It becomes almost immediately apparent in An American Childhood that the protagonist is someone with an unusual capacity for attention and observation—a capacity that is fueled by her peculiar and insatiable curiosity. For Dillard, this curiosity is central to intellectual development, because it is its own, self-sufficient motivation to learn, observe, and explore.
Dillard recalls her childhood fascination with Arthur Conan Doyle’s books about Sherlock Holmes; she modeled herself after the detective, looking for clues everywhere that would allow her to see the things that other people were unwilling or unable to see. Many moments in the memoir consist not of important milestones in Dillard’s life, but rather of detailed and unique descriptions of images or moments that struck her childhood attention: she spends pages describing the way that older people’s skin appears to fit their bodies too loosely, or on the insects and rocks that she collects with eager care.
At the same time, Dillard’s intense attention is coupled with a worry that these moments of fascination will slip away. In part, her observations seem meant to will these objects of interest into remaining present, just as they were when she noticed them. Although Dillard avoids the trap of painting the past as a superior, more ideal time than the present, she does admit to having a certain amount of nostalgia for her childhood—a nostalgia that seems to have been present even while Annie was growing up. Indeed, Annie seems to use her attention as a way to fend off nostalgia and regret: she worries that she will miss her childhood if she doesn’t pay close enough attention, and once she declines a visit to her friend Judy’s river house in Paw Paw because she knows that the vivid, vibrant days spent there might overshadow her regular life. Annie seems to experience things so deeply, thanks to her penchant for close attention and her devouring curiosity, that even pleasant moments can become painful in their intensity.
Although Dillard never makes this link explicitly, it becomes apparent over the course of the memoir that her curiosity and powers of observation foreshadowed her career as a prolific writer. In many ways, the years she recounts in this book can be understood as a training ground for her later life as an author known for her precise, creative, and original prose.
Curiosity and Attention ThemeTracker
Curiosity and Attention Quotes in An American Childhood
Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.
The interior life is often stupid. Its egoism blinds it and deafens it; its imagination spins out ignorant tales, fascinated. It fancies that the western wind blows on the Self, and leaves fall at the feet of the Self for a reason, and people are watching. A mind risks real ignorance for the sometimes paltry prize of an imagination enriched. The trick of reason is to get the imagination to seize the actual world—if only from time to time.
These are the few, floating scenes from early childhood, from before time and understanding pinned events down to the fixed and coherent world. Soon the remembered scenes would grow in vividness and depth, as like any child I elaborated a picture of the place, and as my feelings met actual people, and as the interesting things of the world engaged my loose mind like a gear, and set it in forward motion.
We children lived and breathed our history—our Pittsburgh history, so crucial to the country's story and so typical of it as well—without knowing or believing any of it. For how can anyone know or believe stories she dreamed in her sleep, information for which and to which she feels herself to be in no way responsible? A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside her skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.
And, similarly, things themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them.
There was joy in concentration, and the world afforded an inexhaustible wealth of projects to concentrate on. There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last. People cut Mount Rushmore into faces; they chipped here and there for years. People slowed the spread of yellow fever; they sprayed the Isthmus of Panama puddle by puddle. Effort alone I loved.
I wanted to notice everything, as Holmes had, and remember it all, as no one had before.
I knew what I was doing at Paw Paw: I was beginning the lifelong task of tuning my own gauges. I was there to brace myself for leaving. I was having my childhood. But I was haunting it as well, practically reading it, and preventing it. How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend?
At school I saw a searing sight. It turned me to books; it turned me to jelly; it turned me much later, I suppose, into an early version of a runaway, a scapegrace. It was only a freshly hatched Polyphemus moth crippled because its mason jar was too small.
I left Pittsburgh before I had a grain of sense. Who IS my neighbor? I never learned what those strangers around me had known and felt in their lives—those lithe, sarcastic boys in the balcony, those expensive men and women in the pews below—but it was more than I knew, after all.
Scientists, it seemed to me as I read the labels on display cases (bivalves, univalves; ungulates, lagomorphs), were collectors and sorters, as I had been. They noticed the things that engaged the curious mind: the way the world develops and divides, colony and polyp, population and tissue, ridge and crystal. Artists, for their part, noticed the things that engaged the mind's private and idiosyncratic interior, that area where the life of the senses mingles with the life of the spirit: the shattering of light into color, and the way it shades off round a bend.
I was growing and thinning, as if pulled. I was getting angry, as if pushed. I morally disapproved most things in North America, and blamed my innocent parents for them. My feelings deepened and lingered. The swift moods of early childhood—each formed by and suited to its occasion—vanished. Now feelings lasted so long they left stains. They arose from nowhere, like winds or waves, and battered at me or engulfed me.
The setting of our urgent lives is an intricate maze whose blind corridors we learn one by one—village street, ocean vessel, forested slope—without remembering how or why they connect in space.
For it is not you or I that is important, neither what sort we might be nor how we came to be each where we are. 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.