Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

annie dillard young writerCan I come to you as a literary evangelist for a moment?

Actually, I’m always doing that, aren’t I? I have worked to remind a world much different than the original about The Screwtape Letters, and argued that The Great Divorce is a Cinderella story we all should know. I review independent and lesser known writers from time to time, and ape a kind of shocked offense when someone is overlooked. I leave books in people’s houses when they aren’t looking. I believe deep in my heart you should all read Marilynne Robinson. And Frederick Buechner. And poetry–remember how we used to read it? And old books. And if you do like the greats, read their letters. And a hundred other things will change your life forever, but I cannot list them all.

I am an evangelist of letters because others have chosen to lay down their books and speak to me.

Allow me to add Annie Dillard to the list of authors you must come to know. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek sent me sprawling. I did not know that writing could be like that. She is a lovely, lyrical writer, with such precision in prose that my soul splits when I read her.

One part of my soul drinks it in, enjoying the body of each line and allowing every page to find its life in me.

Annie Dillard the writing lifeThe other part of my soul reads in terror. Her little book, The Writing Life, is essential for any who want to bring the writer’s soul to print. But she has a skill, an exactitude, an awakeness, and an artfulness that seems to me unapproachable. As I read her prose I know I can never write like that. She is a master. Her life in letters is as distant to me as are the geographical spaces between our two desks. I simply cannot write anything like the paragraph that is before me.

And yet, when I read Annie Dillard, as far as she is above me, I find myself pulling out of my reading chair and going to the writing desk. If her skill sets my hope to flight, there is still something about the reading experience that makes me try. Perhaps there is beauty, too, in our inadequacies. Perhaps holiness can come even without wholeness. Perhaps one day this soul-cleft writer’s life will turn out to be the art in me I have always been searching for.

Until then, I give you Annie Dillard. This comes from the first few pages of her 1987, An American Childhood.

Annie Dillard an American ChildhoodIn 1955, when I was ten, my father’s reading went to his head.

My father’s reading during that time, and for many years before and after, consisted for the most part of Life on the Mississippi. He was a young executive in the old family firm, American Standard; sometimes he traveled alone on business. Traveling, he checked into a hotel, found a bookstore, and chose for the night’s reading, after what I fancy to have been long deliberation, yet another copy of Life on the Mississippi. He brought all these books home. There were dozens of copies of Life on the Mississippi on the living-room shelves. From time to time, I read one.

Down the Mississippi hazarded the cub riverboat pilot, down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. His chief, the pilot Mr. Bixby, taught him how to lay the boat in her marks and dart between points; he learned to pick a way fastidiously inside a certain snag and outside a shifting shoal in the black dark; he learned to clamber down a memorized channel in his head. On tricky crossings the leadsmen sang out the soundings, so familiar I seemed to have heard them the length of my life: “Mark four!… Quarter-less-four!… Half three!… Mark three!… Quarter-less…” It was an old story.

When all this reading went to my father’s head, he took action. From Pittsburgh he went down the river. Although no one else that our family knew kept a boat on the Allegheny River, our father did, and now he was going all the way with it. He quit the firm his great-grandfather had founded a hundred years earlier down the river at his family’s seat in Louisville, Kentucky; he sold his own holdings in the firm. He was taking off for New Orleans.

New Orleans was the source of the music he loved: Dixieland jazz, O Dixieland. In New Orleans men would blow it in the air and beat it underfoot, the music that hustled and snapped, the music whose zip matched his when he was a man-about-town at home in Pittsburgh, working for the family firm; the music he tapped his foot to when he was a man-about-town in New York for a few years after college working for the family firm by day and by night hanging out at Jimmy Ryan’s on Fifty-second Street with Zutty Singleton, the black drummer who befriended him, and the rest of the house band. A certain kind of Dixieland suited him best. They played it at Jimmy Ryan’s, and Pee Wee Russell and Eddie Condon played it too— New Orleans Dixieland chilled a bit by its journey up the river, and smoothed by its sojourns in Chicago and New York.

Back in New Orleans where he was headed they would play the old stuff, the hot, rough stuff— bastardized for tourists maybe, but still the big and muddy source of it all. Back in New Orleans where he was headed the music would smell like the river itself, maybe, like a thicker, older version of the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh, where he heard the music beat in the roar of his boat’s inboard motor; like a thicker, older version of the wide Ohio River at Louisville, Kentucky, where at his family’s summer house he’d spent his boyhood summers mucking about in boats.

Getting ready for the trip one Saturday, he roamed around our big brick house snapping his fingers. He had put a record on: Sharkey Bonano, “Li’l Liza Jane.” I was reading Robert Louis Stevenson on the sunporch: Kidnapped. I looked up from my book and saw him outside; he had wandered out to the lawn and was standing in the wind between the buckeye trees and looking up at what must have been a small patch of wild sky. Old Low-Pockets. He was six feet four, all lanky and leggy; he had thick brown hair and shaggy brows, and a mild and dreamy expression in his blue eyes.

When our mother met Frank Doak, he was twenty-seven: witty, boyish, bookish, unsnobbish, a good dancer. He had grown up an only child in Pittsburgh, attended Shady Side Academy, and Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, where he studied history. He was a lapsed Presbyterian and a believing Republican. “Books make the man,” read the blue bookplate in all his books. “Frank Doak.” The bookplate’s woodcut showed a square-rigged ship under way in a steep following sea. Father had hung around jazz in New York, and halfheartedly played the drums; he had smoked marijuana, written poems, begun a novel, painted in oils, imagined a career as a riverboat pilot, and acted for more than ten seasons in amateur and small-time professional theater. At American Standard, Amstan Division, he was the personnel manager.

But not for long, and never again; Mother told us he was quitting to go down the river. I was sorry he’d be leaving the Manufacturers’ Building downtown. From his office on the fourteenth floor, he often saw suicides, which he reported at dinner. The suicides grieved him, but they thrilled us kids. My sister Amy was seven.

People jumped from the Sixth Street bridge into the Allegheny River. Because the bridge was low, they shinnied all the way up the steel suspension cables to the bridge towers before they jumped. Father saw them from his desk in silhouette, far away. A man vigorously climbed a slanting cable. He slowed near the top, where the cables hung almost vertically; he paused on the stone tower, seeming to sway against the sky, high over the bridge and the river below. Priests, firemen, and others— presumably family members or passersby— gathered on the bridge. In about half the cases, Father said, these people talked the suicide down. The ones who jumped kicked off from the tower so they’d miss the bridge, and fell tumbling a long way down.

Pittsburgh was a cheerful town, and had far fewer suicides than most other cities its size. Yet people jumped so often that Father and his colleagues on the fourteenth floor had a betting pool going. They guessed the date and time of day the next jumper would appear. If a man got talked down before he jumped, he still counted for the betting pool, thank God; no manager of American Standard ever wanted to hope, even in the smallest part of himself, that the fellow would go ahead and jump. Father said he and the other men used to gather at the biggest window and holler, “No! Don’t do it, buddy, don’t!” Now he was leaving American Standard to go down the river, and he was a couple of bucks in the hole.

kidnapped stevensonWhile I was reading Kidnapped on this Saturday morning, I heard him come inside and roam from the kitchen to the pantry to the bar, to the dining room, the living room, and the sunporch, snapping his fingers. He was snapping the fingers of both hands, and shaking his head, to the record—“ Li’l Liza Jane”— the sound that was beating, big and jivey, all over the house. He walked lightly, long-legged, like a soft-shoe hoofer barely in touch with the floor. When he played the drums, he played lightly, coming down soft with the steel brushes that sounded like a Slinky falling, not making the beat but just sizzling along with it. He wandered into the sunporch, unseeing; he was snapping his fingers lightly, too, as if he were feeling between them a fine layer of Mississippi silt. The big buckeyes outside the glass sunporch walls were waving.

A week later, he bade a cheerful farewell to us— to Mother, who had encouraged him, to us oblivious daughters, ten and seven, and to the new baby girl, six months old. He loaded his twenty-four-foot cabin cruiser with canned food, pushed off from the dock of the wretched boat club that Mother hated, and pointed his bow downstream, down the Allegheny River. From there it was only a few miles to the Ohio River at Pittsburgh’s point, where the Monongahela came in. He wore on westward down the Ohio; he watched West Virginia float past his port bow and Ohio past his starboard. It was 138 river miles to New Martinsville, West Virginia, where he lingered for some races. Back on the move, he tied up nights at club docks he’d seen on the charts; he poured himself water for drinks from dockside hoses. By day he rode through locks, twenty of them in all. He conversed with the lockmasters, those lone men who paced silhouetted in overalls on the concrete lock-chamber walls and threw the big switches that flooded or drained the locks: “Hello, up there!” “So long, down there!”

He continued down the river along the Kentucky border with Ohio, bumping down the locks. He passed through Cincinnati. He moved along down the Kentucky border with Indiana. After 640 miles of river travel, he reached Louisville, Kentucky. There he visited relatives at their summer house on the river.

It was a long way to New Orleans, at this rate another couple of months. He was finding the river lonesome. It got dark too early. It was September; people had abandoned their pleasure boats for the season; their children were back in school. There were no old salts on the docks talking river talk. People weren’t so friendly as they were in Pittsburgh. There was no music except the dreary yacht-club jukeboxes playing “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Jazz had come up the river once and for all; it wasn’t still coming, he couldn’t hear it across the water at night rambling and blowing and banging along high and tuneful, sneaking upstream to Chicago to get educated. He wasn’t free so much as loose. He was living alone on beans in a boat and having witless conversations with lockmasters. He mailed out sad postcards.

pittsburg 1950sFrom phone booths all down the Ohio River he talked to Mother. She told him that she was lonesome, too, and that three children— maid and nanny or no— were a handful. She said, further, that people were starting to talk. She knew Father couldn’t bear people’s talking. For all his dreaminess, he prized respectability above all; it was our young mother, whose circumstances bespoke such dignity, who loved to shock the world. After only six weeks, then— on the Ohio River at Louisville— he sold the boat and flew home.

I was just waking up then, just barely. Other things were changing. The highly entertaining new baby, Molly, had taken up residence in a former guest room. The great outer world hove into view and began to fill with things that had apparently been there all along: mineralogy, detective work, lepidopterology, ponds and streams, flying, society. My younger sister Amy and I were to start at private school that year: the Ellis School, on Fifth Avenue. I would start dancing school.

Annie Dillard an American Childhood 2Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way.

I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.

Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand: precisely, toe hits toe. The tern folds its wings to sit; its shadow dips and spreads over the sand to meet and cup its breast.

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.

I never woke, at first, without recalling, chilled, all those other waking times, those similar stark views from similarly lighted precipices: dizzying precipices from which the distant, glittering world revealed itself as a brooding and separated scene— and so let slip a queer implication, that I myself was both observer and observable, and so a possible object of my own humming awareness. Whenever I stepped into the porcelain bathtub, the bath’s hot water sent a shock traveling up my bones. The skin on my arms pricked up, and the hair rose on the back of my skull. I saw my own firm foot press the tub, and the pale shadows waver over it, as if I were looking down from the sky and remembering this scene forever. The skin on my face tightened, as it had always done whenever I stepped into the tub, and remembering it all drew a swinging line, loops connecting the dots, all the way back. You again.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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16 Responses to Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

  1. jaredlobdell says:

    It’s interesting that Dillard in her Presbyterian adolescence found Lewis’s MERE CHRISTIANITY books too shallow and his PROBLEM OF PAIN neither deep enough nor long enough — and wound up in her early forties as a convert to Roman Catholicism. I don’t know if she ever put either CSL or JRRT in or under her lens regarding the poet’s or theologian’s experience of the raw material of life — my own guess is that she would have seen Tolkien as more of either, but I think I should check that with her — right?


    • I only know as much about Dillard as you mentioned. I think for the philosophically curious and adept at abstraction, Lewis’ apologetic books would only go so far.
      Do you know her well enough to ask that question? Dillard seems to me a spiritual wanderer, so I don’t know if Catholicism met that need in her or not.Readers of CLS & JRRT often end at the same altar.


  2. Thanks for sharing this. I have Dillard on my neverending TBR list and I needed this reminder.

    But I just had to ask …… do you REALLY leave books at people’s houses when they’re not looking??? 😀


  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Wonderful! Anne Dillard has been on my TBR list forever as well, you have prompted me to fit her in this year. Thanks – that beginning to An American Childhood was superb.


  4. vikzwrites says:

    Literary evangelists are my favorite kind. Keep on evangelising


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