At the end of An American Childhood, Dillard constructs a kind of thought experiment, asking the reader to imagine how personal memories are tied to a certain place—and how one must accept and trust that these vivid memories are not only beloved imaginative possessions, but also part of a larger world we all share. The sense of responsibility for the environment that stems from this argument is key to Dillard’s ethics, and in her memoir she describes how she came to develop such a view. But she also meditates on the difficulties of considering herself as anchored to a certain place, while also trying to appreciate the environment for its own merits—not just what it can do for her.
From an early age, Annie perceives the world around her in sophisticated and rapturous ways that can be understood as the seeds of a lifelong wonder at the natural world. She expresses a great deal of wonder about rocks, for instance, which seem inconspicuous but are—she marvels—some of the oldest objects in the world. Many of the book’s most lyrical passages deal with what Dillard calls the “healed rubble” of the earth’s surface, physical emblems that signal ancient history on an almost unimaginable scale. But Annie also attempts to manage and even control the vastness of the world around her through various strategies and modes, among them collection, categorization, and visual depiction. From collecting rocks and insects, to sitting for hours as she draws the contours of a shadow on the wall, Annie approaches her environment actively and tangibly. She renders palpable an interest that can otherwise be abstract and philosophical in order to understand how place can shape a person, as well as how people shape their own environments.
Annie comes to understand that Pittsburgh is a place where the natural and social come together; the book lingers over the city’s history, describing the wealth that came from its natural resources of coal and steel, as well as the industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s massive influence on the city’s landscape, as he used philanthropy to build parks and institutions like museums and libraries. As Annie explores and describes in detail the landscapes around her such as Frick Park and the Glen Arden steps, she comes to recognize how history is embedded within environment: Glen Arden, a wealthy neighborhood built on a hill, literally towers over the poorer, homelier neighborhoods laid out beneath it. The Polyphemus moth that Annie’s teacher lets loose to escape down the school driveway, in symbolizing Annie’s own quixotic determination to succeed and grow, can also be seen as part of the way she learns to relate nature and culture. This relationship is enacted through metaphor, but metaphor that works both ways: Dillard understands the natural world through her specific personified vision, while also coming to understand herself and the people around her by comparisons to the natural world.
Indeed, part of Dillard’s memoir is an attempt to understand America overall as a place of both natural beauty and social challenges. Dillard’s childhood was distinctly urban, while so much of the country is rural. Her childhood was also privileged, though surrounded by inequality. As a result, Dillard emphasizes that hers is one of many possible American childhoods (which is reflected in her use of “An” in the title of the book, rather than “The”). Annie does draw some generalities: she argues that Pittsburgh’s attitude of hard work, religious heritage, and focus on material wealth, for example, are all deeply American. But as she explores the connection between place and identity, she also wants to stress that there is no one-to-one relationship between the two, that both the natural world and individual character are so complex that they can work on each other in a myriad of ways. Indeed, throughout the memoir, Dillard shows how there is no hard-and-fast line to be drawn between the physical environment and the social world; they’re instead part of each other in ways that can be both harmful and potentially restorative. As she comes to know more about her own consciousness and develop her interior life, Annie also begins—though still, Dillard notes, in a limited sense—to turn outward to the world beyond her own mind.
Place and Environment ThemeTracker
Place and Environment Quotes in An American Childhood
Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be? It drives you to a life of concentration, it does, a life in which effort draws you down so very deep that when you surface you twist up exhilarated with a yelp and a gasp.
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.
They must have known, those little boys, that they would inherit corporate Pittsburgh, as indeed they have. They must have known that it was theirs by rights as boys, a real world, about which they had best start becoming informed. And they must have known, too, as Pittsburgh Presbyterian boys, that they could only just barely steal a few hours now, a few years now, to kid around, to dribble basketballs and explode firecrackers, before they were due to make a down payment on a suitable house.
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 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 was now believing books more than I believed what I saw and heard. I was reading books about the actual, historical, moral world—in which somehow I felt I was not living.
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.
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.