The View From There: Joan Didion’s ‘South and West’

Joan Didion went on the road 50 years ago. The trenchant observations in South and West, however fragmentary, are timely.

For certain readers, word of a new Joan Didion book brings a sense of relief. Never in robust health, now aged and besieged by personal loss, Didion is an author with every reason to stop writing. Given South and West: From a Notebook is assembled from notes taken nearly 50 years ago, some may argue she offers nothing new here. Indeed, this is what makes this release so startling.

South and West is indeed a notebook. Of course, this is Joan Didion’s notebook, not yours or mine, meaning it’s a polished, coherent document. The majority ofSouth and West is devoted to “The South”, notes taken over the course of a month-long road trip in 1970. Didion, impelled neither by court case nor newsworthy event, had hoped some writing would emerge from her travels. Nothing did — until now.

Didion manages, in her usual idiosyncratic way, to be both inchoate and searing about what draws her to the South, particularly the Gulf Coast states. It is this area, rather than California, where she suspects the future of America lies, “The secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

Invited to a dinner in New Orleans, Didion is closely questioned by her host: What sports does her husband engage in? Why did he “allow” her to hang around with “marijuana hippie-smoking trash?” That Didion kept company with the “trash” in question for reasons of journalism is dismissed by her host. Who allowed her? he asks, dissatisfied.

Southern women working outside the home are rare enough to merit mention. Mel Bouldin, a cotton planter’s wife, returned to medical school after bearing children. Now a practicing ob/gyn, she has thrown off any trappings of domestic femininity, professing a hatred of cooking and an indifference to her appearance. When Didion visits, Bouldin is in the midst of remodeling the family home. “A boys house, everything rough and ready. I love boys,” Didion writes.

Bouldin is exceptional. Joining a group of wives at a broadcaster’s convention, Didion listens as they avidly discuss their television and radio listening habits. All are soap opera fans. The idea of listening to the car radio elicits an astonished “Drive where?” from southerners.

While getting a manicure, Didion strikes up a conversation with the proprietress’s daughter. Aged 20, she’s been marred three years. Didion’s manicurist, aged 17 and about to finish high school, dreams of earning her cosmetologist’s license, then possibly entering modeling school.

Invited to lunch in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Didion listens as her host wistfully talks of cotton farming. Automated equipment has changed the lifestyle; long, quiet winters of socializing have given way to year-round farming. The tenant sharecroppers who worked the land have departed. Nevertheless, “It’s an area where you have plenty of servants. We’re fortunate to have Charles and Frances here, they were on my dad’s place.”

The aforementioned Stan Torgerson spends an afternoon with Didion, laying out an idealized Meridian, a place where there’s a fast-food joint on every corner and “racial harmony is key”. Granted, he won’t be inviting “a colored minister to come home to dinner tonight”. Nevertheless, Torgerson is proud of the black-owned gas station and the appliance shop owner looking to hire a black repairman who “makes a good appearance”.

“Going North” is a constant topic. At a dinner in New Orleans, Didion’s host is incensed when at guest begs off, citing a previous commitment at a dinner honoring Head Start. Didion’s hostess says she hopes the man “doesn’t get too mixed up with the Negroes. You know what happened to George Washington Cable.”

Didion asks what happened to Cable. He had to go north, her hostess clarifies (italics Didion’s). Stan Torgerson, white owner of Mississippi’s soul station, WQIC, moved to La Jolla, California for work. Finding the neighbors aloof, concerned about the prevalence of marijuana, Torgerson returned to Mississippi. At Rush Foundation Hospital, Didion, who has injured a rib, is examined by a doctor who attended medical school in the northern United States. “I liked it a lot up there. I thought once I wouldn’t mind living up there. But… I came back here.”

Didion is treated with suspicion at this same hospital. It isn’t the injury that draws scrutiny, but her claim of married status, accompanied by a naked left ring finger (the petite Didion wears her wedding rings on a chain around her neck). Her hair, straight rather than bouffant, attracts stares, as does the bikini donned at motel swimming pools. In a Guin, Mississippi, diner, a waitress pockets the matchbook Didion leaves on the table. It’s not Didion’s appearance so much as her otherness that draws attention.

This sense of insularity makes for deeply unsettling reading. Didion writes: “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand.”

At barely 15 pages, “California Notes” is scant, yet presages Where I Was From in its attempts to define California and one’s place in the Western lexicon. These include notes on the Patricia Hearst trial, which Didion attended, explaining, “I thought the trial had some meaning for me — because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”

Despite this observation, Didion’s fascination with Patricia Hearst sees its fullest expression in “Girl of the Golden West”, which appears in After Henry. Nathaniel Rich’s introduction floridly overwritten introduction, while well-meaning, is tangential.

Some critics are arguing the South and West would benefit from fleshing out or, more vulgarly, posthumous publication. While longer pieces from Didion are always welcome, they may not be forthcoming. Barring these, the trenchant observations in South and West, however fragmentary, are timely, a call across the years, notes for a warning perhaps. If so, it’s a warning from here that we didn’t read then — nor did we heed it, later.

RATING 8 / 10