 1753. Her point here is to explain how "when everything else has gone from [her] brain," she will remember the shape of the land, suggesting that there is a deep connection between her identity and the place where she was born.

The second story is about her father, who left when she was ten years old to sail his boat from Pittsburgh down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Her father was a lover of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, and the book "went to his head," she says, and he hatched this plan to leave his wife and three small children to visit the city that was home to the music he loved, jazz. He was gone for six weeks, having made it only to Louisville. This is a story about the power of literature, and how a book can change a person or make them do crazy things; but it is also a story about her father seeking escape.

While these stories seem unconnected, their juxtaposition suggests a larger purpose. Dillard is as much a product of place as of her parents; it is partly through her father's engagement with books that Dillard comes to write them. Dillard talks at the end of the prologue about being ten and how, at that age, she began to "wake up," or become conscious of other people and things around her. Her book is about that awakening into consciousness and how it happened to her.

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