Joan Didion’s Crystal-Clear Vision Only Got Better with Age

Reading the Library of America's comprehensive anthology, Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s, is like walking out of the rain and into a time warp.

Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s
Joan Didion
Library of America
November 2019

Few writers from the 1960s golden age of “New Journalism” still evoke the degree of credible reverence as Joan Didion. It isn’t just that she’s still with us, still publishing the type of measured personal memoir nonfiction which she established in her prime, with such singular collections as The White Album (1979). Her devastating memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011) were literal textbook examples of how to carefully create degrees of personal grief and loss with the most respectful, measured tones. Her losses were our losses. Her commentary about political unrest and the lure of Hollywood fantasy in California’s land of milk and honey was always tinged with sadness. We grieved with her because we trusted the mission statement she set forth in the first sentence of the title essay in The White Album:

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Didion’s contemporaries (gadfly essayists, memoirists, commentators, novelists) have mostly slipped this mortal coil: among them Norman Mailer, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter Thompson. She stands alone in this second decade of the 21st century as a writer who seems to understand that she is a product, as is the work she presents. There she was in that iconic photo by Julian Wasser, a small woman looking into the camera, eyes piercing and straight ahead, left forearm crossed over her chest. Her right elbow is rested on her left arm, a cigarette is burning between her fingers like a fountain pen stopped in mid-action.

In her later years, after the loss of her husband and child (who became the subjects, respectfully, of her masterful 2005 and 2011 memoirs), the smile would be gone, replaced by big black sunglasses. The cigarette remained, there was no visible cloud of smoke to obscure our view, but we could sense that the sadness of her losses had taken its toll.

One thing that can be said about the long, quiet, graceful autumn of Didion is that it’s been built as much on her striking visual presence as well as on the legacy of her writing. The 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew actor Griffin Dunne, worked best when it featured on-screen interviews with its subject, embracing her wizened visage and face creased with years of honestly earned experience. Her beauty of 50 years ago was still there, only now seen through the context of the truths revealed in her writing. It’s almost as if she had to wait half a century to grow into the tone and atmosphere of the writing compiled in this new Library of America collection Joan Didion: The 1960’s & 70s.

The five books within are presented chronologically. The first, her debut novel Run River (1963), is followed by her debut essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). The desultory novel Play It As It Lays (1970) is followed by another novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977). This collection ends with her masterpiece, The White Album (1979), a farewell to a two-decade run that started with the promise of John F. Kennedy and ended with the gloom of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.


Screengrab from Netflix trailer for Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017)

Most Didion readers will probably fall into two separate camps when it comes to her fiction and non-fiction. For this reader, the novels are distinctly lacking in the strength and overall sublime vision of her essay collections. Run River, a fatalistic romance about an upper-class Sacramento couple (Lily McClellan and her husband Everett), opens in 1959. He has shot her lover Ryder Channing to death. We flash back to 1938, to a 17-year-old Lily, and the start of her relationship with Everett. In tone, scope, and style, Run River owes more to Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel Giant than anything Didion would write for the remainder of the decade.

It’s about upper-class California agricultural families joining their dynasties no matter what it takes to do so. Lilly and Everett marry in Reno, in secret, and start a life of privilege in a California that depended then (as it does now) on the menial labor of Mexicans. The sense of doom is strong here, and the romance of entangled family business interests is carefully detailed, but it’s not a novel that would demonstrate any immediate promise. We understand that a story beginning with a man murdering his wife’s lover will flash back to a detailed origin story of the man’s relationship with the wife who had done him wrong. Run River seems like more of a small novelized treatment of a movie (starring late-period Lana Turner) than a book that can stand on its own, and the aged quality of its prose makes for tedious reading.

Play It As It Lays is a stylistic departure that improves on the relative promise of Run River, but it also makes for a painfully dated reading experience. In the former, we meet Maria, a 31-year-old B+ level movie star. She’s in a psychiatric facility and she’s the mother of a young developmentally delayed, institutionalized girl named Kate. They’re both broken, but it’s only Maria who can tell her story. This is compelling, and Didion is up for the challenge, but the detached tone is turned to an “11” here. The result is that it comes off almost like a parody of Didion’s writing. In one of the more effective passages, we read about Carter, her ex-husband, how things are when he comes back into her life:

“Always when he came back he would sleep in their room, shutting the door against her. Rigid with self-pity she would lie in another room, wishing for the will to leave. Each believed the other a murderer of time, a destroyer of life itself. She did not know what she was doing in Baker. No matter how it began, it ended like that.

‘Listen,’ she would say.

‘Don’t touch me,’ he would say.”

What works best in Play It As It Lays isn’t the essence of the characters. They’re hateful, detached to the point of catatonia, hurling homophobic slurs that shouldn’t have played well in 1970 and are anathema now to any sort of argument that this is what the context required. They’re vacant people living in an empty atmosphere. Perhaps that’s the point. If so, Didion takes the opportunity to evoke a landscape that was as desolate and unforgiving as its people:

“In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective…”

Leaving Maria and the world of Play It as It Lays is a relief. Nathaniel West wrote a much stronger story of Hollywood decadence and detachment in 1939’s Day of the Locust. Didion’s fiction isn’t bad so much as it has no choice but to take a back seat to her journalism. Only the tone, form, and effect of A Book of Common Prayer comes close to effectively representing Didion as a fiction writer in the ’70s.

It’s a personal and political tragedy in the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande. An American expatriate named Grace opens the novel with “I will be her witness.” She will be telling us the story of Charlotte Douglas, whose beloved daughter Marin has fallen in with some Marxist radicals. Charlotte risks everything (including the understandably predictable dissolution of her marriage) to get her daughter back home.

This is a novel about legacies, about moves made that can never be taken back, and Didion needs to elevate Charlotte to mythic status for us to trust she’s worth our time. Death is inevitable for everybody, as we can assume at the beginning. It’s the strength of these women that compels us to connect with these characters, especially this passage, where Grace tells us even more about this indomitable doomed heroine named Charlotte.

“Some things about Charlotte I never understood. She was a woman who grew faint when she noticed the blue arterial veins in her wrists…Yet during the time she was in Boca Grande…I once saw her skin an iguana for stew.”

These novels won’t stand as Didion’s best. She would grow considerably in this form with such books as Democracy (1984) and The Last Thing She Wanted (1996). What’s of note here is that she only published two additional novels after the three in this volume. Along with screenplays written with her late husband John Gregory Dunne (which included the main story scenario for 1976’s A Star Is Born,) Didion built her justifiably legendary reputation on the two essay collections in this volume and the books that would follow. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) an elegy for those who made the 1960s, featured many of the usual suspects from the counterculture. Among those subjects that might surprise today’s reader is this feature on John Wayne:

“John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams…In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders.”

Didion is equally at home in this profile of Wayne written while on the set of the latter’s 1965 film, The Sons of Katie Elder (his 165th) as she is watching the Doors in the middle of a recording session. Doors front man Jim Morrison features in the title essay of The White Album. Where the Wayne essay is conventional reportage, the result of one writer’s access to a movie set, The White Album is a collage.

It begins with the legendary quote about why we tell stories, and it goes through a lot from 1966-1971: RFK’s assassination and funeral, vacationing in Honolulu while watching the first reports of the My Lai Massacre, the murder of a faded old silent movie star named Ramon Novarro, a meeting with Manson family cult member Linda Kasabian. It’s in Part 3 where Morrison and the Doors and rock ‘n’ roll of the late ’60s enter the story. Didion had heard of the song “Universal Mind”, but “…it all sounded like marmalade skies to me.” Still, for her, the Doors seemed different from other bands:

“[They] seemed unconvinced that love was brotherhood and the Kama Sutra. The Doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation. The Doors were the Norman Mailers of the Top Forty, missionaries of apocalyptic sex.”

Didion zeroes in on Morrison’s “peculiar character,” his “ambiguous paranoia”, his insistence on fronting a band he called “erotic politicians”. She moves to discussing Huey P. Newton, Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and the Black Power Movement. “In this light,” she writes later, “all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful and equally senseless.” It’s an essay that we are lead to understand (as noted at the very end) was written from 1968-1978, sandwiched between political assassinations and the Tate–LaBianca murders committed by followers of Charles Manson. It’s about fear and loathing and the ways we find common ground between the two sensations.

Those who read both essay collections will be rewarded. Their separate theses are clearly understood. Slouhing Towards Bethlehem is a collection that testifies to the essence of its time (the 1960s) and locations (primarily California), as well as the more personal. Didion is at her best in this collection as she carefully delineates the themes of its separate sections: “Life Styles In the Golden Land”, “Personals”, and “Seven Places of the Mind”. In the first section, the essay “Where the Kissing Never Stops” looks at the activist life of singer Joan Baez, in 1966, as she steps away from the commercial viability of her folk Goddess persona to stand for higher social justice ideals:

“So now the girl whose life is a crystal teardrop has her own place, a place where the sun shines and the ambiguities can be set aside a little while longer, a place where everyone can be warm and loving and share confidences.”

This is a collection about locations, landscapes, territories of the heart and fortresses real and imagined. “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38” looks at the Howard Hughes communication center, “…in the dull sunlight of Hammett-Chandler country…run by a man whose modus operandi most closely resembles that of a character in The Big Sleep.”

In the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, as potent as the title essay of The White Album, Didion enters the love-ins and be-ins of Haight Ashbury. She references Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, lines about paranoia striking deep into your heart.

“Janis Joplin is singing with Big Brother in the Panhandle and almost everybody is high…the activists…whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic-had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important.”

Though the first lines of the Buffalo Springfield song aren’t cited, (and the song itself was written about the Sunset Strip curfew riots in November 1966), they are worth considering: “There’s something happening here/ What it is ain’t exactly clear.” Didion cared about the scenes she was covering. She wasn’t patronizing. With the essays in her “Personals” section, including “On Keeping a Notebook”, “On Self-Respect”, “On Morality,” and “On Going Home”, she assumes a richer, more expansive perspective. These are personal essays that maintain an intimacy while also welcoming the reader.

In the section “Seven Places of The Mind”, she continues this exploration of the inner landscapes through Alcatraz, Newport, and William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. In “Los Angeles Notebook”, she continues to roam in a calculated way, listening to late-night radio talk shows and reflecting on the essence of her beloved city:

“The oral history of Los Angeles is written in piano bars…People talk to each other, tell each other about their first wives and last husbands. ‘Stay funny,’ they tell each other, and ‘This is to die over.'”

In “Goodbye to All That”, her 1967 farewell to New York City, she reflects on what that part of the country meant to her and why it was so hard to leave:

“I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what…the idea of [it] means to those of us who came out of the West…That was what it was all about, wasn’t it? Promises? Now when New York comes back to me it comes in hallucinatory flashes…”

The White Album continues this exploration of landscape. Seven essays make up the “California Republic” section. In “Many Mansions”, she looks at the gaudy former official residence of the state’s Governors. Construction had stopped in 1975 (two years before the essay’s publication). This former home to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, all 12,000 square feet of it, had “…only enough bookshelves for a set of the World Books and some Books of the Month.” She continues: “I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable.”

The Reagans (primarily “Pretty Nancy Reagan”, as Didion puts it) re-appear in “Good Citizens”. Dated 1968-1970, the essay follows Nancy (California’s First Lady at the time) as she leads a TV crew through a garden, picking flowers: “Nancy Reagan says almost everything with spirit, perhaps because she was once an actress and has the beginning actress’s habit of investing even the most casual lines with…dramatic emphasis…” Didion’s conclusion after another section, a visit with Jaycees in Santa Monica, says a lot about her ability to perfectly balance keen observation with unavoidable bemusement:

“At first I thought I had walked out of the rain into a time warp: the Sixties seemed not to have happened.”

Many of the essays in The White Album can be brought forth here as role models of efficiency and brilliantly moderated emotional observations of landscapes and mindsets: “The Women’s Movement”, “Doris Lessing”, and “Georgia O’Keefe”, to name but three. Didion is on the road, in bed, in Bogotá, at the Hoover dam, always testifying to truth as she sees it. “On the Morning After the Sixties” reflects on what a difference a decade made between her time at Berkeley at the end of the ’50s (“…no one was despised by anything…discourse less than spirited, and debate non-existent”), to the chaos in 1969-1970. The essay collections are masterpieces of tone, structure, and restraint. Their brilliance easily paves over the flaws of the novels and makes this an essential collection in its entirety, blemishes and all. Too many passages will come to mind after the diligent reader carefully annotates the pages.

It’s the image of walking out of the rain and into a time warp that will stay longest. Didion roamed through many landscapes in the ’60s and ’70s and ensured her careful documentation of all the scenes (concrete, abstract, theoretical, personal) was visible through any degree of precipitation. The reader unfamiliar with the ensuing 40 years of Didion’s career should hope that a second volume will also be carefully edited by David L. Ulin, with the usual comprehensive Chronology and notes on each book at the end. The Library of America has another gem on its hands with this collection. Readers of any additional volumes can only be assured that Didion’s precise and crystal-clear vision only got better with age.

RATING 10 / 10