Childhood tales by Jeannette Walls, Harry Crews & Annie Dillard
Joining millions of others, I’ve now read Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. Walls wins the prize for modern memoir’s most dysfunctional family, edging out even Frank McCourt. Yet her damaged father inculcated Walls’s belief in herself—he made her feel special even as she wore filthy rags. And her equally neglectful but uniquely disordered mother banned self-pity and enshrined art of all kinds.
Walls became a journalist, focused on celebrity profiles and gossip, before turning to memoir. She hardly muses on her childhood or tries to make overt sense of it beyond its powerful scenic depiction. A plucky girl, she responded to her plight seemingly without much pain or terror or introspection. In the book as in life, she lets shocked witnesses judge her parents.
I felt the strength and the weakness of that approach. The Glass Castle is event-driven, and far on the scenic end of the narrative continuum. Walls bares her Dickensian childhood, long a source of shame to her, she tells us at the outset, but little of her adult soul and almost none of the one she owned as a child. Other than a slim prologue and epilogue (annoyingly labeled acts) that are written from her adult perspective, we see the world only through her less comprehending girlhood eyes.
Francine Prose concludes her long, appreciative review for The New York Times Book Review this way:
At times, the litany of gothic misfortune recalls Harry Crews’s classic memoir, ”A Childhood.” The two books have striking similarities; both, for example, feature the horrific scalding of a child. But to think about Crews’s book is to become aware of those mysterious but instantly recognizable qualities—the sensibility, the tonal range, the lyrical intensity and imaginative vision—that distinguish the artist from the memoirist, qualities that suggest the events themselves aren’t quite so interesting as the voice in which they’re recounted.
”The Glass Castle” falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.
A more typical response is Cindy’s (Cindy Reads) on her old blog Conversations with Famous Writers, who also conducted a Q&A with Walls, and generated 178 comments:
From page one, her vivid descriptions pulled me into her life. It was obvious where all the good reviews stemmed. This book was not simply good—it was phenomenal. The story as fiction would have been amazing, but since this is a memoir it is even more incredible. That someone could have lived as Jeannette did and not only survive, but flourish in her adult life is worthy of all awards and accolades.
This is why The Glass Castle has achieved bestseller status and why so many students love it. It grips kids, who naturally identify with Walls, while thanking their lucky stars that their parents, bad as they are, aren’t that bad. And they can rage and judge when Walls doesn’t (as when three-year-old Jeannette catches herself ablaze while cooking hot dogs, her indifferent mother painting in the next room, and when her father kidnaps her from a hospital’s burn unit).
Francine Prose is a bit vague in her ultimately damning review of The Glass Castle, but I presume that she’s faulting Walls for a weak narrative persona. Prose seems to be making Vivian Gornick’s famous distinction in The Situation and the Story between the events of a life, the mere “situation,” and its “story,” the meaning one has extracted and the truth one has come to tell.
I think that Walls and her legion of pleased readers would say that she embeds meaning in her scenes themselves. And of course Prose seemingly criticizes the very thing that has made The Glass Castle a bestseller, its headlong narrative and lack of musing. I share Prose’s view at least to this extent: I will not feel compelled to reread The Glass Castle to unlock its secrets, whereas I’ve returned several times to Tobias Wolff’s two equally scenic memoirs, This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which feature a sparingly reflective persona.
The richness of a narrative persona has become important to me, and much of its merit has to do with a writer’s ability to achieve a dual perspective. Increasingly the memoirs I enjoy most somehow convey at once the view of the writer at her desk and that of her younger self experiencing the life being portrayed. Norman Mailer said in Advertisements for Myself that the most powerful leverage in fiction comes from point of view, and I’m starting to believe that’s true also for memoir. As Gornick asked, Who is telling this story? Persona, she said, is “the instrument of illumination.”
Harry Crews’s gothic masterpiece ‘A Childhood’
Since I’d recently reread Gornick’s The Situation and the Story that also extols Harry Crews’s A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I finally read that, too. I agree with Prose and Gornick that it’s a classic.
But I may be biased because I also lived in south Georgia, on a cattle ranch, until I was almost six. I imprinted on that same landscape, on the vast, flat fields bisected by dark islands of pines and bordered by sluggish creeks, overhung with oaks and magnolias, where alligators swam unseen through the black water.
A Childhood is about Crews’s life from age five to ten in that coastal plain, the son of destitute Georgia sharecroppers during the Great Depression. These are folk right out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—they’re that formally ignorant and that smart and that graced with love and that blessed with magic amidst the grimness of poverty and alcoholism and domestic abuse.
Crews’s father dies before the son can remember him. An uncle, loving but increasingly violent toward the boy’s mother, helps raise him. As its subtitle implies, the story is also palpably about that farmed-out but untamed region. The book itself is a work of art, beautifully produced by University of Georgia Press and illustrated by gorgeous woodcuts of key moments in the narrative. It’s available new at this time only in hardback, unfortunately, but at least it’s still in print.
Crews achieves a persona remarkable for reflecting from the writer’s present while conveying the world and viewpoint of the five-year-old who gets scalded one day at a hog boiling and the boy who later is incapacitated by polio.
From the very start, Crews plays with persona and memory:
My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew. It was the middle of the night in the Everglades swamp in 1925, when my daddy woke his best friend Cecil out of a deep sleep in a bunkhouse just south of the floating dredge that was slowly chewing its way across the Florida Peninsula from Miami on the Atlantic to Naples on the Gulf of Mexico, opening a route and piling dirt for the highway that would come to be known as the Tamiami Trail. the night was as dark as only a swamp can be dark and they could not see each other there in the bunkhouse. The rhythmic stroke of the dredge’s engine came counterpoint to my daddy’s shaky voice as he told Cecil what was wrong.
. . .
Did what I have set down here as a memory actually happen? Did the two men say what I have recorded, think what I have said they thought? I do not know, nor do I any longer care. My knowledge of my daddy came entirely from stories I have been told about him, stories told me by my mother, by my brother, who was old enough when he died to remember him firsthand, by my other kin people, and by the men and women who knew him while he was alive.
Even as he goes back in time to write from the viewpoint of himself as a child, to tell stories and to recreate his then-existence in dramatized scenes, Crews maintains a dual perspective. We’re aware both of the aging adult at his desk and of the undefended boy experiencing his destitute sharecropper’s life without mediation. Typically Crews eases into a chapter from his present, and slowly the boy takes over, as in the start to Chapter Four:
It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this life as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now—the stories, and everything conjured by them, that I have been writing about thus far—I obviously knew none of then, particularly anything about my real daddy, whom I was not to hear of until I was nearly six years old, not his name, not even that he was my daddy. Of if I did hear of him, I have no memory of it.
I awoke in the middle of the morning in early summer from the place I’d been sleeping in the curving roots of a giant oak tree in front of a large white house. Off to the right, beyond the dirt road, my goats were trailing along in the ditch, grazing in the tough wire grass that grew there. Their constant bleating shook the warm summer air. I always thought of them as my goats although my brother usually took care of them. Before he went to the field that morning to work, he had let them out of the old tobacco barn where they slept at night. At my feet was a white dog whose name was Sam. I looked at the dog and at the house and at the red gown with little pearl-colored buttons I was wearing, and I knew that the gown had been made for me by my Grandma Hazelton and that the dog belonged to me. He went everywhere I went, and he always took precious care of me.
There’s a tension in the book because Crews’s love is so bound up with implied sadness and with traumatic memories of violence and loss. He’s also probing the nature of memory and the growth of consciousness.
Annie Dillard’s impossible task in An American Childhood
As if cleansing my palate of The Glass Castle’s cinematic style, I reread Annie Dillard’s wry reflective memoir An American Childhood, which deposits us amidst her childhood as it unfolds in a loving, prosperous family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
One envies Dillard her parents, who are connoisseurs of books, dancing, jazz, and of the structure of jokes. Mom, an art collector, seems a tad overbearing—but droll, at least; Dad, a dreamer, works, when he does, in the family firm, snaps his fingers to Dixieland jazz, and runs off briefly to explore the Mississippi like Mark Twain of Life on the Mississippi. His other cool hero is Jack Kerouac of On the Road. This gentle Republican reread both swashbuckling writer’s books obsessively. And so did his daddy-loving daughter.
That’s the situation; the real story is about her coming to consciousness and the nature of consciousness as she experienced it from ages ten to eighteen. This impossible subject, a mere subtheme of Harry Crews, is what she hangs her tale on. Dillard repeatedly shows herself becoming aware of herself being aware. She says on her web site that the book is also about parents and science. But what she’s really come to testify about is awareness of awareness as it first dawned upon her and as she experienced it till college age.
She reflects upon this mystery hidden in plain sight early on, on page eleven:
I was just waking up then [at age ten], 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.
. . .
Children 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.
Ah, so it’s a gift and a burden, this consciousness.
Is this sad?
Well, maybe, but like all of Dillard’s work, An American Childhood makes me want to be more awake. We watch her awaken and see her unique sensibility form in her eccentric, loving family. Like Crews’s, this memoir strikes one with the strangeness of true art.
Here’s Dillard on the boys of her youth:
They moved in violent jerks from which we hung back, impressed and appalled, as if from horses slamming the slats of their stalls. This and, as we would have put it, their messy eyelashes. In our heartless, condescending, ignorant way we loved their eyelashes, the fascinating and dreadful way the black hairs curled and tangled. That’s the kind of vitality they had, the boys, that’s the kind of novelty and attraction: their very eyelashes came out amok, and unthinkably original. That we loved, that and their cloddishness, their broad, vaudvillian reactions. They were always doing slow takes. Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought—and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you’d caught a complicit wink from a brick.
. . .
But these, the boys who confided in me, were the ones I would love when we were in our teens, and they were, according to my predilection, not the dancing-school boys at all, but other oddball boys. I would give my heart to one oddball boy after another—to older boys, to prep-school boys no one knew, to him who refused to go to college, to him who was a hood, and all of them wonderfully skinny. I loved two such boys deeply, one after the other and for years on end, and forsook everything else in life, and rightly so, to begin learning with them that unplumbed intimacy that is life’s chief joy. I loved them deeply, one after the other, for years on end, I say, and hoped to change their worldly ambitions and save them from the noose. But they stood firm.
And it could be, I think, that only those oddball boys, none of whom has inherited Pittsburgh at all, longed to star in the world of money and urban power; and it could be that the central boys, our boys, who are now running Pittsburgh responsibly, longed to escape. I don’t know. I never knew them well enough to tell.
An American Childhood showed me just how good a writer Annie Dillard is, or was, since she retired after publishing her novel The Maytrees. Not everyone will like this memoir, because not everyone will find it interesting enough to put up with its lack of dramatic events.
Truth be told, it drags for me in places, but I enjoyed it even more the second time. And it’s great for writers to read because in it Dillard does everything: she creates using scene, summary, reflection, and a complex persona—plus she tackles that thorny conceptual issue. The reflective expository passages, as in all those quoted above, show as well how artful exposition can be.
But the book’s strength is its weakness, of course, that deeply interior and intellectual concern—one that demanded a fully developed narrative persona. In his review for The New York Times Book Review, Noel Perrin fingers the risk Dillard took and finds her memoir wanting:
And yet, ”An American Childhood” is not quite as good as it at first promised to be. By choosing to make the book an account of the growth of her mind, an inner rather than an outer narrative, Ms. Dillard almost necessarily forfeited plot. Except at the end, the book does not build; there is no continuous narrative. And though scores of people appear, only two of them are real characters: Annie Dillard herself and, for one wonderful chapter, her mother.
A writer really can’t win. Maybe Francine Prose would have liked An American Childhood better than he, but Dillard drew Perrin, who speaks for regular readers, after all, not just for the literati. Her focus must intrigue you or at least make you wonder if she can pull it off.
To his point about her mother, and exercising my reader’s prerogative here, I realized this time through that I don’t especially like her mother. Not that one has to. Finding myself cooling toward the self-amused woman added to my enjoyment.
Dillard shows how under-utilized this smart, fiercely opinionated and rather bored matron was in the staid suburbs of Pittsburgh. Mrs. Doak was brave, too, taking on titans of industry at dinner parties for their retrograde political views. And she literally weeps for the poor. But she was capable of making innocents the butt of her wit as well, as when she played a cruel practical joke on a stranger in front of his girlfriend by pretending to be the man’s jilted lover.
As in the other two memoirs, An American Childhood pivots on the father. Neither deranged and grandiose like Walls’s, nor a haunting absence like Crews’s, Dillard’s wistful father was the dreamboat of her young life and the authority against whom she would rebel. She opens her book with him and ends each act with him.
He was, probably, the reason she dated all those oddball boys. Lucky them.
A note to teachers about An American Childhood
While The Glass Castle is a boon to educators, real manna from heaven for students writing descriptive essays and learning to analyze motifs and symbols, An American Childhood, based on students’ pathetic, angry one-star reviews on Amazon, shouldn’t be assigned. It concerns childhood but it isn’t for children, not even for high schoolers, save perhaps a rare few in AP classes, nor for most college freshmen except those in honors classes.
Kids need a narrative that’s more strongly event-based. Asking them to grasp this memoir’s message is like telling minnows to notice water’s physical properties, its beauty, or even its existence. Bookish Noel Perrin faulted it for what they’re going to hate it for.