Book: An American Childhood (1987) by Annie Dillard
“I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950′s in a house full of comedians, reading books.” Annie Dillard.
Whatever you think of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Annie Dillard will give you a different view in [amazonify]B001UE71JS::text:::: An American Childhood [/amazonify]. When you close this book, you will want to travel to Pittsburgh.
Our road trip heads south from our last stop in Buffalo, New York. Although Pittsburgh is on the “far edge of the Mid West,” as Dillard says, Pennsylvania reaches to the sea and qualifies as a mid-Atlantic state.
Now we are in Pittsburgh with Annie Dillard in her literary journey through An American Childhood in the 1950′s. I read her better-known, Pulitzer-winning [amazonify]0060920645::text::::Pilgrim at Tinker Creek[/amazonify], soon after it was published in 1974. (The Amazon link here leads you to one volume with both of these books, plus The Writer’s Life. Sounds like a very good deal, to me.) Pilgrim is deep and wise and I pictured its author as an older woman. In fact, she was not quite thirty. That book shows her fascination with Thoreau. Emerson also influenced her theological thoughts.
In Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, Dillard says she is not a scientist, but she observes and tests the world with a scientists’ focus and curiosity in An American Childhood. The writer’s microscopic exploration of the world of a child had me nodding in recognition.
“The great outer world dove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society.”
When she is curious about butterflies and moths, amoeba, the Panama Canal, or minerals, she heads for the big library built by one of Pittsburgh’s early millionaires, Andrew Carnegie, where she also takes art lessons.
In church she finds the only serious discussion of complex ideas and for a long time that is the only source of philosophy she knows.
She wanders about creating mind maps of Pittsburgh. Annie Dillard’s Pittsburgh exists in the upper class and country club/private school life. But as we watch her growing up and out into any ever enlarging world, we also learn about the history of Pittsburgh, its famous residents and how its various neighborhoods looked in the 1950′s.
I not only loved the child, I loved her mother. Intelligent, witty, cracking jokes, playing with language, she reminded me of my father. And her disdain for misuse reminded me of my own mother who hated to hear “Where’s it at?” and would always answer “Behind the bat,” because only nonsense should answer an ungrammatical construction. Annie’s mother resisted the Pittsburgh inclination to mix leave with let. The chapter on her mother’s penchant for finding jokes everywhere totally cracked me up. Her language play never stopped.
“She regarded the instructions on bureaucratic forms as straight lines. ‘Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence?’ After some thought she wrote, “Force.”*
When Dillard got to her teen angst years, I found the book too dense and tedious. But travelers should stick with it for the Epilogue, with a striking picture of America as the home of wanderers. Life on the Mississippi (link leads to the entire text on line) by Mark Twain and On the Road (link leads to Google excerpts of “original scroll” edition) by Jack Kerouac were books read and re-read in her household.
Scurry down to your bookstore, or click on my Amazon link above and get An American Childhood. You’ll be glad you did.
*For younger readers who can’t believe this nonsense, it was quite true in the Cold War, commie-fearing fiftes. I nearly refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the government as a matter of principal when I was a student at Ohio State, but gave up because I need the scholarship money at stake.
For music to go with the Road Trip to Pennsylvania, see Music Road, where you’ll find a song called–what else?–Pennsylvania. Music Road has partnered with A Traveler’s Library for the Great American Road Trip so you will have a treats to hear as well as to read.
The photograph above was used through the Creative Commons license, and found at Flickr. For more info about the photographer, click on the picture.
Anyone want to share what they know about Pittsburgh? Dillard wanted, as a child, to remember everything. Her book shows that she surely remembered a lot. Have you ever tried to remember exact scenes from your life? How did it go?