An American Childhood

An American Childhood Part Three Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The section begins with a description of Andrew Carnegie, a vital character in Pittsburgh history. He was the son of Scottish immigrants who were in favor of universal suffrage, and against privilege and hereditary wealth (he’d later refuse a title from Edward VII). He started making steel, wrote four books, and preached what he called the “Gospel of Wealth,” that a wealthy man should give his money away rather than “weaken” his sons with it. At 66 he sold his company to J.P. Morgan, and spent the rest of his life giving away a $350 million fortune.
The difference between Mother and Father regarding the easy availability of money and resources leads to a more general historical account of Pittsburgh, beginning with its most famous resident, whose great wealth changed the city (and the country) for good. Dillard does suggest there’s something very Pittsburgh-esque about this combination of religious ethics and material wealth.
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Carnegie enabled 2,509 libraries to be built, all with “Let there be light” engraved over the doors. But one steelworker told an interviewer that they’d rather have higher wages than have a library built. The workers’ conditions were long, difficult, and dangerous; most didn’t life past their forties. In 1892, Carnegie’s manager Henry Clay Frick had sent hired men to fight unarmed strikers and their families in Homestead, Pennsylvania, leading to a brawl; Frick called in the whole state militia, whose armed occupation quashed all steel unions until 1936.
Dillard balances her account of Pittsburgh’s history, giving a nod both to the generosity of Andrew Carnegie in material terms, and to the major criticisms that have historically been leveled against Carnegie: such harsh treatment of workers led to his characterization as a “robber baron” industrialist.
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Pittsburgh’s wealth came from iron and steel but also from many other industries. Andrew Mellon, a Pittsburgh banker, invested in aluminum before anyone thought it would be useful; later he’d be named Secretary of Treasury, and he became one of three Americans who had ever possessed a billion dollars. When Carnegie sold his company, though, Pittsburgh’s death rate was also the highest in the country. The city council members wouldn’t spend money to filter the drinking water, so epidemics kept recurring.
Again, Dillard tries to give both sides of the story. On the one hand, the great wealth that stemmed from Pittsburgh industries permitted many improvements and the founding of different kinds of cultural and educational institutions; on the other hand, these changes came at a high cost for many Pittsburgh residents.
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Dillard reflects that Pittsburgh was, in fact, a great town to grow up in as a result of all the artistic and scientific institutions. She felt most herself at the natural history museum, which had a generator you could try out, hundreds of insect specimens, and dinosaur skeletons. Sometimes she climbed the stairs to the art gallery, where she also went with school once a year for the International Exhibition. Each year contemporary artists competed for a prize, and the museum’s curators could buy what they liked: in 1961 Giacometti’s sculpture Man Walking won.
Although now, as an adult, Dillard is very aware of the drawbacks to Pittsburgh’s wealth, as a child she wasn’t aware of them: in her ignorance, she could blissfully enjoy the fruits of Carnegie’s and Mellon’s great wealth. For a young person like Annie, free museums, libraries, and exhibitions were a great gift to her intellectual development.
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Annie went to the gallery again and again to see Giacometti’s sculpture, a wiry, thin person, six feet tall in bronze. She began to think of him as the perfect embodiment of the inner life, a thinker moving through an abyss: pure consciousness. Annie drew him again and again. Her passions grew divided between the arts and the sciences: scientists were curious about the external world, whereas artists noticed the particularities of the interior mind, adding beauty to the scientists’ visions.
Even as she is growing up, Annie is aware of the importance she should place on the inner life, and on different kinds of metaphors that better allow her to understand how consciousness develops. She herself is torn between science and art, but here she perceives them as part of the same project.
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Annie read hoping to learn everything and to be able to combine her father’s logical mind with her mother’s imagination and energy. Still, the books were pushing her away from Pittsburgh—something Mother always knew, as she actually encouraged her daughters to leave.
Dillard uses foreshadowing here in order to suggest that her childhood in Pittsburgh would eventually push her away from the city, even though she loved it.
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Annie awakened again into a new stage of life, the speed and excitement of high-school life. She and her friends were blond and blue-eyed; they spent summers comparing tans and playing cards. Annie longed for New York, for Brooklyn or the Lower East Side, where she imagined the thoughtful people from books lived. Rather than living deeply like them, she looked critically at the other girls with their polished fingers and gold bangle bracelets and just-washed, just-set hair—not imagining that their chatter was not all their lives consisted of. Still, she felt that her world was the known one, of women as volunteers and housewives and dutiful mothers. Books didn’t describe housework—it was as if housework didn’t exist.
Once again Dillard employs the motif of awakening in order to characterize her development of a new way of viewing the world. As she enters high school, Annie no longer prizes her Pittsburgh environment, instead longing for exotic places like the ones she reads about in books. Dillard signals the limitations of Annie’s desires for something different, showing how little she understood what did surround her.
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Now Dillard imagines that there is something beautiful about living and dying where you were born, like people used to: as your grandparents took you to Sunday night dinner at the country club, you too would take your own grandchildren there, the adults drinking old fashioneds and the children eating maraschino cherries and orange slices. From the terrace, sunburnt in their cotton dresses, they’d look longingly at the children in the pool below. This was the world Annie and her friends knew best.
Dillard contrasts her younger self’s impatience at the homogeneity of Pittsburgh life with a more broad-minded appreciation of different kinds of life choices. Through these images and descriptions, she allows herself to imagine how this kind of life could have continued for her—even if it’s a life she never did want, and chose not to have.
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Annie also knew Oma’s world, but that was changing, now that Annie was working in the summers selling men’s bathing suits. For a few spring vacations as a teenager, Amy and Annie visited Oma in her Pompano Beach apartment. On her last visit, Annie was fifteen and infuriated by everything she was required to do. She and Oma argued over whether “overstuffed” was the right way to describe upholstered furniture: she couldn’t believe Oma when Oma said she might know something Annie didn’t.
This vacation to Florida contrasts with the idyllic summer vacations Annie and Amy used to spend at Lake Erie, when Annie was able to appreciate the small joys of daily life with her grandparents. Now she’s less able to appreciate these small moments, given how sharply she feels the burden of authority.
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One day Oma returned from “looking at shoes,” as she said, and broke down, grieving for her husband. Mary tried to comfort her, then said it’d been two years. When Oma said he’d never been cross with her, Amy asked if he hadn’t even once. She launched into a story about him driving on a high mountain road in Tennessee, winding and careening: she cried that they were surely going to go over the cliff, and he said she could either hush or get out—then he was cross. The story lightened everyone’s mood.
This anecdote provides a chance for Dillard to return to one of the few positive memories from her vacation in Florida with her grandmother—though even this memory relies upon a memory of its own, as Oma returns to a time when she, too, was happier, when her husband was alive.
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Annie would bird-watch in the Fort Lauderdale park nearby, catching sight of the rare smooth-billed anis and filling a notebook with sketches and records. Seeing the pleasure cruise on the canal through her binoculars, she would wonder why anyone would prefer that to bird-watching. During the day, Oma and Mary shopped, and in the evenings they went out to dinner. Amy was bored too, but Annie ignored her. Everyone knew it’d be their last Florida trip.
Annie manages to find ways to continue to pursue her interests and observations. But she has little patience for Oma and Mary’s way of life, with their shopping and dinners out. Dillard’s gentle irony is meant to show that Annie was acting spoiled, though also with the typical frustrations of adolescence.
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At sixteen, Annie felt set on a new path, feeling drawn down a long tunnel like the turnpike tunnels near Pittsburgh, although Annie felt pitched forward against her will. Her moods shifted wildly between violent anger and uncontrollable hilarity. She read a few books reverently, from start to finish, over and over again. She played a loud, crashing overture on the piano over and over again. She had a boyfriend whom she loved so strongly she imagined she might “transmogrify” into vapor. When she felt bored, she would feel nauseous and then weak and raging. People called teenagers like Annie a “live wire”: she couldn’t manage to control herself.
Dillard’s image of the turnpike tunnel underlines the way in which her dark moods and feelings of frustration seemed inevitable and dramatic. Annie’s moods have tended to rise and fall in the past, but never to this theatrical extent. In a way, what’s happened is that Annie is unable to manage the many different feelings and frustrations that she experiences in her daily life—she’s unable to direct them anywhere productive.
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For most of her life Annie had felt unselfconscious, curious and directed to the outside world. Now she couldn’t shed her own body and mind, nor imagine how to forget herself. She was vaguely conscious that this might just be an adolescent stage, but she worried about losing the world she’d so loved forever.
After learning slowly to pay attention to the outside world, and not just focus on her own inner mind, Annie is forgetting that capacity, as her own body seems both aggravating and impossible to forget.
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Annie soon quit the church by writing a strongly worded letter to the minister. Father came to Annie’s room (something that increasingly drove her crazy) to ask her about the letter: he said she seemed bent on humiliating him and Mother. Annie had a meeting with the assistant minister of the church, Dr. Blackwood, in his office. He lent her a copy of C.S. Lewis’s radio shows for a paper she was writing. She’d just written one on the Book of Job, and was interested in the problem of suffering: she liked Lewis’s The Problem of Pain.
Although Annie’s parents don’t attend church themselves, they feel that it’s an important part of their community, and that Annie is refusing to attend to spite them (a conjecture that has some truth to it). Still, Annie remains precocious, interested in the intellectual aspects of religion, as her conversation with Dr. Blackwood shows.
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It was now May and baseball season, a year into the wild feelings Annie couldn’t rid herself of. She drove around all of Pittsburgh, asking herself why she was trapped at home and at school. In study hall, 40 or 50 girls in green jumpers sat, bored to tears, reading Hamlet or L’Étranger (by Albert Camus). Feeling restless, Annie wrote a boy’s name in her notebook, picturing his face. It was maddening to her to realize that the students outnumbered their teachers, and yet no one thought to revolt.
Dillard describes one particular day that’s indicative of a broader trend during this time in her life, when she feels trapped and shut in by the same city that she used to feel was full of endless possibility. She still enjoys reading and learning, but it’s the fact that study hall is imposed on her by school that is maddening to her.
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Annie was fascinated these days by the French Symbolist poets, some of whom went insane; she loved Rimbaud, who ran away as a teenager and wrote a poem called “The Drunken Boat,” before dying young and tragically. She daydreamed and wrote poetry about the older prep-school and college boys whose wit, knowledge, and boldness mesmerized her. She understood that while they drank, played word games, and cracked jokes in public, they were serious and studious, reading voraciously, while alone.
The French Symbolists are alluring to Annie at this time because of their dramatic, romantic, evocative poetry, but also because of their exciting and dramatic lives. It’s also simultaneously frustrating and alluring to Annie that the boys she feels she knows seem to have an inner life too, though one that’s shut off to her.
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Annie had started to get into trouble: she’d been in a drag race the previous September, and was hospitalized after a crash. She started to feel the ground spinning beneath her after this—only a moment ago, she felt, she’d been on the swing set or chasing butterflies. She’d been suspended from school for smoking cigarettes: her parents both wept. She wondered what would happen if she didn’t straighten out—unable to glimpse a future without the French poets or her constant rage.
Annie’s feelings of frustration, restlessness, and enclosure have become more intense, even dangerous. At the same time, she feels as though her childhood is slipping away from her without her being able to control or manage it. Although Annie doesn’t seem to take pride in acting the way she does, she can’t imagine how things will change, feeling as though she’s condemned to this existence for life.
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Annie’s parents grounded her for the school suspension, and Amy began visiting her in her room. Amy had become tidy and pleasant-looking as a thirteen-year-old. In Annie’s room, Amy listened to her sister rant and laughed at her jokes. She was going to boarding school the next year in Philadelphia, part of their parents’ attempt to stave off more issues like Annie’s. Mother sighed and asked what they were going to do with Annie; Annie couldn’t think what.
As Annie feels like her life is spiraling out of control—even if in a relatively safe and limited context—Amy is also changing and growing up. She seems to view Annie as mature and worthy of admiration, even as their parents continue to worry about what to “do” with Annie.
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Annie moved on from the French Symbolists to the British war poets, and started reading Asian and Middle Eastern poetry in translation. She wrote poems herself: one teacher met with Annie and others during lunch to discuss them. Annie was almost offended by this, feeling that poetry should be hidden and subversive, not sanctioned by authority.
Annie is no longer obsessed with insect or rock collections, but she still has an encyclopedic array of interests, and a voracious appetite for learning. There’s also continuity in her feeling that learning should be private and secret.
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One afternoon, at Judy Schoyer’s house, Annie saw a book called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, from the first century BC. It was ancient physics mixed with philosophy: Mr. Schoyer was reading it, and he lent it to Annie, who found it dull and confusing (why read wrong science?) but admired Lucretius nonetheless. Judy had grown tall and graceful; her family took Judy and Annie to the ballet, the symphony, and the arts festival in Pittsburgh.
A balance between continuity and change also characterizes Annie’s relationship to the Schoyer family, whom she’s known since spending weekends with them in Paw Paw as a younger child. Mr. Schoyer continues to be a source of intellectual knowledge in a way that’s different from Annie’s own father.
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Annie read linguistics and all of Freud’s works that spring, reading greedily and without snobbery. She devoured social criticism and novelists like Updike and Henry Miller. She learned about Platonist philosophy through Emerson, writing a paper on his notion of the soul. She was enamored with his flouting of authority and his appeal to each person to develop his or her own relation to the universe.
Annie’s tastes and interests have changed, although her broad curiosity and penchant for reading many different kinds of things has remained constant. For this point in her life, Emerson seems to align with Annie’s own desire to challenge authority and create her own path.
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One one of these spring mornings, Annie was called into the headmistress’s office to hear what one of her teachers, Madame Owens, had written as part of her grades: “Here, alas, is a child of the twentieth century.” Annie didn’t know what to think about this, other than that it was indicative of the individual attention one got at private school.
Madame Owens seems to be a more old-fashioned girls’ school teacher: her comment seems to mix bemusement with despair as she identifies Annie as characterizing the modern world, for better or for worse.
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Annie drew all morning in class, sometimes with intent but sometimes doodling at random. She also drew at home: always faces and bodies, mostly of women and babies. In class, though, she couldn’t bear to listen if she wasn’t drawing, and one of her English teachers let her sit in the back of the classroom and paint. She paid no attention to what came from her pen: when she did, she realized they were often monstrous, swollen figures. Sometimes, though, she’d be on a family trip or walking to school when she’d seem to recognize a stranger, then realize with a jolt that she’d drawn his or her face.
Annie’s interest in drawing has continued from a young age, although now it seems linked to her inability to concentrate on what authority figures say, rather than on what she’d like to pursue herself. Dillard continues to describe this time in her life as largely taking place inside her own head—the figures around her seem more real as a stage for her own wild imagination than as people in their own right.
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The fall of her senior year, Annie recalled the smell of the Nabisco plant baking sweet white bread wafting across the field to her school. She knew the twenty other students in her class like her own family; she imagined them all leaving, crawling away like the Polyphemus moth down the driveway. Annie loved French and Chinese poetry, but she knew almost nothing about her own city: it was the poems that told her there was another world.
Dillard often describes memories from her childhood as relating to an image or another sense, from taste to smell to feel. The idea of Polyphemus moth returns with the notion of running away, intent on a destination, even without recognizing one’s own fragility or weakness.
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Annie knew she was going to Hollins College in Virginia, where the headmistress had gone. The headmistress sent all the “problem” students there, because of the school’s renowned English department. She hoped she’d be able to maintain her rough edges there. Still, she’d visited, and it was beautiful.
Dillard will end her memoir chronologically with the end of her time in Pittsburgh, and with it the end of her childhood. How Annie would become the writer Annie Dillard remains unwritten.
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