An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Childhood and the Development of Consciousness

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 leaves 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.

The Joys of Reading

Dillard becomes a voracious reader at an early age, making frequent trips to the local library, and it is books that have the greatest influence on her approach to life, her development as a person, and her embrace of nonconformity. Reading for Dillard is a joyous experience that infinitely enlarges her world, both transporting her to far-off places and times and enriching her understanding of her immediate surroundings. Particularly influential for her is The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, which both fuels Dillard’s love of the natural world and astonishes Dillard with its library-lending card full of other people’s names. Because of this list of previous readers, Dillard realizes that she is far from alone in her thirst for knowledge and understanding of nature.

Dillard’s passionate interests again and again lead her to books, from a handbook on drawing to a guide to rocks and minerals. Likewise, her reading of literature like Shakespeare’s plays, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, and James Joyce’s Ulysses leads her back out into the thick of life, which she resolves to live passionately, seriously, and on her own terms. Through books, she seeks a world in which “courage is still prized” and “ideas are worth dying for,” a world in which life is meaningful and she can feel truly “awake.” Eventually, Dillard writes, “the books were leading me away. They would propel me right out of Pittsburgh altogether.” And so it is, for reading has not only indelibly shaped Dillard’s “interior life,” but her exterior one as well.

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