Annie Dillard An American Childhood Essay Summary Sample


Pulitzer prize winning author Annie Dillard's poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950's details the exhilaration of a young, vibrant girl discovering the world around her and exploring it with a keen mind and curiosity.

Author Notes

Annie Dillard was born Annie Doak in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on April 30, 1945. She received a B.A and an M.A. in English from Hollins College. She writes both fiction and nonfiction books including Tickets for a Prayer Wheel, Holy the Firm, Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Living, and Mornings Like This: Found Poems. She won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She wrote an autobiography entitled An American Childhood. Her work also has appeared in such periodicals as The Atlantic, Harper's Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and Cosmopolitan. She taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan University.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Booklist Review

``I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s in a house full of comedians, reading books,'' states Dillard in an affectionate, witty, episodic celebration of her childhood and family. (Ag 87 Upfront)

Publisher's Weekly Review

Dillard's luminous prose painlessly captures the pain of growing up in this wonderful evocation of childhood. Her memoir is partly a hymn to Pittsburgh, where orange streetcars ran on Penn Avenue in 1953 when she was eight, and where the Pirates were always in the cellar. Dillard's mother, an unstoppable force, had energies too vast for the bridge games and household chores that stymied her. Her father made low-budget horror movies, loved Dixieland jazz, told endless jokes and sight-gags and took lonesome river trips down to New Orleans to get away. From this slightly odd couple, Dillard (Teaching a Stone to Talk acquired her love of nature and taut sensitivity. The events of childhood often loom larger than life; the magic of Dillard's writing is that she sets down typical childhood happenings with their original immediacy and force. (September) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Dillard's account of her childhood until her entrance into Hollins College is delightful, fast-paced, and full of action. Written in three parts, with a prologue about her father's brief sea venture when she was eight and an epilogue about her own children, the book reads like a play: there is excellent character development, and the vivid descriptions make the reader almost a witness to the events. Dillard fans will especially appreciate the insight she offers into her early consciousness and development, while others will enjoy this picture of growing up in the 1950s or simply the humor and sensitivity of the writing. Highly recommended. Carolyn M. Craft, English, Philosophy & Modern Languages Dept., Longwood Coll., Farmville, Va. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA Dillard has amassed a following for her eloquently-written nature essays with their deeply philosophical, theolog ical slant. In this current work she re veals a personal view of her childhood and early adolescence in which she first awoke to the world and its implications. Dillard grew up with a relentlessly inquir ing mind in a moneyed Pittsburgh family during the '50s. Her liberal-minded par ents allowed her free rein to grow up exploring her city, taking up hobbies and projects, and reading everything she found on the public library's adult shelves. Especially compelling is her picture of her teenage years, the time when she ``morally disapproved most things in North America, and blamed her innocent parents for them.'' She cap tures that fine, open innocence of the '50s and that hungry pain of the '60s. This book should be read by young people far enough away from childhood to enjoy looking back at how they were, by young people just discovering themselves, and by those teenagers who can identify with Dillard's description of herself as ``a live wire. . .shooting out sparks that were digging a pit around me, and I sinking into that pit.'' Assuredly, it will be appreciat ed by those who enjoy reading wonder fully crafted prose. Her's is a smooth, knowing voice that can deliver a punch line. Carolyn Praytor Boyd, Episcopal High School, Bellaire (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (CH, Sep '74), creates what William Zinsser defines as a memoir, ``some portion of a life ... that was unusually vivid or intense'' (Inventing the Truth; The Art and Craft of Memoir, CH, Jan '88). It is also a ``childhood,'' defined by Richard Coe in When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood (CH, Apr '85) as a work that ``refashions'' youth ``in terms of poetic, or permanent, significance.'' Dillard's book chronicles her early years moving with her family up the Pittsburgh social scale and literally up the hills from house to better house. Her exuberant language and enthusiastic style transform a child's activities (reading, collecting rocks, dancing) into poetic expressions of self-development and the growth of artistic awareness. Her childhood reading included events of the historical background of Pittsburgh and of her own developing years: e.g., the French and Indian wars, WW II, and the Cold War-cataclysmic events that, from a distance and in the relative safety of America, influence and inform but do not overwhelm her development. This memoir is a delight to read and fertile ground for scholars of autobiography. Appropriate for students (community college through graduate), it should have widespread appeal beyond academe.-B. Braendlin, Florida State University



An American Childhood Chapter One When everything else has gone from my brain -- the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family-when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that. I will see the city poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills' curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like housefires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses' bricks burn like glowing coals. The three wide rivers divide and cool the mountains. Calm old bridges span the banks and link the hills. The Allegheny River flows in brawling from the north, from near the shore of Lake Erie, and from Lake Chautauqua in New York and eastward. The Monongahela River flows in shallow and slow from the south, from West Virginia. The Allegheny and the Monongahela meet and form the westward-wending Ohio. Where the two rivers join lies an acute point of flat land from which rises the city. The tall buildings rise lighted to their tips. Their lights illumine other buildings' clean sides, and illumine the narrow city canyons below, where people move, and shine reflected red and white at night from the black waters. When the shining city, too, fades, I will see only those forested mountains and hills, and the way the rivers lie flat and moving among them, and the way the low land lies wooded among them, and the blunt mountains rise in darkness from the rivers' banks, steep from the rugged south and rolling from the north, and from farther, from the inclined eastward plateau where the high ridges begin to run so long north and south unbroken that to get around them you practically have to navigate Cape Horn. In those first days, people said, a squirrel could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were white oak and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut, wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. The pine grew on the ridgetops where the mountains' lumpy spines stuck up and their skin was thinnest. The wilderness was uncanny, unknown. Benjamin Franklin had already invented his stove in Philadelphia by 1753, and Thomas Jefferson was a schoolboy in Virginia; French soldiers had been living in forts along Lake Erie for two generations. But west of the Alleghenies in western Pennsylvania, there was not even a settlement, not even a cabin. No Indians lived there, or even near there. Wild grapevines tangled the treetops and shut out the sun. Few songbirds lived in the deep woods. Bright Carolina parakeets-red, green, and yellow-nested in the dark forest. There were ravens then, too. Woodpeckers rattled the big trees' trunks, ruffed grouse whirred their tail feathers in the fall, and every long once in a while a nervous gang of emptyheaded turkeys came hustling and kicking through the leaves-but no one heard any of this, no one at all. In 1753, young George Washington surveyed for the English this point of land where rivers met. To see the forestblurred lay of the land, he rode his horse to a ridgetop and climbed a tree. He judged it would make a good spot for a fort. And an English fort it became, and a depot for Indian traders to the Ohio country, and later a French fort and way station to New Orleans. But it would be another ten years before any settlers lived there on that land where the rivers met, lived to draw in the flowery scent of June rhododendrons with every breath. It would be another ten years before, for the first time on earth, tall men, and women lay exhausted in their cabins, sleeping in the sweetness, worn out from planting corn. An American Childhood . Copyright © by Annie Dillard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from An American Childhood by Annie Dillard All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Annie Dillard is still best known for her 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Even though most of her subsequent books have treated spiritual and mystical themes (sometimes to the exclusion of the natural world), the public views her as a “nature writer.” Both her visionary probings of nature and her explorations of Christian mysticism shed much light on her latest work, a first autobiographical volume, An American Childhood.

The title is ironic. It implies an averageness and typicality which in fact was not Dillard’s lot. Born and reared in Pittsburgh, of a white, Protestant, upper-middle-class family, part of the elite of the city, she knew little about ethnic diversity, working-class poverty, or racial tension. She had two younger sisters, a father who was a business executive, and a mother who did not work “outside the home.” There was a black maid and a boat, and the children were sent to private schools, weekly dancing classes, and the elite Presbyterian church.

Yet Dillard was not even a typical aristocrat. Her writing and, more important, her perception of childhood, may be unique in American letters. She will take a usual occupation of a ten-year-old—drawing or rock collecting, for example—and delve deeply into herself as that child, so that the occupation is no longer typical but uniquely her own. She writes, “When you pry open the landscape, you find wonders.” That sentence could be an epigraph for all Dillard’s life and work.

Moreover, the unique intensity of Dillard’s experiencing of her own life places her in a position far above the average. The dust jacket says, “Dillard’s ecstatic interest in the world begins here in childhood.” The word “ecstatic” describes Dillard’s work perfectly. The Greek origin of “ecstasy” is “a being put out of its place”; the word also means a trance or “overpowering religious emotion or rapture.” “Ecstasy” is one of a series of words with religious overtones that Dillard often uses: “passionate,” “exultant,” “enthusiastic,” “ecstatic”—all these describe the young girl’s attitude toward the world and life. The very vocabulary underscores the theme of all Dillard’s work—the spiritual pilgrimage, the mystic quest.

Dillard’s autobiography is centered on two contradictory processes: coming to conscious awareness and the periodic ecstasies of transcending self and losing consciousness in the glory of experience. The excitement derives not from losing identity but rather from gaining consciousness after having lost it. Ironically, if one is awake and conscious all the time, one cannot have the ecstatic experience of coming to consciousness. It is Dillard’s thesis that children come to consciousness gradually, and this process is a visionary and passionate one. At ten, says Dillard, “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.” Thus Dillard’s mission is to continue to awaken to consciousness, to capture the sensation of aliveness one has in standing under a waterfall or seeing an amoeba in the microscope. Recalling Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the project is to continue to be open to moments of pure transcendence, as when—while patting a puppy in the gas station—she watches the sun break through the clouds on Mount Rogers. One recalls also her describing “the tree with lights in it” that the newly sighted recount.

In order to live in this way, one must learn to notice. All creative conceptual work begins in the same place, with noticing, and Dillard the scientist, the philosopher, the poet, and the artist learns early its craft. As a child, she sketches the same baseball mitt every day for a month, memorizes faces and makes police artist drawings, painstakingly identifies and catalogs 340 rock specimens, memorizes “miles” of Bible verses (whose rhythms sing in her head as she writes poetry), and finds one-celled animals in pond water with her microscope. Her pun on the process is pure Dillard: “One took note; one took notes.” She concludes near the end of the book in a sentence-paragraph typical of her style. She gives the general point, then a long series of detailed descriptors, the whole ending with a philosophical, often epigrammatic thought to ponder:It all got noticed: the horse’s shoulders pumping; sunlight warping the air over a hot field; the way leaves turn color, brightly, cell by cell; and even the splitting, half-resigned and half-astonished feeling you have when you notice you are walking on earth for a while now—set down for a spell—in this particular time for no particular reason, here.

The structure of the book complements the double theme of consciousness and self-consciousness. The prologue has two main sections. The first is a lyrically historical overview of Pittsburgh’s topology that ends with the first settlers (“tall men and women lay exhausted in their cabins, sleeping in the sweetness, worn out from planting corn”). The second introduces her father and juxtaposes the many Pittsburgh suicides her father watched from his high office window with his quitting his job to sail down the Ohio River on a small boat. Part 1 of An American Childhood encompasses Dillard’s early childhood memories; it closes when she is ten, “awake now forever.” Part 2 is the center of the book and covers the wonderful preadolescent years of ecstasy—consciousness and...

(The entire section is 2291 words.)


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