Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

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An American Childhood Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 38-page guide for “An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Awakening to the Life of the Mind and Adult versus Childhood Consciousness.

Plot Summary

An American Childhood is a memoir written by Anne Dillard. In the narrative, a middle-aged Dillard recounts her childhood from the age of five through high school, all while growing up in 1950s America. One of the recurring themes in the narrative is maintaining happiness even in adulthood. By recounting her childhood as a model for building and keeping this often elusive happiness, Dillard seeks to show how adults, too, can approach the world with childlike awe, as opposed to the common experiences of giving up on childhood dreams, abandoning childlike awe and becoming part of a saddened mob of (usually) bitter individuals.

The memoir begins with Dillard at five years of age, when she begins to notice the differences between herself and her parents. She notices, for instance, that her parents’ skin is sagging now, and loose, while her own skin is firm. These differences help to mark a burgeoning worldview for Dillard. Moreover, Dillard’s strong connection to her mother is explained early on in the narrative. Dillard’s mother is an archetypal 1950s housewife, symbolic of the memoir’s historical context. In the 1950s, women were not expected to be independent, not in the household or in the business world, and not even in their own thoughts. This in itself often led to the loss of happiness in adulthood, at least for women. And yet Dillard’s mother is a revolutionary figure for her. Her mother is depicted as brilliant and clever, and often jokes with her children by engaging in spirited pranks.

Just as telling, Dillard’s depiction of her father adds to the thematic issues of happiness and perseverance. Her father is in love with New Orleans, a metaphor for artistic freedom and the “awe” that adults are often lacking. As a consequence, he quits his job and tries to sail a boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. The voyage is ultimately a failure, though. Her father finds that the trip is not only too long, but lonesome. He eventually sells the boat and returns home.

Dillard’s depiction of her father, when placed against the depiction of her mother, also points to the larger historical context of gender inequality. And yet Dillard’s narrative also suggests that, though her mother is seemingly trapped as a housewife, she is the happier of the two parents. Ironically, her father gives up his so-called role in “a man’s world” by quitting his job. His dream, however, of getting to his idealized New Orleans, is futile. Where his “subdued” wife is happy, he is sad and lonely. Through her narrative, Dillard effectively shows how roles are set, but are not always so black and white.

As Dillard’s childhood continues, the reader discovers that she is intrinsically curious. Even concepts that appear boring to others, Dillard takes delight in. Notable areas of study/interest include minerology, biographies of famous biologists, insects, forensics, and the French-Indian War. These likes are not only significant in their ability to inspire awe in Dillard, many of them are significant metaphorically. Areas of interest such as forensics and biology would have been virtually anathema to a 1950s woman. And yet Dillard doggedly pursues these interests despite the confines placed on gender, thereby shaking up the status quo and creating her own sense of possibility with her childhood awe.

Indeed, as Dillard grows, she notices more and more that adults lose their childlike awe. Most get married and find jobs, then work until they die. Dillard, however, maintains her awe in the areas of study that seem important to her. She also finds strength in the form of her mother, an adult who does not seem to have lost her happiness.

Dillard finds herself in the peculiar role of growing and becoming an adult during her adolescent phase, and the process frightens her. Boys, for instance, take on a different meaning, with their maturity, and hers, more palpable. As high school begins, Dillard finds that she, like her friends, desires to wear the most fashionable clothing, and wants to put her energy into things like having the best tan. This changing worldview causes Dillard to question herself, and for the first time in her life, she finds that she is unhappy. She has been so intent with maintaining her happiness and her childlike awe, but with her growth into adulthood, finds her awe slipping away. At one point, Dillard almost gives up completely on her happiness, thus succumbing to the sad state of adult life she has witnessed so much while growing up.

As is often the case, Dillard’s adolescent years are turbulent, with budding feelings and emotions. Many teenagers and young adults go through these emotions, and yet Dillard sees her unhappiness and insistence on trivial matters as a possible symptom of failure on her part. This failure, in itself, only makes matters worse. Dillard acts out, and begins getting into trouble more and more. Most notably, Dillard begins smoking, gets into a drag-racing accident and even goes as far as to write a letter to her church’s Reverend regarding the reasons she is leaving the church.

The memoir ends with Dillard finishing high school and preparing to enter college. There is, however, an epilogue to the memoir. In the epilogue, Dillard upholds the curiosity of her youth, but also says that compromise is necessary. In the end, Dillard finds that she can be happy regardless of her circumstances. The important thing is to admire all of the beauty the world has to offer, and to be happy internally as well.

The epilogue, as well as Dillard’s narrative in general, highlights the dichotomy in many adults between a creative life versus a “realistic” one. While many attempt to separate the two, Dillard’s epilogue and overarching narrative show how the two seeming opposites can realistically exist side by side. One can be happy, creative and in awe of the world while being an adult. Despite issues like gender inequality, growing up, growing old, or failure, one can still be happy as long as happiness is also found within and not entirely tied to exterior points of reference.

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