An American Childhood
by Annie Dillard (1987)
Harper Perennial (2008)
As fall approaches I often find myself drifting in a fairly pleasant state of nostalgia. This is usually the best time for me to read a book with a slower pace. Thanks to a recommendation from KevinfromCanada, I revisited a book that nicely fits this type of mood: Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Coming a bit more than a decade after Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for her Walden-esque look at nature and spirituality in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard wrote what some compared to Wordsworth’s The Prelude (it’s no coincidence that both works are linked to Romantic/Transcendentalist works). An American Childhood is Dillard’s coming-of-age story. But this is Annie Dillard we’re talking about here, so this is not just a look at her young life. America’s living Romantic writer is being a tad self-indulgent here, but, as the best Romantic authors, this look at the self leads to something deeper and universal: Dillard is advocating the life of the observant mind. She wants us all to wake up so we can prove Thoreau wrong when he said he’d never met a man who was fully awake — well, here’s a woman who is.
An American Childhood is not as well known as other works in Dillard’s oeuvre, not because it’s poor but because it is different. The setup of this book is unconventional, even for a memoir. The book is divided into three parts which each represent a different stage of Dillard’s youth, or rather, a different stage of her awakening to the larger world. Each part is filled with extremely short episodes (most just a couple of pages) that almost have no connection other than that they happened in Dillard’s young life. It’s like she finishes one episode about rock collecting, takes a break, and then begins another episode about her mother’s sense of humor; the next might go on to discuss insects or boys or church or history. As such, there is no strong force of plot here until the last twenty-five pages or so.
Believe me, though, such things do not matter here: it is beautiful throughout. This spectacular writer is in complete control. I believe it is not an overstatement of this work (or out of context of some of her motifs) to introduce it by saying, Those that have ears to hear, let them hear.
The overarching theme is waking up to the larger world by noticing the small details in the quotidian. This process leads to being satisfyingly engaged with life. It’s a wonderful process, though Dillard alludes to potentially unpleasant, even dangerous, results.
I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. 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.
Her motives for awakening are not necessarily to make a difference in the world. Rather, most of her observations show that this awakening is more for one’s own satisfaction. It’s nice to be in the know. It’s very rewarding to know how a bridge is made, nice to know how insects are classified, nice to know how an adult’s skin doesn’t bounce back to form as quickly as a child’s — and I agree. Feeding the life of the mind is a wonderfully fulfilling activity. This type of curiosity and the observational skills to pick new details out of the ordinary is an end in and of itself. Of course, there is also the implication that one can be a more effective citizen, and Dillard presents how this strange idea comes about in a child’s mind.
We children lived and breathed our history — our Pittsburgh history, so crucial to the country’s story and so typical of it as well — without knowing or believing any of it. For how can anyone know or believe stories she dreamed in her sleep, information for which and to which she feels herself to be in no way responsible? A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds insider her skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life — the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives — as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them. I breathed the air of history all unaware, and walked oblivious through its littered layers.
While the book is charming throughout, a lot of the power lies in the last section where Dillard examines the potential downside to waking up, particularly pride and frustration. What is at first a charming look at childhood from an awakened mind becomes an almost rancorous awareness, not of the ugliness in the world, but of the ineptitude of many of its inhabitants — which leads to more excellent introspection.
Some reviewers of this book said that Dillard appeared to be overwriting. They discounted their criticism, saying that the overwriting was forgivable because the book is still wonderful; however, I’m not sure I agree that the book is at all overwritten. Dillard’s excellent observational skills are not failed by her writing skills. Her descriptions are wonderful, and I don’t think she’s straining for poetic effect; for example, this is her young mind’s perception of a nun: “some bunched human flesh pressed like raw pie crust into the holes.” For the most part, her passages are interesting and poignant without using any florid words. The following example is a fair look at Dillard’s fairly simple style, packed with insight yet not with obscure words that call attention to themselves:
It was clear that adults, including our parents, approved of children who read books, but it was not at all clear why this was so. Our reading was subversive, and we knew it. Did they think we read to improve our vocabularies? Did they want us to read and not pay the least bit of heed to what we read, as they wanted us to go to Sunday school and ignore what we heard?
Because this book is the way it is — disjointed, charming, nostalgic, motivating — it rewards re-readings. There are always new insights or memories to uncover. Besides, because of how clear Dillard is, revisiting it is almost like revisiting your own childhood. This is the type of book that has a collective energy that builds as one sinks into it. Read in great gulps.