An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard (Autor)

Paperback, 2013




Harper Perennial (2013), Edition: 1st, First Edition, 272 pages


An autobiography describing the author's childhood and life in Pittburgh during the fifties.


(319 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Casey_Marie
With the 1987 publication of An American Childhood, Annie Dillard, novelist, critic and woman of all trades helped ushered in the age of the memoir. For this alone we should thank her.

Non traditional in many ways, Dillard begins her work by claiming, "When everything else has gone from my
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brain...what will be left is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay." From this emerges a rich and generous history of Pittsburg, the landscape upon which Dillard's childhood is inscribed. She takes the reader on a journey through every rock she overturned with a popsicle stick in hopes of finding buried treasure, through the alleyways where childhood games were played with ferocity, to the hallowed halls of Junior League dances where children are manufactured to become the city's elite. Her personal history is so entwined with that of the city that they are artfully rendered one in the same.

Unlike other memoirs, An American Childhood flouts the traditional coming of age trope. Instead, Dillard focuses on awakening from the self absorption of early childhood and entrance into the greater world. In a sense, she chronicles the Lacanian moment of self awareness, and does so lyrically and deftly.

For me, her work most resonates when she speaks of the importance of books and reading in forming her malleable psyche and material interactions with the world. In her words, "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." For Dillard, reading becomes a love "most requited" (according to Wetherell's Post review). It is the medium through which boundaries are shattered, hopes are realized, and escapes are planned.

In this memoir, Dillard's prowess as a poet shines through. Her lyrical recollections of the past seem as if they are memories from your own childhood. Even if you have not read any of her previous works, read An American Childhood in order to relieve the innocence and wonder of your own youth.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Oh that I could remember and describe my childhood with such grace and beauty. There is not a sentimental line in this memoir, nor a wasted word.
Great stuff.
LibraryThing member yamzell
Beautiful descriptions and memorable metaphors. Can be slow at times, but understandable to get lost in memories, yes?
LibraryThing member cmbohn
Annie Dillard describes her childhood in post-WWII Pittsburgh. She opens the book with the metaphor that as children, we are all asleep to the wonder of life. Then at some point, we awake and realize how amazing life is. My problem is that I never remember feeling that way. She uses the metaphor
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over and over in the book, and every time, I just couldn't relate. Maybe it's a personal thing, or maybe it's a generational thing - maybe children in the age of divorce and family stress 'wake up' so much earlier that we aren't even aware of it.

I think the book is better if read in small portions, as a series of individual essay. Reading it all at once (well, over several days) I found myself losing interest. Just not my cup of tea at all.
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LibraryThing member kant1066
It’s not often that I read memoirs; they seem, as a genre, somewhat too self-indulgent for me to spending several hundred pages mulling over at a time. I think I remember mentioning this to a friend of mine shortly after I graduated high school, a friend whose passion for books mirrored my own
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and who genuinely appreciated my interest in nineteenth-century German philosophy. In response to what I told him of the memoir, he mentioned the name of Annie Dillard, and said that I might like “An American Childhood” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I shelved these suggestions, so to speak, not thinking of them too much in the intervening ten years. And then, a few months ago, I saw a pristine copy of “An American Childhood” resting all by itself on a table during an annual library book sale, for only a dollar. The John Kane painting on the cover, “Panther Hollow, Pittsburgh,” seemed quaint, reassuring, and spoke to me. I immediately thought of Will and our long talks, and somehow all of a sudden, this memoir in particular struck me as something I would enjoy.

Some of Dillard’s childhood is eerily close to home for me. Her open and universal sense of curiosity – for all kinds of books – those on rocks and minerals, history, science, and her childlike need to understand, classify, and organize. Others aspects of her early life may very well have taken place on another planet, at least for me: she grew up in an upper middle-class neighborhood, attended a private school, often frequented country clubs with her parents, and, as she says “grew up in a house full of comedians.”

Dillard’s writing brings out the full sense of what it may have felt like to grow up in the United States in the 1950s. It’s full of nostalgia, but not the mealy-mouthed, saccharine kind. She loves the order of life, or at least she did when she was a child: her mother stayed at home while her eccentric father both brought home the bacon, but also planned, and actually set out on, a Mark Twain-inspired, jazz-infused journey from Pittsburgh all the way down to New Orleans. (He soon returned, well before he reached his destination, from sheer loneliness.) She was largely left to her own devices to read, look at diatoms and euglena through her beloved microscope, and attend school dances. But Dillard also catches with touching beauty how crushingly small this all was, and how insular. She didn’t know this as a child, surely, but she knows as a writer looking back that this smallness, the smallness of 1950s America, can have whole worlds constructed out of it. And that’s precisely what she set out to build, both in her childhood and in this book. The way she combines her wide open curiosity with what is in some respects its opposite, the feeling of suburban provincialism of Protestant Pittsburgh, is still one more thing that makes this writing special.

I always found Dillard a good storyteller in “An American Childhood,” but sometimes she mixes in short, insightful, quasi-philosophical asides, like this one on page 157 on personality, after recalling her two friends Ellin and Judy and her little sister Molly: “People’s being themselves, year after year, so powerfully and so obliviously – what was it? Why was it so appealing? Personality, like beauty, was a mystery; like beauty, it was useless. These useless things were not, however, flourishes and embellishments to our life here, but that life’s center; they were its truest note, the heart of its form, which drew back our thoughts repeatedly.”

In a few spots, Dillard mentions her interest in lepidoptery. Just a few pages later, she paints one of the most memorable images in the entire book: that of a large butterfly on her schoolteacher’s desk. On the day it emerges from its chrysalis, she sees that the jar is too small for the butterfly – an especially large Polyphemus butterfly – to spread its wings. The birth fluids dried in place, it couldn’t spread its wings, and blood was not able to spread throughout the blood vessels. Because of the size of its jar, it was left with permanently deformed, crumpled wings. Her and her classmates released it outside, even though she knew that it would inevitable end up eaten by a bird or batted to death by a cat paw. “Nevertheless,” Dillard writes, “it was scrawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born.”

There’s something about this dual sense of both wonderment mixed with human weakness, frailty, and anxiety that wonderfully frames “An American Childhood.” Maybe one day soon, I will find “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” More likely, it will find me. I will think of Will again, and our long conversations. And so it goes, and so it goes.
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LibraryThing member amelish
Continuing with the theme of revisiting high school summer reading...

Seems I reread this at the right time, especially the part about effort.
LibraryThing member dele2451
A beautiful love letter to libraries, learning for learning's sake, and Pittsburgh.
LibraryThing member bluepigeon
Right after Bill Bryson's memoirs of growing up in middle America in the 50, Annie Dillard's memoirs of growing up in the 50s in Pittsburgh was a great extension. Dillard's voice is smooth and beautiful, with the perfect balance of poignant reflection and biting adolescent angst. Like Bryson, she
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talks about a childhood marked with atomic bomb drills and the golden age of baseball. And just like Bryson's obsession with girls, Dillard's memories are laced with boys. To match Bryson's obsession with comics, Dillard was a consumer of nature and science books which lead to high literature and poetry as she grew older. Dillard speaks of a privileged childhood, of moving up to better neighborhoods, and rocks she inherited, through the paperboy, from an old gentleman who had nobody other than the paperboy to pass on his collection. Bryson, having spent some good time as a miserable paperboy, can tell you more about this dying profession, but Dillard will captivate with moments of incredible images that will live in your mind for years. You might see a diver with different eyes, or you get the urge to go in the woods with a pickax. You will certainly appreciate having Goodreads, to share your books and opinions about books with the greater world with such ease.
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LibraryThing member LovingLit
It is difficult to convey how impressed I was with this book. Or even to separate which aspects of it I was most impressed by. There was the incredible skill of the author to recall and flesh out memories into these perfectly formed little scenes. There was the lyrical prose and
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ingeniously-combined word groupings. There was perfect capturing of the types of feelings that a child has about the most seemingly benign situations. There was the tone: neither showy nor falsely-modest. There was the time that it captured in 1950s Pittsburgh, with all the greater social issues and inner social circles it involved. It is really a wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member krista.rutherford
Annie Dillard is a talented writer capable of creating vivid images in her descriptions of places and things. However, this book is very boring.
LibraryThing member Othemts
I read Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek many years ago and so I've long meant to read another of her books. An American Childhood is a memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s. The early chapters are vivid descriptions of her inner life as a child focusing on her
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imagination. A particular compelling passage describes her horror at a figure crossing her room at night which later realizes is only light from passing cars, but nevertheless she continues to imagine that something is really in her room. From an early age, Dillard is fascinated by nature and she describes learning about it from books at the library and experience much of nature even in her urban environment. As she gets older the narrative grows into more of a traditional memoir more focused on people in her life and her experiences at school and church. Dillard's prose is beautiful, but I didn't find this book nearly as engaging as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
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LibraryThing member carolfoisset
I have heard her name so often, she is referred to, and quoted so much. I finally read a book by her. I thought some of her passages were so well written and even poetic, while others rambled on a bit too much for me. There were several quotes I had to copy down and I will read more of her work.
LibraryThing member nicholasjjordan
What do you rate when a fantastic author writes another great book, but it's not her best? Four stars, apparently.
LibraryThing member etxgardener
This is an American childhood, if your family owned American Standard and had so much money that your father could throw over his job and decide he was going to boat down the Ohio River to New Orleans. However, Ms. Dillard isn't talking about her family's wealth - at least not centrally. She's
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mostly interested in describing the development of her mind.

As a young child she immerses herself in nature and books. Her mother takes her to the nearest branch of the Pittsburgh Public library which happens to be in an area of the city inhabited mostly by African-Americans. There she reads A Field Guide to Ponds multiple times and marvels at how many other patrons have done the same. in the summers she goes with her paternal grandparents to their summer home on Lake Erie where she further indulges her love of nature.

Her private school provides an excellent, if conventional education, but when puberty hits, Ms. Dillard's raging hormones get her in one scrape after another culminating in her arrest for taking part in a drag race with other teenagers. This results in a suspension from school, plus being sent to a rather strict girls' college. Throughout all of this, she never seems to question her fate. Maybe she doesn't want to, but with such a lively mind, it's a disappointment.
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LibraryThing member bookfest
I confess, I am a fiction junky and rarely read non-fiction. I took this one from my mother's bookshelf and am grateful that I did. The beauty of the writing is mesmerizing. She makes a little girl's obsession with drawing or collecting rocks or insects fascinating. Her detail brings you right into
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the child's experience and makes the mundane precious. I do wonder how she remembers these childhood experiences so clearly. She also shares the pain of those teen years when most adults and all rules were intolerable. One can see, as well, how her love of poetry were the foundation of her elegant writing.
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LibraryThing member mmparker
Read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; then you'll know if you want to read this book. It's not earth-shaking (as Pilgrim was for me), but I basically just like reading Dillard's prose.


National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Biography/Autobiography — 1987)


Original publication date


Physical description

7.9 x 0.7 inches


0060915188 / 9780060915186
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