In her famous essays on the Sixties and Seventies, Joan Didion surveyed a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the past two years, critics looking to revisit this period, and to reassess Didion’s career, have not lacked for chances. There has been an unauthorized biography; a new book, South and West, which includes Didion’s unpublished notebooks on a road trip through the South (1970) and the Patty Hearst trial (1976); and most recently a documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne. The response has been mixed, and not only because the biography offered little in the way of news and the documentary was about as hard-hitting as a holiday card. The new treatments seem to have raised as many questions as they have answered about Didion’s legacy: What, exactly, was she trying to say?
Everyone admires the prose. Generations of journalists and essayists have tried to write like Didion writes and see like Didion sees—that spare yet somehow luminous style recording the impressions of the acutely sensitive but pitiless eye. Her political meaning, however, remains obscure. Some, like Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, watch our own political center falling apart and “can’t shake the feeling that we ought to have been listening to Joan Didion more carefully all along.” Others pass over her criticisms of Sixties social movements in polite silence or accuse her of quietism—if not downright stupidity. Writing in Bookforum, Sarah Nicole Prickett acknowledges Didion can give you the impression that “no one else does see what Didion sees”—and yet, according to Prickett, when Didion sees something dubious about the overarching narrative of the women’s movement, she is “out of her intellectual range.”
Didion’s journalism from the Sixties and Seventies seems newly relevant because then (as now) American history had taken a few alarming turns, and everyone wanted to know why and what to do about it. While crossing the nation on book tour she heard the same question from every TV and radio host: “Where are we heading?” Today, the questions remain the same. Why is this happening? And: What can we do to change it? But Didion regarded answers to these questions with skepticism, bordering on contempt. At the heart of grand narratives about who we are and where we are heading she saw self-deception in the face of meaningless disorder. Instead of trying to change the world, Didion was content, as she writes in South and West, “to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind.” In order to see what was in front of her at the present moment, she had to doubt the stories in the air around her—starting with her own.
Didion was born in 1934 and spent most of her childhood in Sacramento, the state’s capital city in the heart of its long central valley. Her mother belonged to a prominent local family. Her father was a successful, hard-drinking real-estate man. The whole family preached a genteel pioneer ethic: self-sufficiency, wealth from the land, loyalty to family and community, distrust of government and newcomers, thrift in the form of faded drapes and silver, membership in exclusive social clubs and the Episcopalian church. If her “grandfather spotted a rattlesnake while driving,” she recalled in her memoir Where I Was From, “he would stop his car and go into the brush after it.” To do otherwise would imperil the next traveler—and thereby violate “the code of the West.” Combining staunch individualism with a sense of noblesse oblige, the family despised Kennedy and voted Goldwater, as did Didion (in 1964).
They based their “code of the West” on a particular story about the state’s past and their place in it. According to family lore, Didion’s great-great-great-grandfather and other pioneers had crossed the Sierras, mined the gold, dammed the rivers, built the cities, and made the central valley bloom—all on the strength of their unshakable conviction that they could make of their lives and the land exactly what they wanted. Didion dutifully repeated this story in an eighth-grade graduation speech. California had been settled not by “the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless and the daring,” she proclaimed. “We can’t stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California.”
This was supposed to be the story of her life, a story of progress and dreams fulfilled. But by the time she wrote the “California Notes” section of South and West in 1976, Didion doubted every part of it. “I have lived most of my life,” she realized, “under misapprehensions of one kind or another.”
On closer inspection, her family story fell apart on every level. Her father was not a snake-slaying pioneer but a real-estate speculator: while he inveighed against government regulation and internal migrants, the family livelihood depended on both. Likewise, the men and women who had supposedly built California with nothing but grit and guts had in fact relied heavily on federal largesse in the form of land grants, which they then profited on by selling it all to newcomers at an inflated rate. And nature, far from being conquered, kept avenging itself. Pioneers and settlers died of exposure and starvation, crops failed, cities burned, dams and levees burst. The real history of California was not heroic self-sufficiency but predatory greed and sky-high hopes brought suddenly, disastrously low.
The family story wasn’t just incidentally misleading, Didion came to see: its factual inaccuracy served a purpose. In its promise of self-realization, of a sense of meaning and control, it pretended to bridge the unbridgeable gap that always stretches between our dreams and our ability to realize them. Didion’s father had occasional attacks of “tension” and needed to be hospitalized for his own safety. Her mother’s refined domestic façade occasionally slipped. She would burst into tears and say, “what difference does it make.” Belief in the heroic potential of the pioneer spirit started to look pathological, like an effort to beat back what Didion later called “some deep apprehension of meaninglessness.”
Didion’s confidence in her story collapsed in the late Sixties. She described those years as “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.” As the premises of her stories fell through, making sense of anything became next to impossible: “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting room experience.” In 1968, she had a mental breakdown.
In the title essay of The White Album Didion insists that her cutting room experience had clued her in to something about the stories people live by: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.
In the rest of the collection, Didion charted the distance between Americans’ self-conceptions and the realities of their lives. In her essays young mothers abandon their infants on the interstate or, unable to attain the lifestyles they expected, murder their husbands. Jaycees wonder if campus Jaycee clubs are the answer to student unrest. An Episcopalian bishop rejects the divinity of Christ and chases the historical Jesus into the desert, where he dies of thirst. The national media treats the hippie lifestyle as a social statement, while the runaways and small-time drug dealers in the Haight-Ashbury district can’t tell the difference between militant anarchists and the John Birch Society.
Jaycees and an Episcopal bishop make easy targets for Didion’s acid irony. Of course the upheavals of the late Sixties threw respectable people like them into confusion, but Didion also criticized the wishful thinking of left-wing reformers and radicals. Not only do Hollywood liberals understand politics in clichéd story arcs, but they believe they can impose those arcs on American history: “Things ‘happen’ in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario.”
In Didion’s mind, the person who best exemplifies this faith in the transformative power of the right story is the novelist Doris Lessing. Lessing, wrote Didion, possessed “a determinedly utopian and distinctly teleological bent assaulted at every turn by fresh evidence that the world is not exactly improving as promised.” Political parties, “Freudian determinism,” the women’s movement—the right story should have led to some control over history, but never did. In Lessing’s search Didion thought she detected “the guiding delusion of her time.” And perhaps not only her time. The belief in a new, pristine society, first dreamt of and then realized through sheer force of will, lies deep in the American psyche—from its Puritan founding to the myth of California’s settlement to Oneida, Woodstock and every Silicon Valley scheme to cast the past aside and live in a perfect state of freedom.
Didion regarded such narratives most of the time with bemused detachment. But sometimes she viewed them with alarm, as in her infamous article, “The Women’s Movement.” That movement, too, tells a grand story. It names women as an oppressed class and hopes to remake society by bringing this class to consciousness. Didion acknowledges that women are “victims of condescension and exploitation” but she refused to identify with an “imagined Everywoman,” supposedly helpless before a rogue’s gallery of schoolteachers, advertisers, employers, doctors and libidinous dates who turned into equally libidinous husbands. The movement’s slogan, “the personal is political,” struck Didion as a special kind of threat, since it imposed a sentimental storyline not only on her public life but also, and even more troublingly, on her private affairs. When Shulamith Firestone suggested that artificial wombs could eliminate the inequity inherent in pregnancy, she offended Didion’s “apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death—could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.”
In each story about the world reborn, Didion detected a motive familiar from her childhood. The frantic activity of a young communist reminds Didion of her family’s efforts to beat back a “sense of dread.” From the California dream to Marxism, “elaborate systems” of thought promise order and meaning in a chaotic and meaningless world. Underneath the social chaos of the Sixties was the instability of nature—implacable, indifferent, ever-changing, and all but designed to frustrate our plans. In South and West Didion goes to the Patty Hearst trial to figure out where California and the nation were going but finally concludes: “At the center of this story there is a terrible secret, a kernel of cyanide, and the secret is that the story doesn’t matter, doesn’t make any difference, doesn’t figure. The snow still falls in the Sierra. The Pacific still trembles in its bowl. The great tectonic plates strain against each other while we sleep and wake.”
Over time Didion realized that the myth of the West was Janus-faced. On one side was the heroic pioneer, capable of bending the landscape to his will. On the other was the lonesome wanderer, who could appreciate her insignificance on a geological scale. In a review of Norman Mailer’s The Executioners Song, Didion applauded Mailer for capturing “that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.” But those voices don’t disappear immediately. As she read Mailer’s novel, Didion also “remembered that the tracks made by the wagon wheels are still visible form the air over Utah, like the footprints made on the moon.” Even if the traveler couldn’t control the world, she could leave a lasting record of her solitary passage through it.
Didion received this half of the Western mythos, like its more heroic elements, from her mother, who first gave her a notebook and told her to write down what she saw and felt. The purpose was to “remember what it was to be me: that was always the point.” Fierce loyalty to her own experience entailed being at odds with what others said it ought to be, but it also laid the foundation of her aesthetic vision. Didion admires the modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe because O’Keeffe is “simply hard, a straight shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees.” When critics offered their own interpretations of O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers, she rebuked them: “I made you take time to look at what I saw … and you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see—and I don’t.”
Didion likewise connected her openness to experience to her refusal of received ideas. In an essay titled “Why I Write,” she traced her preference for the concrete over the abstract to her student days at the University of California, Berkeley. She could never stay focused on the intricacies of Marxist dialectics, or on any other great system of thought, she recalled. Instead her attention would inevitably turn to something like “a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor.” If she meditates on these images for long enough, they reveal their own unique “grammar.” She insists on taking the word “grammar” literally:
All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. … The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement.
With our master narratives, we attempt to impose order on our ever-shifting perceptions of an ever-shifting world (petals falling to the floor, snow falling in the Sierras). Didion wants to write in the exact opposite way: “Nota bene. [The picture] tells you. You don’t tell it.”
After an event as unexpected as Trump’s election, Didion could have predicted that our new storytellers would go into overdrive. And there has been a palpable sense of confusion and helplessness in the storytelling classes—journalists, pundits, novelists, academics and so on—followed by a redoubled effort to find culprits, answers, ways to save the country or build a new one. Why is this happening? What can we do to change it? The implication is that, that once we have properly diagnosed our condition, the cure will surely follow.
Didion doubted such questions had good answers—and the conditions she was most drawn to diagnosing were incurable. Such tendencies made her a target in the Seventies (one critic called her “a neurasthenic Cher”) and they continue to do so today. As in Prickett’s Bookforum review, critics who admire her prose have often been inclined to distinguish it from her offenses against good political taste. In The New Yorker Louis Menand credits Didion with being born with an “X-ray clarity” at the same time as he assures his readers she understood little about sixties counterculture. The Atlantic’s Meghan Daum, acknowledging that many of Didion’s views would be seen as “problematic” today, defends not any of those views but rather her having shown that it was “possible for a woman to put her writing first without apology or fanfare.”
There is another possibility: perhaps Didion’s singular journalistic vision, her ability to capture and communicate the “shifting phantasmagoria” of her experience, depended on her skepticism about political storytelling. Perhaps it was her incredulity that made her the perfect journalist for the Sixties and early Seventies, when the old stories were falling apart and the new ones had yet to meet the rough ground of reality. Her politics eventually moved left (she registered as a Democrat after Republicans fell for Ronald Reagan’s country-Western act) but she never became a believer. In her essays in Political Fictions (2001) she looked for “the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience.” In Where I Was From (2003), which Menand calls the “central book in Didion’s career,” she told her revisionist history of California. Menand praises Where I Was From as the book where at last Didion admitted that “wealth and class,” not individual initiative, had built California. But in fact, in Didion’s telling, the game of capital formation distracts both old-money ranchers and the new industrialists from the impending onslaught of “indifferent nature.” Soon enough it will crush “the human atom standing in its way, with nirvanic calm.”
At the end of South and West Didion describes the California landscape. It seems to give her the contentment she had disdained in her middle-school graduation speech. “I am at home in the West. The hills of the coastal ranges look ‘right’ to me, the particular flat expanse of the Central Valley comforts my eye,” she writes. “I can pronounce the names of rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes. I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.”