An American Childhood
An American Childhood
by Annie Dillard
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiography set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s-60s, published in 1987.
A portrait of Annie Dillard as a young girl, An American Childhood recreates family life and the culture of the American Midwest.
Born Meta Ann Doak in Pittsburgh in 1945 to well-to-do parents, Annie Dillard grew to become America’s most famous theologian of nature, a well-known essayist, poet, novelist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize at the age of thirty. The autobiography of her earliest years, An American Childhood traces Dillard’s developing sense of selfhood and independence in her childhood pursuits—baseball, insect- and rock collecting, drawing, poetry, and exploration—focusing on the roots of the artist who would eventually emerge. Intimately connected with the specific physical setting of Pittsburgh, An American Childhood insists upon the formative power of landscape upon the people who live in it.
The making of Pittsburgh
An American Childhood is set firmly in Dillard’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the life and times of that city affected the imaginative life of Annie Dillard so greatly that in the first draft of the autobiography, chapters on the history of the city were interspersed with the chapters that deal more directly with her own life. The finished book begins with the following acknowledgment that the city and its physical setting more deeply affected Dillard than anything else in her life:
When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, Ibelieve, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.
(Dillard, An American Childhood, p. 3)
The city of Pittsburgh lies at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, a location that was of supreme historical importance in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century power struggle between the French and English, who both sought control of North America. Whoever controlled the area known as the “forks of the Ohio River” controlled the gate to the West. The French, who already held Canada and Louisiana and command of a few scattered posts between the two, were anxious to finalize their control of the interior of the continent by establishing themselves firmly in the Ohio country. But the area was already full of British trappers and traders, and the eastern seaboard of America was settled by the British as well. Although it took some time to develop, war was inevitable.
The conflict between the two European powers took many twists and turns, culminating in 1759 when the British finalized their conquest of the area by taking over the French Fort Duquesne and renaming it after the English prime minister of the time, William Pitt. On January 21, 1759, General John Forbes, commander of the British forces that had gathered to dispute the land claim with the French, wrote a letter to Pitt in London: “I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne, as I hope it was in some measure the being actuated by your spirits that now makes us Masters of the place” (Forbes in Lorant, p. 29). Forbes himself was not master of anything for very long—he died a few weeks after taking Fort Duquesne. But the British presence was never to fade from the strategic spit of land.
In 1961 the young Dillard was captivated by a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) called “Man Walking,” which she saw at the International Exhibition held in Pittsburgh. The International Exhibition was first established by Andrew Carnegie in 1896 with the goal of bringing the best in contemporary art to Pittsburgh; artists competed for a cash award and the curators of the Carnegie Institute would have a chance to look over new art that they might want to buy for the institute’s art gallery. At the 1961 exhibition, when Dillard was sixteen, the Swiss artist Giacometti won the Carnegie Prize for his sculpture. Giacometti’s sculptural style was to create thin, elongated human figures upon which the fingerprints of the sculptor could be clearly seen; he is famous for examining the relationship between figures and the space around them. In “Man Walking,” Dillard found “the perfect person, whose form matched his inner life”: “Man Walking was pure consciousness made poignant: a soul without a culture, absolutely alone, without even a time, without people, speech, books, tools, work, or even clothes.... He looked freshly made of clay by God, visibly pinched by sure fingertips” (An American Childhood, p. 212).
Another challenge to face the Europeans in the new Fort Pitt was the enmity of the local Native Americans. The young Dillard and her friends play at being Indian scouts, imagining a life in which they would “talk to animals, become invisible, ride a horse naked and shrieking, shoot things” (An American Childhood, p. 121). Actually the fate of the native peoples in the area around Pittsburgh was dismal. The British wanted them out of the area and even considered purposely unleashing smallpox among them. The fact that many of the Indians had originally backed the claims of the French did not help their cause once the British were in control. The period of 1763-64 saw the various tribes in the area stage a sequence of attacks, organized by Chief Pontiac. While many settlers lost their lives, in the end the Native Americans were defeated by the British. There were to be some isolated skirmishes over the following years, but the British would not be driven back over the mountains.
The Pittsburgh that grew up once peace was established quickly became an important supply depot for the throngs of people who were heading even further west. Manufacturing and transportation—especially railways, coal, and steel—became the economic focus of the thriving city. And with this nineteenth- and twentieth-century commitment to industry came appalling social consequences: sweatshops, seventy-two-hour work weeks at the steel mills, and slums. The flip side of the coin, however, was the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the captains of industry, of which Pittsburgh had many. Among them were Andrew Carnegie (steel), Henry Clay Frick (coke, a material used in manufacturing steel), the Mellon family (banking), and Henry Heinz (food-packing). Their mansions, among which young Dillard plays in her exclusive neighborhood, form a stark contrast to the squalor in which many of Pittsburgh’s citizens lived. To be fair, the city was growing in population at such a pace that it was practically impossible for it to expand along any fixed plan. Many of its new arrivals were Eastern European immigrants recruited from their homelands by Carnegie’s and Frick’s agents to work in the Pittsburgh factories and industries. Conditions eased somewhat when the workers organized themselves into unions in the 1880s and the city built water filtration systems in the 1920s, but Pittsburgh continued to contain sizeable slums right up until the mid-1940s.
“We lived in a clean city whose center was new; after the war, a few business leaders and Democratic Mayor David L. Lawrence had begun cleaning it up. Beneath the new city, and tucked up its hilly alleys, lay the old Pittsburgh.... Our Pittsburgh was like Rome, or Jericho, a palimpsest, a sliding pile of cities built ever nearer the sky.... If you dug, you found things” (An American Childhood, p. 73). The Pittsburgh of which Dillard writes seems a far cry from the stinking, squalid city in which many of its former citizens lived. In 1945 the Pittsburgh city council passed a redevelopment law that was designed to rid the city of urban blight—the acres of old warehouses and railway tracks, slums, and crumbling buildings. These were pulled down and shiny new buildings erected, parking lots and open spaces established, factories relocated, cultural institutions founded, and public works encouraged. The “Golden Triangle,” that spit of land where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet and where the French and English put up their forts, was the object of the most attention. Down went the dilapidated shacks and railway garbage, and up went glittering hotels, luxury apartments, office buildings, and a park and a parkway. The Lower Hill district—once described as a gigantic slum—was also razed, and a new Civic Auditorium built in its place. The Redevelopment Authority, backed by big-money interests in Pittsburgh, had purchased the area, and as a result of its reconfiguration 12,000 families were forced to relocate.
Perhaps America’s ugliest city before redevelopment, Pittsburgh also had a horrendous air pollution problem, thanks to the coal mines in the area; at nine o’clock in the morning, the city could be as black as night. On October 1, 1947, the city council passed an ordinance regulating emissions from local industrial concerns, including railroads; the ordinance had actually been agreed upon earlier, but everyone felt that, as long as World War II continued, the production of coal should take precedence over health concerns. Despite spirited opposition, the ordinance was finally adhered to by all offending industrial concerns, and Pittsburgh emerged from the soot.
“Pittsburgh wasn’t really Andrew Carnegie’s town. We just thought it was,” comments Dillard on the pervasive influence of Andrew Carnegie upon the social, economic and cultural landscape of her hometown (An American Childhood, p. 207). The name of the prominent Allegheny (across the river from Pittsburgh) steel magnate and philanthropist recurs throughout Dillard’s An American Childhood. Made fabulously wealthy by his holdings in steel works, Carnegie used his fortune to build 2,509 public libraries across the nation, and also founded many important arts and technology foundations. One such creation was the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, where Dillard, like many other Pittsburgh children, attended free art classes every Saturday, and benefited from exposure to the Institute’s museum and art gallery.
Born on November 25, 1835, Andrew Carnegie was the son of poor Scottish immigrants who arrived in the United States in 1848. He began as a laborer in a cotton factory, moved on to a job in a telegraph office, and then worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he eventually headed up the western division. In 1865, realizing how crucial steel would prove to be for the network of railroads being built across America, he ventured into business on his own and began to invest in steel works. The result of his investments was the formation of the Carnegie Steel Company, which he sold in 1901 at the price of $492 million—quite a fortune for a man who had started his working career at $1.20 a week.
Carnegie retired upon the sale of Carnegie Steel, and began a long stretch of charitable work; altogether he gave away $350 million. Carnegie’s personal motto was “Death to Privilege,” and he did what he could to help out people who were struggling financially and socially. Just the same, he did not always play by the rules, because there were none. It has been pointed out by many scholars that Carnegie was doing business at a particularly ruthless time in American economic history. Business ethics were more or less nonexistent, and there was a lack of federal or state laws to regulate business practices. This made it possible for men like Carnegie to amass huge personal fortunes, often at the expense of their workers, whose wages remained low.
“We heard polio discussed once or twice a day for several years,” reports Dillard in her autobiography (An American Childhood, p. 168). In this she was not alone, for the specter of polio—a disease that often struck young children—stalked North America until the development of a vaccine in 1953. Sometimes referred to as “infantile paralysis,” polio or poliomyelitis is a viral infection contracted through exposure to someone with polio or to human feces. North American children, like those in other developed countries, were thought to be particularly prone to the virus—although this assumption was incorrect. However, at the time when Dillard grew up, in an atmosphere of what she considered maternal overprotection, it was considered to be true.
The polio virus has to enter through the mouth and attacks the body through the bloodstream. Symptoms include headache, fever, and inflamed throat. At early stages of the disease, polio can be easily recovered from in a matter of days. But if the virus manages to reach the central nervous system—the spine and brain—it can cause paralysis and impaired motor coordination, sometimes permanently. Polio can even kill a victim, if it paralyses the victim’s throat muscles.
In 1953 and 1954 the American microbiologist Jonas Edward Salk (1914-95) began to test a controversial vaccination against polio, which consisted of injecting an inactivated polio virus into the body. Salk was conducting his research at the University of Pittsburgh, and Dillard herself was part of the test population who received the inoculation before it was officially approved in 1955.
In Dillard’s household, baseball assumed a prominent position; a radio in the kitchen broadcast the Pittsburgh Pirates’ games and young Annie spent hours learning how to pitch a hardball, despite the fact that, in her day, girls were not permitted to participate on Little League baseball teams.
Annie Dillard benefited in many ways from the research of Jonas Salk. In An American Childhood, she explains that she learned a good lesson about life from the developer of the polio vaccine:
We knew that “Doctor Salk” had spent many years and many dollars to produce the vaccine. He commonly worked sixteen-hour days, six days a week. Of course. In other laboratories around the world, other researchers were working just as hard, as hard as Salk and Pasteur. Hard work bore fruit. This is what we learned growing up in Pittsburgh, growing up in the United States.
(An American Childhood, p. 169)
Any self-respecting baseball fan in Pittsburgh had a hard time of it in the long dry years after 1925 when the Pirates had won the World Series. The young Dillard reports with disgust that the Pirates had habitually “lived in the cellar, like trolls.... Nobody could even remember when they won ball games, the bums” (An American Child-hood, p. 97). But 1960 would change all that. The World Series that year pitted the Pirates against the mighty New York Yankees, who were heavily favored to win. In what has been called “one of the strangest World Series ever played” (Ward and Burns, p. 365), the Pirates, who had been beaten badly in three games of the series (16-3, 10-0, and 12-0) somehow managed to even things up, and a seventh game, in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, was necessary to determine baseball’s champions. At first, things looked bleak for the Pirates; they were down 7-4 in the bottom of the eighth inning. But then, as luck would have it, the Pirates’ Bill Virdon hit an easy one out to the Yankees’ shortstop, and the ball landed right on his throat. The Yankee fell to the ground, writhing in pain, and by the end of the inning, the Pirates were up 9-7. The Yankees tied the score in the top of the ninth inning. Then Bill Mazeroski stepped up to the plate for the Pirates and hit a home run over the left field wall—the first time the World Series had ever ended with a homer.
Shadyside Presbyterian Church
In An American Childhood, Dillard recounts how she and her sisters were sent to the Shadyside Presbyterian Church every Sunday while her parents stayed at home. At first she “practically admired” her mother and father for deciding not to attend, but in her troubled teenage years her sense of obligation to do so grew, until it “inevitably blackened [her] heart” (An American Childhood, pp. 195, 196). The church that Dillard and the other children attended was an old institution in Pittsburgh, frequented by people “for whose forefathers streets all over town were named” (An American Childhood, p. 193).
The name “Presbyterian” derives from the Greek word presbyteros, which means “elder”; Presbyterianism is characterized primarily by its fourfold system of officers: preachers, teachers, deacons (who help the poor), and elders (who govern the church). Elected by the people of the congregation, both lay people and ministers form the group of elders who govern the church.
The Presbyterian Church had a strong foothold in Pittsburgh because early in the city’s history it had been settled by Scottish immigrants, who brought the faith with them. Presbyterianism originated in Europe in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which was a broad religious movement to correct what was perceived to be the widespread corruption of the Catholic Church. In Geneva, Switzerland, the reformer John Calvin maintained that church and state should remain separate but should help each other in governing the people; the Church of Scotland approved of this idea, and was the only large body of believers to do so. The Scots became familiar with Calvin’s ideas through the efforts of John Knox, going on to develop the strain of Presbyterianism that is practiced by American Presbyterians.
An American Childhood begins in 1950, when Annie Dillard was five, and traces the somewhat mystical moments of awakening or awareness by which she grows to know herself as an individual. She begins by evoking early fears, such as that of the “monster” that invaded her bedroom at night (and turned out to be the headlights of a passing car) and of nuns, and Catholics in general. Long walks and bike rides through her neighborhood—and into other neighborhoods—help her position herself geographically, and teach her the power of landscape upon her imagination. “What is a house but a bigger skin, and a neighborhood map but the world’s skin ever expanding?” (An American Childhood, p. 44). Her eccentric forays into literature, ranging from how to manuals on drawing to The Field Book of Ponds and Streams to Moby Dick and St. Augustine’s Confessions, contrast with the starchy, traditional dancing lessons and country-club events that her upper-class upbringing entails. Under the guidance of her parents, she and her two younger sisters are encouraged to think for themselves and to develop their own interests and private lives. Annie takes this to heart and becomes a superb baseball pitcher, a forensic artist, a mineralogist, and a collector of insects. She dreams of the French and Indian wars that took place centuries earlier on the very ground outside her window; she, like all of her generation, internalizes the horrors of World War II and worries about nuclear holocaust: “At school we had air-raid drills. We took the drills seriously; surely Pittsburgh, which had the nation’s steel, coke, and aluminum, would be the enemy’s first target” (An American Childhood, p. 180).
On the home front guiding Dillard’s childhood were a cast of genuine characters. Her father, Frank Doak, inherited a job at the family firm, which he quit to sail his boat to New Orleans. As a student in New York, he had fallen in love with jazz music and wanted to hang out in Dixieland jazz clubs for a while; his intention never was to abandon his family, whom he dearly loved, but just to have a little adventure for a few months. As the young Dillard recalls, her father’s favorite book was Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and he clearly dreamed of experiencing the river life for himself. Some weeks into his journey, her father got lonely, sold the boat, and flew home. Of her beautiful and intelligent mother, Pam, Dillard recounts many hilarious moments, most of which have to do with her mother’s love of gags.
If she answered the phone on a wrong number, she told the caller, “Just a minute” and dragged the receiver to Amy or me, saying, “Here, take this, your name is Cecile,” or, worse, just, “It’s for you.”
(An American Childhood, p. 113)
Dillard’s paternal grandparents also lived in Pittsburgh; her grandfather was a wealthy banker, her grandmother was an iconoclastic heiress. Meta Waltenburger Doak (for whom Annie Dillard was named) had gaudy tastes, an imperious nature, red hair, freckles, and a potbelly. Apart from her objectionable ideas on race and class, Oma, as she was known to her grandchildren, was a kindhearted woman at whose house on Lake Erie the Doak children liked spending their summers. It is primarily from these three adults (father, mother, and grandmother) that Dillard learned about life. Of course, it was not all smooth sailing: Dillard was rebellious and sometimes mean-spirited in her teenage years. For example, she horrified her parents by writing a letter to the minister of the family’s Presbyterian Church, informing him that she was quitting the faith. She was suspended from school for taking part in a drag race. She took up smoking. Her parents despaired. Fortunately, she was doing well enough in school for acceptance into a good college, and the autobiography proper ends there.
The lyrical epilogue to An American Childhood reflects on the passage of time and the imperceptible changes that overtake a person as she ages, as well as the elemental importance of place as the setting for an individual life:
What is important is anyone’s coming awake and discovering a place, finding in full orbit a spinning globe one can lean over, catch, and jump on. What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch—with an electric hiss and cry—this speckled mineral sphere, our present world.
(An American Childhood, p. 249)
An American Childhood begins and ends with a meditation on the quasi-mystical process of awakening into consciousness. Dillard describes self-awareness as a sudden moment of waking:
Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers...; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects.... They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.
(An American Childhood, p. 11)
Cold War medicine
In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard recounts the Cold War fears of her generation:
After the bomb, we would live... in [the] basement.... Our family could live in the basement for many years, until the radiation blew away. Amy and Molly would grow up there. I would teach them all I knew, and entertain them on the piano. Father would build a radiation barrier for the basement’s sunken windows....
(An American Childhood, p. 182)
In the aftermath of World War II, with many people certain that atomic war against the Russians was more or less inevitable, American school children were steeped in the evils of Russian communism, the literature of the European war experience (in books such as The Diary of Anne Frank, [also covered in Literature and Its Times]), air raid procedures, and how to ration food supplies.
The post-World War II era pitted the two superpowers, democratic America and the communist Soviet Union, against each other in a struggle for world domination. In 1949 American President Harry Truman made public the news that the Soviet Union now possessed nuclear capability—America was no longer the sole custodian of atomic weapons. What this suggested was that if Soviet communism would be fought by freedom-loving Americans—which became a patriotic duty—it would have to be fought on a nuclear battleground. The young Dillard worried about atomic radiation to such an extent that she tried to calculate the number of days her family could survive in their basement based on the food they had in the deep-freeze. Americans were on the red-alert, so to speak, looking for communists behind every bush.
The communist scare of the late 1940s and 1950s might have influenced Dillard as a child in more ways than just the anxiety she felt as she prepared herself mentally to live out her childhood in the family’s basement. When Dwight D. Eisenhower became the U.S. president, his secretary of health, Oveta Culp Hobby, wanted to block free distribution to all children of the polio vaccine that Jonas Salk had developed at the University of Pittsburgh (Whitfield, p. 24), and which Dillard herself received free of charge as part of Salk’s research program. Hobby’s concern was that socialized medicine in any form was an evil to be avoided at all costs, even if doing so left American children with twisted bodies. The American Medical Association, who equated such programs as national health insurance with communism, also voiced opposition to the free distribution of the polio vaccine as well, so it was sold commercially, like all other drugs, to those who could afford it. Only the destitute were offered the vaccine free of charge, with the result that many poor but not destitute Americans risked infection, crippling, and possibly death.
Annie Dillard decided to write about her childhood shortly after the birth of her own daughter in 1984. The autobiography treats lovingly her original family, to whom she gave carte blanche in editing her work. The Doaks did elect to have her delete a few parts. Dillard herself is very reticent about her own affairs and refused to placate her editors, who wanted her to include more of her love life in the book. When pressed to do so, she retorted that it was “not ladylike” to discuss such a subject (Dillard in Smith, p. 13).
Publication and reviews
In her original draft of An American Childhood, Dillard interspersed chapters on the history of Pittsburgh—such as the French and Indian wars and the steel-making industry—with chapters on her early life. She intended that her book should “encompass the whole sweep of American history” (Trueheart, p. 3), insofar as that history is represented by the history of one American city. However, her intentions were not respected by her literary agent or by her advisors, who all counselled her to tell the story of her young life without historical interruptions. The agent even went so far as to submit the manuscript of An American Childhood to the publishing house of Harper & Row without the history chapters—without asking Dillard before doing so. By all accounts, Dillard was so stunned by the brashness and the certainty of this move that she bowed to the pressure and gave up the history chapters without a fight.
An American Childhood did not win universal acclaim. While the book was praised for its honesty, critics spoke of its being flawed. For example, “the last chapter with its rhapsodic nostalgia is a chapter that could have been left out” (Mooney, p. 467). Other portions of the autobiography were singled out for compliments. Among these are “the superb chapter on her mother” and “her evocation of a 16-year-old’s floundering rage” (Mooney, p. 467). Curiously, a review in Ms. faulted Dillard for the very aim she set out to achieve—merging the country’s with her personal history—which, again, had largely been aborted by her agent’s discarding of the chapters that were not about her own life. “She is determined,” complained the review, “to read the history of the nation in every snowball fight” (Mooney, p. 467). More representative of the mix of positive and negative feedback, however, was an evaluation in the New York Times Book Review, which concluded that “overwriting and all, An American Childhood remains a remarkable work” (Mooney, p. 467).
Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Lorant, Stefan. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City. 3rd ed. Lenox, Mass.: Authors Edition, 1980.
Mooney, Martha T., ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 83. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1988.
Smith, Linda L. Annie Dillard. New York: Twayne, 1991.
Trueheart, Charles. “Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim’s Progress.” Washington Post (October 28, 1987): Dl.
Ward, Geoffrey C, and Ken Burns. Baseball: An Illustrated History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1991.