In the Golden Land

Joan Didion Slouching Toward Bethlehem

I come to Joan Didion by way of the lyric essay. Not that she called her writing lyric or even an essay. In the beginning, Didion was a reporter who chafed at the restrictions imposed in the 1950s. Journalists were supposed to be objective. They dealt exclusively in facts. If there was no other way around it, a journalist might refer to herself as “this reporter.”

Didion broke with all that. She put herself on the film set with John Wayne. Wrote of her childhood in Sacramento. Drove the Harbor Freeway during the Watts Riots while LA burned “as we had always known it would.”

Didion dared to use the word “I” when interviewing. Michael Laski is the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party U.S.A. (Marxist-Leninist).

As it happens I am comfortable with the Michael Laskis of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.

Joan Didion, “Comrade Laski” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem as reprinted in Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s (Library of America)

A Didion breakthrough

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is the essay that made Didion’s name. The original idea was a book-length work on “the LSD life in California.” Didion travels to Haight-Ashbury. She tries in vain to speak to anyone willing to say he or she is in charge. Didion ends up hanging out with teenagers who have come to turn on, tune in and drop out.

At three-thirty in the afternoon Max, Tom, and Sharon placed tabs under their tongues and sat down together in the living room to wait for the flash. Barbara stayed in the bedroom, smoking hash. During the next four hours a window banged once in Barbara’s room, and about five-thirty some children had a fight on the street. A curtain billowed in the afternoon wind. A cat scratched a beagle in Sharon’s lap. Except for the sitar music on the stereo there was no other sound of movement until seven-thirty, when Max said “Wow.”

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

The Saturday Evening Post publishes “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in 1967. The article brings Didion fame and deep despair. Readers misunderstand her. They think these hippies are isolated castaways. These readers congratulate themselves that the hippie’s drive toward nihilism is over.

I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.

Preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem

In 1968, gunmen assassinate Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The US electorate votes Richard Nixon into office. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux publish the essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, to national acclaim. Didion checks herself into a psychiatric clinic.

Didion in California

A Vogue editor claims she taught Didion how to write. Didion attributes her craftsmanship to the years spent typing over Ernest Hemingway stories to understand how they work. However she may have come by her skills, Didion’s text is lean and muscular. Like a half-starved mountain lion, her words skulk in the brush, ready to bite.

I come to Didion to understand her craft and leave with a sense of home. Didion is a native daughter of California and so am I. My lineage doesn’t go back as far as hers. One of Didion’s ancestors survived the Donner Party. When Didion and I think of California, we don’t picture Rodeo Drive or Big Sur or, these days, Silicon Valley. California is not Los Angeles or San Francisco.

California is a place in which […] the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.

“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”

Didion is opinionated and funny, diffident and shy, alarmingly and disarmingly honest about herself. She is acutely aware of the pact that every essayist makes with her readers. To tell the truth as best you can. Didion, however, goes a big step farther. She once said, “If you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something.”

Didion delivers.

29 Nov 2021 | Karen Kao