In An American Childhood
Dillard traces her life from early childhood into adolescence. Her self-stated project is to show how a child “wakes up” to life, moving from the self-absorbed now-ness of early childhood to the rumblings of consciousness, the awareness that one is alive.
As if to underscore Dillard’s position as an “example” of childhood rather than the work’s actual subject, she begins her autobiography by describing Pittsburgh’s topography and history, followed by a chapter about her father’s trip down the Mississippi to find the origins of jazz. As she proceeds to describe her mother, her neighborhood, her relentless energy and interest in books, art, rocks, flora, fauna, and consciously “seeing” she repeatedly adds, like a denouement, that she was waking up:
“I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake then 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."
As Samuel Hazo and other critics have noted, Dillard’s autobiography works best in its earlier chapters where she focuses on her childhood; her depiction of her adolescence often comes closer to caricature than characterization.Partially adapted from a prior publication