By Jay Parini
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Imagination, Dickinson suggests, can transform the most violent act to a humorous one in the turn of a phrase. In spite of her affirmation in An American Childhood that "I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, in a house full of comedians, reading books," Dillard has received far too little credit for her humor. We see this humor sprinkled liberally throughout her writing; even in the poignant Holy the Firm and Encounters with Chinese Writers, Dillard insists on the necessary, salvific function of humor.
Describing her thoughts on one such occasion she concludes, "The Homewood residents whom I knew had little money and little free time. The marble floor was beginning to chill me. " Dillard's parents, especially her mother, resisted social and class barriers with all her energy: "She asserted, against all opposition, that people who lived in trailer parks were not bad but simply poor. . Her profound belief that the countryclub pool sweeper was a person, and that the department-store saleslady, the bus driver, telephone operator, and housepainter were people .
Although she was initially dazzled by the atmosphere of these social events, her descriptions of Pittsburgh society elsewhere in An American Childhood suggest her eventual rejection of this world, with its rigid rules and predictable lives. A rebellious teenager, she was suspended from school for smoking; she also resisted what she saw as the hypocrisy of the church, quitting briefly, although she returned after reading the work of C. S. Lewis, which her minister had loaned her. Emerging from her sometimes contradictory early experiences, her narratives as a whole reveal the ability of the writer to hold opposites in balance, to find value in and admire what she simultaneously critiques.
American Writers, Supplement VI by Jay Parini