An American Childhood


Annie Dillard

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An American Childhood Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Annie Dillard

Dillard was born as Annie Doak in Pittsburgh, and her childhood there is the subject of An American Childhood. Dillard attended Hollins College in Virginia, where she received both a BA in literature and creative writing, and a MA in English. She published her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in 1974, and it received the Pulitzer Prize. She has since written a number of other books in various genres, including poetry, novelistic prose, travel writing, and literary criticism. Since 1999 she has been a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters.
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Historical Context of An American Childhood

An American Childhood takes place in the years after World War II, which was a time of relative prosperity and economic growth in the United States (for many, though, not all groups of people). These years were also the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, and—as the air raid drills described in the book show—there was a pervasive fear that nuclear war might be imminent, now that both countries could use the atomic bomb. Dillard also refers to the history of Pittsburgh, which is inextricable from the Gilded Age of American history, when “robber barons” like Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon amassed great fortunes from steel and other industries. They were great supporters of the arts and culture, founding universities, schools, libraries, and hospitals; but as Dillard points out in the memoir, their fortunes were also built on the back-breaking labor of working-class people.

Other Books Related to An American Childhood

The thoughtfulness and attention to the natural world that Diillard displays in the memoir helps to clarify her intellectual trajectory, as she would become an author who wrote an award-winning nonfiction narrative about nature, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In that sense, the memoir is a kind of pre-history of Dillard’s other works. But its title also positions this memoir in the context of other classic American coming-of-age writing, from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (especially with its emphasis on the natural world) to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Dillard’s memoir also influenced the many literary memoirs that appeared in the 1990s; Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle is one work that seems influenced by Dillard.
Key Facts about An American Childhood
  • Full Title: An American Childhood
  • When Written: c. 1987
  • Where Written: U.S.
  • When Published: 1987
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Antagonist: Dillard doesn’t identify one clear antagonist, although she describes her teenage self as considering any authority figures, from her parents to her teachers to her minister, as natural antagonists. Since An American Childhood is largely the story of Dillard’s intellectual development, much of the struggle for self-definition takes place within Annie’s own mind.
  • Point of View: The memoir is told in the first person, but there is an obvious separation between the child Annie and the mature adult who is telling the story. Often Dillard will intrude in the narration to comment on the limitations of her childhood character, as well as to make general comments on childhood and growing up.

Extra Credit for An American Childhood

When We Were Young In 1974, when she was 28, Annie Dillard became the youngest American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Playing With the Boys After graduating from Hollins College, Dillard’s main hobby—other than reading and writing—was playing on the softball team with the male graduate students, a continuation of the baseball games she played with her neighbor Ricky in Pittsburgh.