Friday, May 15, 2009

Remember everything

An American Childhood
What makes a good autobiography? Having recently read Alice Pung's Unpolished Gem, I have been thinking about this. Is it merely a collection of good stories, funny anecdotes, interesting yarns? Is it a mature reflection on the past? Or can a good autobiography offer something more?

Over the years, I have read and re-read An American Childhood, Annie Dillard's memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I read it first as a teenager living in the States, and delighted in the stories (particularly of her mother's jokes and antics), and in the flash of recognition of the world of privilege. I was living in Washington, DC, at the time, and from time to time glimpsed the world Dillard inhabited. Reading it again this week, I am delighted by her writing, her insight, and the way she can take the reader right back into the skin of a child.

Dillard grew up in the upper echelons of Pittsburgh society. Her playmates descended from the founders of American industry and banking; local streets were named after the families of her acquaintance. Hers was a world of private schools and servants, dancing school and country clubs. Families knew each other all their lives; it was expected that children would grow up and slip into a niche waiting for them. Much of her education appeared to be grooming to become a wife of old money.

And yet it was also a world of immense freedom. Dillard had the leisure and opportunity to investigate her world, riding further and further from her neighbourhood as she explored her city. She had access to books, microscopes, butterfly nets, drawing materials, everything she needed to feed her passion for knowledge. Whether it was collecting rocks, capturing insects or learning the rudiments of sleuthing, Dillard approached everything with intelligence and vim, and had the time to engage deeply and passionately with the world. Her parents gave her free reign in the library, and as well as the field guides she loved so well, Dillard devoured Hardy, Eliot and Dickens as a child.

Her memoir charts this privileged and joyful upbringing. She writes so vividly that we are taken alongside her as she explores the woods, is chased across the neighbourhood by an angry stranger, and pitches a baseball at a target in her garage. She clearly recalls the deep concentration of the child, the absorption in self-appointed tasks. Dillard writes with great good humour about her family, and we fall in love with them, just as we fall in love with that time and place, a time and place we have never known.

Yet what makes this book a masterpiece is not just the stories; Dillard also reflects more generally on the slow maturation of a child. She vividly recalls the way a child sees the world - her terrible fears, underlying assumptions, grandiose ambitions (to remember everything, to learn all the world's languages) - and in so doing, draws us back into the way we too saw the world once. She writes with insight and beauty about the dawning of consciousness, and describes the child's growing awareness of herself, and of time, history and society. And as she writes about the world as perceived by an intelligent, passionate, investigative child, we too are invited to see it with fresh eyes, young eyes, which are thrilled by almost everything.

> Annie Dillard An American Childhood (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks - I'm going to go and find this Dillard book now - only read her Pilgrim At Tinker Creek before... (and loved it)