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 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.