An American Childhood

An American Childhood

3.3 42
by Annie Dillard

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A book that instantly captured the hearts of readers across the country, An American Childhood is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard's poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. See more details below


A book that instantly captured the hearts of readers across the country, An American Childhood is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard's poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times
A remarkable work. . . an exceptionally interesting account.
Newark Star-Ledger
[An American Childhood] combines the child's sense of wonder with the adult's intelligence and is written in some of the finest prose that exists in contemporary America. It is a special sort of memoir that is entirely successful. . . This new book is [Annie Dillard's] best, a joyous ode to her own happy childhood.
Philadelphia Inquirer
The reader who can't find something to whoop about is not alive. An American Childhood is perhaps the best American autobiography since Russell Baker's Growing Up.
Boston Globe
By turns wry, provocative and sometimes breathtaking. . . This is a work marked by exquisite insight.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Every paragraph Dillard writes is full of information, presenting the mundane with inventive freshness and offering exotic surprises as dessert. . . [Annie Dillard] is one of nature's prize wonders herself—an example of sentient homo sapiens pushing the limits of the creative imagination. She deserves our close attentions.
Charlotte Observer
An American Childhood shimmers with the same rich detail, the same keen and often wry observations as her first book [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek].
Chicago Sun-Times
A vivid and thoughtful evocation of particular personal experiences that have an exuberantly timeless appeal.
Chicago Tribune
An American Childhood does all this so consummately with Annie Dillard's `50s childhood in Pittsburgh that it more than takes the reader's breath away. It consumes you as you consume it, so that, when you have put down this book, you're a different person, one who has virtually experiences another childhood.
Los Angeles Times
Loving and lyrical, nostalgic without being wistful, this is a book about the capacity for joy.
San Francisco Chronicle
A charming and delightful reminiscence that helps cement Annie Dillard's reputation as one of our major writers.
Los Angeles Times
Loving and lyrical, nostalgic without being wistful, this is a book about the capacity for joy.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

When everything else has gone from my brain -- the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family-when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

I will see the city poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag, and see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills' curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like housefires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses' bricks burn like glowing coals.

The three wide rivers divide and cool the mountains. Calm old bridges span the banks and link the hills. The Allegheny River flows in brawling from the north, from near the shore of Lake Erie, and from Lake Chautauqua in New York and eastward. The Monongahela River flows in shallow and slow from the south, from West Virginia. The Allegheny and the Monongahela meet and form the westward-wending Ohio.

Where the two rivers join lies an acute point of flat land from which rises the city. The tall buildings rise lighted to their tips. Their lights illumine other buildings' clean sides, and illumine the narrow city canyons below, where people move, and shine reflected red and white at night from the black waters.

When the shining city, too, fades, I will see only those forested mountains and hills, and the way the rivers lie flat and moving among them, and the way the low land lies wooded among them, and the blunt mountains rise in darkness from the rivers' banks, steep from the rugged south androlling from the north, and from farther, from the inclined eastward plateau where the high ridges begin to run so long north and south unbroken that to get around them you practically have to navigate Cape Horn.

In those first days, people said, a squirrel could run the long length of Pennsylvania without ever touching the ground. In those first days, the woods were white oak and chestnut, hickory, maple, sycamore, walnut, wild ash, wild plum, and white pine. The pine grew on the ridgetops where the mountains' lumpy spines stuck up and their skin was thinnest.

The wilderness was uncanny, unknown. Benjamin Franklin had already invented his stove in Philadelphia by 1753, and Thomas Jefferson was a schoolboy in Virginia; French soldiers had been living in forts along Lake Erie for two generations. But west of the Alleghenies in western Pennsylvania, there was not even a settlement, not even a cabin. No Indians lived there, or even near there.

Wild grapevines tangled the treetops and shut out the sun. Few songbirds lived in the deep woods. Bright Carolina parakeets-red, green, and yellow-nested in the dark forest. There were ravens then, too. Woodpeckers rattled the big trees' trunks, ruffed grouse whirred their tail feathers in the fall, and every long once in a while a nervous gang of emptyheaded turkeys came hustling and kicking through the leaves-but no one heard any of this, no one at all.

In 1753, young George Washington surveyed for the English this point of land where rivers met. To see the forestblurred lay of the land, he rode his horse to a ridgetop and climbed a tree. He judged it would make a good spot for a fort. And an English fort it became, and a depot for Indian traders to the Ohio country, and later a French fort and way station to New Orleans.

But it would be another ten years before any settlers lived there on that land where the rivers met, lived to draw in the flowery scent of June rhododendrons with every breath. It would be another ten years before, for the first time on earth, tall men, and women lay exhausted in their cabins, sleeping in the sweetness, worn out from planting corn.

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