37 pages 1 hour read

Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard wrote the autobiographical memoir An American Childhood (1987). In this memoir, Dillard (born in 1945) describes her intellectual development, from her first true intellectual awakening, at 5 years old, through her busy and happy pre-teen years and her turbulent adolescence, to her acceptance at a prestigious private college at age 18. An exploration of her childhood during the 1950s, this memoir operates as a coming-of-age story in which the author awakens to the world and its possibilities. A keen and observant mind, Dillard advocates such an awakening for all of her readers.

This intellectual awakening—together with Dillard’s description of the land, its history, its rocks and stones, and its creatures—ties Dillard to the American Romantic period of American letters, particularly to Transcendentalism. The major contribution of Transcendentalism remains the view that divinity permeates nature and humanity, joining them together. Dillard’s prose, with its direct tributes to and echoes of Thoreau’s Walden and Emerson’s lyrical essays, participates in a modern usage of this unique American philosophy and imagination that flowered during the 1830s and 1840s.

Dillard attended public school through fifth grade, then attended a private school called the Ellis School. She admits in her memoir that she received an excellent education there, though as a teenager she chafed against the rules and restrictions of her school. Overall, her childhood consisted of all of the resources required to raise a bright, successful, contributing member of society: loving support and structure from her intelligent and slightly eccentric parents, material resources, an excellent education, and plenty of socializing contact with others of her socioeconomic group— white, well-to-do people in Pittsburg. As a child, Dillard adored both of her parents, believing them to be infallible.

Dillard recounts most of the narrative from a first-person point of view; therefore, the narrative draws the reader into the story through immersion in Dillard’s consciousness. The world Dillard depicts revolves around her interpretation of events and her experience of life around her. This technique creates a focus on perception, particularly as a middle-aged Dillard describes the events of her childhood. She, too, alongside the reader, looks back at her childhood through the particular events she remembers, and considers how she remembers them. The first-person point of view adds a sense of immediacy to the narrative: as readers, we experience life as Dillard does.

When Dillard breaks into the second person, she invites the reader into her story as a participant. She acknowledges the reader as joining with her in the process of constant, vigilant awareness that is the most significant motif in the autobiography. Her narrative becomes a call to action: the reader is invited to awaken intellectually and to perform this duty to the self, to grow and to live a fully developed life. Without this conscious awakening, Dillard indicates, no life can be complete.