As a chronicle of her childhood, Annie Dillard’s memoir focuses far less on detailing a progression of socially important milestones than on her intellectual development—on the life of the mind. The “interior life” is a phrase repeated throughout the book to describe Annie’s fascination with her own mind, which she usually finds more important and interesting than external events. While Dillard relishes the joy she derives from her interior life, as she narrates from her adult perspective, she is careful to distinguish herself now from her childhood self; she recognizes and points out the limitations of her focus on her interior life, particularly her tendency towards self-absorption.
For Dillard, the development of her interior life is a process distinct from, though sometimes related to, formal education. Mostly, Dillard develops her mind through her own omnivorous reading, drawing, and general observations. As her intellect blossoms, she learns more about the world around her and begins to recognize how much lies outside her knowledge. Significantly, the boundlessness of the unknown excites her, as she feels that her joy in learning can progress forever.
As a child, Annie seems to consider her interior life far more real than her social life—and, indeed, the two are often at odds. She frequently feels confusion and dissatisfaction in social conversations with girls her own age, or—especially when she becomes a teenager—with her parents. The difference between the protagonist and the narrator (who is older and presumably wiser) becomes clear as Dillard attempts to explore the reasons for her childhood disdain for others. Annie’s interior life, while it gave her joy and satisfaction, also led her to have a limited and self-centered perspective. She often failed to consider that other people, too, might have complex interior lives, and that the way they behaved in public might not have been all that they are. Dillard describes her childhood self as a bit of a know-it-all, so confident in her knowledge that she tended to dismiss other people’s ways of knowing without understanding that people could learn outside the realm of books.
Dillard uses the motif of “awakening” as a metaphor for her process of learning and her gradual realization of the vastness of knowledge: it’s not that she necessarily creates new knowledge, but rather that she becomes aware of what has been present all along. Part of her own awakening, indeed, is a realization that a focus on the interior life can be limiting. At the same time, the memoir maintains a true sense of delight and wonder at the way consciousness develops over time. Dillard clearly places tremendous value on everything that knowledge and curiosity can bring to a person’s life.
The Interior Life ThemeTracker
The Interior Life 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.
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.
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.
I wanted to notice everything, as Holmes had, and remember it all, as no one had before.
I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.
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.
What were my friends reading? We did not then talk about books; our reading was private, and constant, like the interior life itself.
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.
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.
It galled me that adults, as a class, approved the writing and memorization of poetry. Wasn’t poetry secret and subversive?
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.