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Jeremy Keeshin

Assignment #2: An American Childhood

When I was five, growing up in Pittsburgh in 1950, I would not go to bed

willingly because something came into my room. This was a private matter between me
and it. If I spoke of it, it would kill me….
I lay alone and was almost asleep when the damned thing entered the room by
flattening itself against the open door and sliding in. It was a transparent, luminous
oblong. I could see the door whiten at its touch; I could see the blue wall turn pale where
it raced over it, and see the maple headboard of Amy’s bed glow. It was a swift spirit; it
was awareness. It made noise. It had two joined parts, a head and a tail, like a Chinese
dragon. It found the door, wall, and headboard; and it swiped them, charging them with
its luminous glance. After its fleet, searching passage, things looked the same, but
I dared not blink or breathe; I tried to hush my whooping blood. If it found
another awareness, it would destroy it.
Every night before it got to me it gave up. It hit my wall’s corner and couldn’t get
past. It shrank completely into itself and vanished like a cobra down a hole. I heard the
rising roar it made when it died or left. I still couldn’t breathe. I knew—it was the worst
fact I knew, a very hard fact—that it could return again alive that same night….
It was a passing car whose windshield reflected the corner streetlight outside. I
figured it out one night.

(Dillard, 20-21).

This selection from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood stands out for a few

reasons. It represents much more of the book than it actually is. It represents one instance

in childhood of uncertainty and curiosity and having a new, scary experience. This whole

entire book is about how Annie Dillard reacts with normal childhood situations. It reveals

that she is just an average person who grows up in an average childhood, but her

storytelling and use of descriptive language make each individual tale seem immense and

intense. She relates how she is deathly afraid of some oblong light that comes into her

room and seems to possess her. Finally, the reader discovers that this is not some

boogeyman or ghost or actual scary specter, but actually a passing car. This demonstrates

the classic eureka moment that all children have when they realize that one thing that was

presumed to be true was actually completely different. That is why this moment is so
Jeremy Keeshin

significant. This is an instance in her childhood where she was fallible, and it is easy to

relate to. What makes An American Childhood appealing is that everyone can relate to

her childhood stories. Her tests, her triumphs, and her failures, have been felt by all of us,

and it makes her character seem so real and alive. She exposes to the reader that she is

just an ordinary kid with ordinary problems. She shows what it is like to be scared and

have a fear of the unknown, and then to conquer it. Her short saga of the ghost-light from

the car is the epitome of being wrong, but learning a lesson from it.

Out parents would sooner have left us out of Christmas than leave us out of a
joke. They explained a joke to us while they were still laughing at it; they tore a still-
kicking joke apart, so we could see how it worked….
Our father kept in his breast pocket a little black notebook. There he noted jokes
he wanted to remember. Remembering jokes was a moral obligation. People who said, “I
can never remember jokes,” were like people who said, obliviously, “I can never
remember names,” or “I don’t bathe.”
“No one tells jokes like your father,” Mother said. Telling a good jokes well—
successfully, perfectly—was the highest art. It was an art because it was up to you: if you
did not get the laugh, you had told it wrong. Work on it, and do it better next time. It
would have been reprehensible to blame the joke, or, worse, the audience.

(Dillard, 50).

When Dillard describes the topics of jokes in her family she does so at length.

This is significant because it shows the set-up and importance of humor in her family.

The Dillard thought around jokes was a sort of no-nonsense system. Everything that

happened regarding the joke was your own fault. If the joke was a success, it was to your

credit that it was successful. If the joke was a complete failure, it was all you to blame

there as well. That was the value of the joke in the Dillard household. It reveals how the

family thought that in life, and while telling jokes, everything is up to you. You have

control of your life and if it is successful or not, just as in a joke you have control of how

you pull it off. The joke was more of a metaphor for how things that happen are a result
Jeremy Keeshin

of your own action. It is a striking irony that a laughing matter such as a joke is such a

serious matter to the Dillard family, and that is what makes it of note. To put joke telling

and remembering in the same category as name recalling and bathing ranks it among the

highest importance and demonstrates the odd, but fascinating priorities of Annie Dillard

and her family.

We who had grown up in the Warsaw ghetto, who had seen all our families gassed
in the death chambers, who had shipped before the mast, and hunted sperm whale in
Antarctic seas; we who had marched from Moscow to Poland and lost our legs to the
cold; we who knew by heart every snag and sandbar on the Mississippi River south of
Cairo, and knew by heart Morse code, forty parables and psalms, and lots of
Shakespeare; we who had battled Hitler and Hirohito in the North Atlantic, in North
Africa, in New Guinea and Burma and Guam, in the air over London, in the Greek and
Italian hills; we who had learned to man minesweepers before we learned to walk in high
heels—were we going to marry Holden Caulfield’s roommate, and buy a house in Point
Breeze, and send our children to dancing school?

(Dillard, 184).

This excerpt from Annie Dillard’s American Childhood is especially noteworthy

because she puts herself in the position of all the characters in the books she has read.

This is significant because it reveals the latitude of Annie Dillard’s imagination. Her

enthusiasm with reading and discovering books is apparent throughout her memoir as she

constantly places herself in the first person with the characters. She likes to think that she

is living the great adventures of her lifetime, when in reality she is only reading them, and

this demonstrates the sort of inner workings of her mind and thoughts. Her life is

constantly altered and influenced by the books she is reading, and this is the prime

example of her detailing those accounts to the reader. She felt the ability to live her life in

addition to the lives of the characters that she can only read and dream about. She lets

herself be taken away to places that she can be reached only in a book. She invigorates
Jeremy Keeshin

her life with the stories of others, and it shows that this is her way of living, and the

dramatic influence books have had on her life.

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