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Last Updated on September 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

“Typical” American Childhood

The memoir’s title, An American Childhood , suggests that Dillard’s childhood was a typical one, or at least similar to what others her age experienced. Pittsburgh, the book’s primary setting, can be seen as a microcosm of white, upper-middle-class American life in the twentieth century. After all,...

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“Typical” American Childhood

The memoir’s title, An American Childhood, suggests that Dillard’s childhood was a typical one, or at least similar to what others her age experienced. Pittsburgh, the book’s primary setting, can be seen as a microcosm of white, upper-middle-class American life in the twentieth century. After all, it is the setting of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the popular children’s television show that depicts a magical, almost-perfect American suburb. While Dillard grew up in what some consider to be the “stereotypical” American setting in the 1950s and 1960s, Dillard’s childhood was not one that every child experienced, as she came from a privileged family. 

If there is a typical aspect of childhood that is described in this memoir, it is that of conscious development: the awakening of self-consciousness that is so prevalent in Dillard’s story. As she writes at the beginning of part 1, her story begins when she is five, around the time that she first becomes conscious of time and that she is alive. Throughout the rest of her memoir, Dillard points to numerous other stages in the development of her consciousness, such as her discovery that she can exercise rationality alongside imagination as a child and her preoccupation with self-consciousness as a teenager. In recounting these developments, Dillard shows how her experiences as a child and adolescent shaped who she is as an adult—both as a person and as a writer.

Rejection of Mundane Life

Though Dillard’s interests change throughout her childhood and adolescence, the wholehearted passion with which she pursues them does not. Dillard seeks books with depth and imagination and, through them, delves into extensive studies of topics that excite her, such as the French and Indian War. After reading these books where people lead thrilling lives, she sees her own life as pale in comparison and cannot believe that her future is to consist merely of marrying, buying a house nearby, and having children. As she ages, Dillard becomes increasingly distressed by boredom—especially as a teenager, when boredom comes in intolerable and suffocating waves. The memoir ends with Dillard detailing her exhilaration before she left for college, when she wonders what her future will hold. She realizes that her life does not have to be mundane with all the possibilities she has: she considers becoming a missionary, writing an epic, and rediscovering her childhood interests in art and science.

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