An American Childhood
by Annie Dillard
Harper Perennial, 2008
An American Childhood, first published in 1987, is Annie Dillard’s memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s. Dillard had a pretty idyllic childhood, her family being relatively privileged and living in the more privileged neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. She recalls with great detail her experiences as a child, from the time her father quit the family firm (American Standard) and decided to sail from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, to her teenage years full of ballroom dancing lessons, formal dinner dances and the relationships she had with the people around her (relationships typical of most teenage girls).
What I found most interesting about An American Childhood—aside from the stories themselves, which were truly wonderful—was the approach Dillard took in telling her story. Many memoirs like this one that chronicle the author’s childhood follow the “coming of age” route, in which the author describes his or her experiences in the context of becoming more conscious or more aware of his or her surroundings with age. In a way, Dillard also does this, but she describes this childhood phenomenon as more of an awakening or a “coming awake”:
Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.
I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again.
Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be?
I like how Dillard describes the process of children becoming more conscious of themselves and their surroundings as waking up, instead of the just plain, commonly used maturing. It played a very interesting part in the chapters about nature and her topographical surroundings in Pittsburgh.
This brings me to the next thing I really enjoyed about An American Childhood: Dillard’s descriptions of the topography and history of Pittsburgh. She tells us in the Prologue that “when everything else has gone from [her] brain… what will be left, [she] believes, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.” Dillard’s natural surroundings played a very large role in her childhood and she describes those surroundings in great detail and in beautiful prose. Entwined with these remembrances of nature is the history of Pittsburgh and its founders, as a way to explain the why of her surroundings during her childhood. I have lived in Pennsylvania for twelve years now and I learned more about the history and topography of parts of this state from this one book than I have learned from any other source since I’ve lived here.
(Side note: That last statement makes me sound like I must not have been very interested in learning about Pennsylvania over the past twelve years, and that’s actually true. This isn’t my home state and I like to think that I’m just staying here for a bit before I move on. Dillard got me more interested in Pennsylvania’s history than anyone else has been able to do in twelve years. That’s quite an accomplishment. But I digress.)
I mentioned Dillard’s beautiful prose above, and I’d like to give another excerpt from the book as an example of what I mean. In this excerpt, Dillard is once again writing about that feeling of waking up and what it feels like to be alive:
Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly back up, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is greatest and only the strength of our neck holds the river out of your face? Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where maples grow straight and their leaves lean down. For a joke you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling!
It is time pounding down at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation’s short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.
I just love this passage; the detailed description of what it’s like to stand under a waterfall, and the comparison of that waterfall to time and being alive, is just beautiful to me.
There is a great deal more I loved about An American Childhood, but if I told you about everything I loved I’d be giving away the entire story. I am very grateful to a good friend for recommending this book to me, as it is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was interesting, funny, insightful and beautifully written. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes reading memoirs, to anyone who appreciates wonderful prose, or to anyone who grew up in the 1950’s or who is interested in what it was like to grow up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s. Annie Dillard doesn’t disappoint.
(To learn more about Annie Dillard, please visit her official website.)