Thursday, April 2, 2009

Did you live An American Childhood?

Okay, first off, I realize I've been a bit of a slacker with regard to actually posting the notes I've taken at our meetings. So, here goes with our March read Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. I had heard of Annie Dillard, but ashamedly I really knew nothing about her. That made this read which chronicles her childhood in Pittsburgh intriguing; plus, I love a good memoir. Thinking back over the book, one of the things that struck me the most with the book is that so many other books that seek to recount the author's childhood are filled with horrific accounts of abuse, poverty, deprivation, loss, etc. etc. Very rarely does this sort of book really focus on the life of for all practical purposes a functional, stable, loving family. Since Dillard came from a fairly affluent family, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say Dillard had the typical American childhood, whatever that is, but it certainly captured many elements of growing up that I think most children experience.

In fact, this ability to relate to the text was something we discussed pretty heavily, and everyone could find some experience that she documented that we had in our own growing up years. One of the things pretty much everyone had in common with the text was that feeling of discovery and all consuming interest that Dillard found in reading, rocks, her microscope, and drawing. As a child, we are creators of wonder. Things grab our attention and we want to learn about them purely for the joy of discovery and knowing. Drawing on my litany of educational terminology, we are actively engaged in the learning process. However, we also discussed the fact that as we move toward adulthood much of this wonder is lost. Dillard herself begins to address this movement in the portion of her novel that deals with her teen years. Between school, friends, and the awakening to the mysteries of the opposite sex, somehow that wonder and feverish desire to know fade into the background. In fact, as self-educated as Dillard was, she often notes that as a female growing up in the fifties there were arenas that she was not privilege to. In one discussion of her male contemporaries, she explores the inequality of the sexes, though not in those exact terms. She describe the boys as being part of a club who "knew things" and whose futures had been planned for them from the moment of their birth. These boys were the future lawyers and bank presidents and company executives; while Dillard's opportunities as a female were much more constricted.

This idea of male versus female roles lead me to another element of discussion with regard to the book. On numerous occasions she describes her mother as being different from the other women of the time, more progressive in a sense. Yet, for all her progressive sensibilities, she was still very much the stereotypical fifties American housewife whose time was primarily dedicated to taking care of her family. In the opening section of the book, Dillard actually hints at but never openly addresses the stifling nature of such a life. She talks about the atmosphere of the neighborhood after the men have left for work that seems to capture this almost stagnant quality of the days. Of course, time also seems to pass much more slowly when one is a child, so this may account for a portion of the mood this section gives off. Still, it brings up another point in our discussion, that idea of being awake and truly living in the moment that can be traced back to the Transcendentalist movement. In fact, perhaps it is this strong connection to the Transcendentalists that leads to the poetic language and nature of the book.

While we reached the consensus that perhaps this was not the most discussion provoking book we have read, it certainly has its merits, and if nothing else it made us reflect a bit back on our own childhoods and how those experiences have helped to shape us into the adults we are today.

1 comment:

Rose said...

Something else we discussed was this memoir in relation to Bragg's "All Over But the Shoutin'." I liked Bragg's story better, but as you pointed out, this was a memoir without death, poverty, abuse, etc. And yet it still managed to have an element of conflict, which reflects the strength of Dillard's writing.

You also touched on Dillard's discussion about how she viewed the young boys she went to school with. I liked that b/c I always wondered how females viewed us. And not that she speaks for all women but hearing at least one well-articulated perspective was interesting.