With the publication of An American Childhood in 1987, poet, essayist, naturalist, novelist and critic Annie Dillard helped usher in the age of memoirs. Following by only a few years the groundbreaking memoirs of Russell Baker (Growing Up, 1982) and Eudora Welty (One Writer's Beginnings, 1984), Childhood, like these predecessors, defined a literary genre.
Annie Dillard blazed onto the scene exactly 30 years ago with the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a meditation on the natural world that The Washington Post called "Walden with Pizzazz." Published when Dillard was just 29, and only a few months after her slim volume of poetry Tickets for a Prayer Wheel had landed with little notice, Pilgrim was stamped with the imprimatur of the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction the following year. After the publication of four more books, she turned her attention to her own world in An American Childhood, a lyrical look at her idyllic and privileged childhood in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
Dillard captures the genius loci of at least a part of the city then and lovingly describes her unorthodox, caring parents. Her father, who not only helped make the classic cult movie "Night of the Living Dead" but read On the Road at least as many times as she did ("approximately a million"), "walked lightly, long-legged, like a soft-shoe hoofer barely in touch with the floor." Her mother, an "unstoppable force," always reminded her that she didn't know everything yet and gave her "the freedom of the streets as soon as I could say our telephone number." Along with the idea that Annie and her two sisters were "expected to take a stand," her mother also clearly passed on her love of language. One of Dillard's hilarious retellings is of her mother overhearing the play-by-play of a Sunday afternoon baseball game and asking of the phrase "Terwilliger bunts one," "Is that English?" In summing up the compelling characters surrounding her, Dillard writes, "Everyone in the family was a dancing fool," making us all want that family.
In many ways this is less a coming-of-age story than it is a "coming-awake" one. This curious (double entendre intended) woman chronicles her own self-awareness. An intense, creative, acutely observant child with an outsized sense of wonder, Dillard dramatically, even breathlessly, writes of being 10 years old and increasingly aware of the world:
"The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along. . . . I woke at intervals until . . . I was more often awake than not. 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." Although she is writing at three decades' remove, we readers feel the immediacy of this child's time of "heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be."
For me, the book resonates especially in Dillard's descriptions of her reading -- its importance, its content, its value as escape. Reading, for her, took on a life of its own. It became what W.D. Wetherell, in his review of this book for The Post, called her "most requited" love. She responded to the "dreamlike interior murmur of books" and "opened books like jars."
With good reason, An American Childhood was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as a bestseller. It's easy reading -- happy reading, even -- and, at least for me, it's lively and whimsical, but serious enough so that it doesn't creep over into the saccharine. I read this book as soon as it appeared, and this re-reading proved only a little less satisfying the second time around, perhaps because I've put more distance between me and my own childhood. Please join me with your questions and comments for an online discussion of An American Childhood on Thursday, Aug. 26, at 3 p.m. on washingtonpost.com/liveonline.