AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD By Annie Dillard Harper & Row. 255 pp. $17.95
THE TEMPTATION must be irresistible. You're a successful writer at midpoint in your career, with publishers receptive to just about anything you'd care to do. What more logical subject to tackle next than your own childhood, the raw material of memory and experience that is every writer's well? A memoir, then, something that combines the historical and sociological insight of Russell Baker's Boyhood with the private, intense lyricism of Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings.
And how much more tempting to try it if, like Annie Dillard, you've been possessed since childhood with an overpowering need to get the facts of experience down on paper, to trap the fleeting moment by intensity of remembrance and translate it by your talent into beautiful prose.
"As a life's work, I would remember everything -- everything, against loss. I would go through life like a plankton net. I would trap and keep every teacher's funny remark, every face on the street, every microscopic alga's sway, every conversation, configuration of leaves, every dream, and every scrap of overhead cloud . . . Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside? Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fist, or the whole show had been in vain."
It's a Pittsburgh 1950s childhood Annie Dillard is writing about in her memoir, An American Childhood, and not just any Pittsburgh childhood, but a wealthy and pampered one. Her father was the eccentric scion of American Standard money (eccentric enough, anyway, to have made a movie called Night of the Living Dead in his spare time); her mother was a wisecracking, talented woman whose only outlet in those pre-lib days was her family. Young Annie was brought up with that most precious of gifts: the space to find out what it was she most truly loved.
If nothing else, An American Childhood is a catalogue of loves lovingly told. And how many there are! One moment the 12-year-old Annie is a French and Indian war buff, the next an avid hardball player ("I pitched, as I did most things, in order to concentrate"), then a plankton nut, then a person who cares above all about dancing at the Sewickly Country Club, then a World War II buff ("I could contact the Resistance with my high-school French and eavesdrop on the Germans with my high-school German"), then all of these things at once, and then not any of these things, but a lover of rocks.
"I would lay about me right and left with a hammer, and bash the landscape to bits. I would crack the earth's crust like a pinåata and spread to light the vivid prizes in chunks within. Rock collection was opening the mountains. It was like diving through my own interior blank blackness to remember the startling pieces of a dream: there was a blue lake, a witch, a lighthouse, a yellow path. It was like poking about in a grimy alley and finding an old, old coin . . . Crystals grew inside rock like arithmetical flowers. They lengthened and spread, adding plane to plane in awed and perfect obedience to absolute geometry that even the stone -- maybe only the stones -- understood."
BUT OF ALL these loves, the one that is written about with the most head-over-heels passion is the one that in the end was the most requited: her love of reading.
"I opened books like jars . . . Those of us who read carried around with us like martyrs a secret knowledge, a secret joy and a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized. This life could be found and joined, like the Resistance. I kept this exhilarating faith alive in myself concealed under my uniform shirt like an oblate's ribbon; I would not be parted from it."
This delighted exploration of the world of books is by far the most enjoyable thing in An American Childhood and, in its modest way, a classic love story. It's when the author tries to inflate both her prose and her memories to say something profound about the American experience that the book falters -- and falters badly. Trying to sound like the Walt Whitman of contemporary essayists, she overwrites and ends up sounding like John Denver instead; when in doubt, bring in the dolphins.
"Oh, the great humming silence of the empty neighborhoods in those days, the neighborhoods abandoned everywhere across continental America . . . oh, the silence" becomes "And still I break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day, as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive."
Most of all, it's in her ambition to make An American Childhood a universal summary of what it's like to grow up in America that the book comes to grief. Annie Dillard's childhood was far from typical, even by Pittsburgh standards. There is nothing here about the city's black Hill District, little more than lip service paid the workers in the mills upon whose poverty Annie's pampered upbringing rested. All through the book she writes about her coming rebellion, preparing us for some startling leap away from the cozy world of her family home; we come to the end of the book expecting her to rush off to join Mother Teresa in Calcutta or march on the Pentagon at the very least. But when the rebellion does come, at least in the years described here, it proves to be a very tame one: she takes her teacher's advice and applies for admission to Hollins College in Virginia.
Dillard herself seems aware of how short the book falls. Tacked on to the end is a redundant epilogue that is little more than a flag-waving catalogue of all the good-old-boy American heroes: Huck Finn, Johnny Appleseed, Jim Bridger and all the rest, as if she's trying to seize by their lustre the epic quality that yet eludes her. But if An American Childhood has any lesson to teach us about America, it is only this: that growing up rich in Pittsburgh is very pleasant indeed.
W.D. Wetherell's short-story collection, "The Man Who Loved Levittown," was published this summer.