An American Childhood is a memoir, an autobiography about Dillard’s childhood in Pittsburg around the 1940’s and 1950’s. Her prose painlessly dissects the struggles and demands of childhood, of growing up. As a young girl, Dillard devours the world around her becoming intrigued and obsessed by varying fascinations such as art and rocks, bugs and literature. She stands amidst a world both beautiful and haunting, taking in the wonder of nature alongside the horror of human behavior.
Dillard’s prose captures both the inner and the outer marvels of being alive. She guides the reader through her childhood with the sobering reminder that as one grows older, the ability to appreciate the world diminishes as we become more and more aware of the self. The unconsciousness of childhood allows a girl to throw herself, wildly, into the beating world around her. And so as Dillard recounts her younger days, we feel her longing to return to those selfless, free moments, and we hear in her voice the desire to foster the same unconsciousness that children so naturally possess.
I can think of no other way to explain the breathtaking artistry of her writing than to include a short selection of her prose from An American Childhood. I sincerely hope it inspires you to pick up this book or one of her many others.
“What does it feel like to be alive? Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face. Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling! It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation's short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit."