An angelic rattlesnake in our blighted Eden is an apt description of Joan Didion, the penetrating American prose stylist who is likely to be remembered more for her striking essays than for the five novels she has written to date. Her output as a magazine travel writer, book and film reviewer, feature writer, and columnist outweighs her work in fiction. Indeed, certain Didion essays have become classics: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1967) is widely considered the definitive portrait of the “flower children” of the 1960s who flocked to San Francisco in search of peace and love; “The White Album” (1979) is a quintessential evocation of the entire 1960s era. Didion, in fact, is often grouped with the 1960s “new journalists.”
As a sixth-generation Californian, Didion writes with authority on a range of Western American subjects. She has made the Californian and Hawaiian landscapes her own, and has interpreted the Hollywood film industry to a world bedazzled by its glamour.
Didion’s greatest gift, in fact, is for exposing the romantic fantasies which propel individual citizens, communities, and the American government as well. Her most recent essays invariably focus on the “narratives” we tell ourselves, and their often damaging consequences.
Didion’s career can be tracked through her magazine associations. The first half of the 1960s mark her apprenticeship as a New York magazine writer. She wrote travel articles for Mademoiselle and Holiday, film reviews for Vogue, and book reviews for William Buckley’s conservative National Review. Then she said “Farewell to the Enchanted City” (1967) and fled to California. The late 1960s and 1970s saw Didion’s emergence as a columnist for the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Esquire magazines; the 1980s, her book-length travel and political reportage written for the New York Review of Books, collected as Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987); and the 1990s, writing on Washington, D.C., New York City, and California for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker (“Letters from Los Angeles”), and New West (collected as After Henry, 1992).
Didion writes for the cultural intelligentsia, for styleconscious upscale readers interested in politics and cultural analysis. These readers can (or aspire to) buy the clothes modeled in Vogue and the holidays heralded in Holiday. Nuances of fashion or upperclass life, therefore, often go untranslated in a Didion essay, which will note the Charles Jourdan suede pumps worn by Colombian women (Miami), or the “access to corporate G- 3s” possessed by publishers and editors, though not by writers (“After Henry”). Didion’s upscale readers need no gloss of these items. At the same time, such detailed rendering of status life lends an aura of insider authority to Didion’s essays, providing readers with a sense of being both “in the know” with Didion and aware of the barriers to entry illuminated by these codes.
Although the cultural intelligentsia remain Didion’s primary audience, she has secured a larger, popular audience as well through her interest in American icons and in news stories which illuminate the times. Readers of the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Esquire have been drawn to her telling portraits of John Wayne, Howard Hughes, and Joan Baez—all figures who have engaged the popular imagination. In her later work she dissects the Patti Hearst kidnap and trial and the web of events following the attack on New York’s Central Park jogger in April 1989. What may seem tabloid topics to some become narratives of complex misperceptions in Didion’s enriching hands. Readers seeking the sensational come away with sobering new perspectives on the individual and cultural histories which inform the event, but are misunderstood by most of the story’s major players. Like Virginia Woolf, Didion allows readers to inhabit differing points of view in her essays. Also like Woolf, she employs her outsider’s perspective to critique dominant ideologies, particularly those of the government and press.
Didion’s essays offer an illustration of how a writer’s style and artistic vision may be inescapable embodiments, not only of her personal history, geography, and literary assimilation, but of her very corporeal being. In her “Points West” and “The Coast” columns and her “Letters from Los Angeles,” Didion repeatedly insists that California’s history and geography instill a specific perspective in Californians widely misunderstood by those not native to the terrain. Much of Didion’s mission as a writer seems to be to correct these misconceptions. Didion’s Western perspective explains her defense of Patti Hearst and appreciation of Howard Hughes’ grand antisocial privacy. It explains her suspicion of “civic virtue,” in its myriad forms, and her California-bred awareness of America’s “golden dreamers” who erect their homes on sand.
Didion’s work reflects the strong influence of fellow American writer F.Scott Fitzgerald, who also toiled in the vineyards of fiction and nonfiction. Her early writings contain at least 20 references to Fitzgerald or his work, and the bond is more than parallel histories—of “Westerners” drawn and repelled by the East, of writers of Hollywood movies living in Malibu. It is more than their shared interests in wealth and illusion, the beautiful and the damned, the lost Eden of the American Dream and the dark night of the American soul. It is even more than Didion’s willingness to follow Fitzgerald’s advice of “tearing your…tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see,” which she did in her inaugural Life column (“A Problem of Making Connections,” 1969), as well as when she reprinted the psychiatric report of her own nervous breakdown in “The White Album.” Even more important than these parallels is Didion’s special affinity for Fitzgerald’s “golden moments.” In a lecture at Berkeley in 1976
Didion described an illustration of a cat drawn by a patient suffering from schizophrenia.
The cat had a shimmer around it. “Writing is the attempt to understand what’s going on in the shimmer,” Didion explained. “To find the cat in the shimmer, if the cat is the important thing, or to find what the shimmer is.” Here, symbolically presented, is Didion’s ideological project. She employs the perceptions of her (often afflicted) nervous system as a metaphor for illusion and reality in the American experience.
This ideological project explains many of the traits of Didion’s remarkable style. She often begins an essay with description of a place; however, place soon becomes a “landscape of the mind”—with the shimmers of mind sets carefully limned. Didion’s essays are often cautionary tales, parables of illusion, of betrayed or lost promise. She employs anaphora to foreground the dissonant elements of her narratives—even narratives of her own illusions. She writes, for example, in “The White Album”: “It was a time of my life when I was frequently named. I was named godmother to children. I was named lecturer and panelist, colloquist and conferee. I was even named, in 1968, a Los Angeles Times ‘Woman of the Year,’ along with Mrs. Ronald Reagan, the Olympic swimmer Debbie Meyer, and ten other California women who seemed to keep in touch and do good works.” Ironic humor is part of this style. “I did no good works but I tried to keep in touch,” Didion continues. After reprinting her psychiatric report in this same
essay, she adds, “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
Didion’s wry and sympathetic persona, in fact, is one of her most successful creations.
She uses herself as a probe and as a model of American society. Her confessions of personal illusions both invite reader identification and sympathy with her views, and demonstrate how prone Americans are to illusion. Her effort to discipline her illusions likewise becomes a model for reader behavior. Most cleverly, her assertion in many essays that she can find no meaning to the narrative has the effect of spurring readers to moral understandings she herself refuses overtly to claim.
Those who have read Didion’s descriptions of her migraine attacks and possible multiple sclerosis cannot help but wonder if her mythos of shimmering light may be an exquisitely rendered translation of her physical condition. Didion wears oversized sunglasses even indoors to protect her light-sensitive eyes. An “aura” (or shimmer) is a documented early stage in most migraine attacks, preceding the actual headache. Didion has written that “When I am in a migraine aura…I…lose the ability to focus my eyes or frame coherent sentences” (“In Bed,” 1968). Dehydration is thought beneficial for migraine sufferers and excessive water harmful. Didion’s obsession with water and tropical climates may, therefore, have physical as well as spiritual nuance. Additionally, weariness with life and a wish to die are oft-reported experiences of migraine sufferers.
Certainly Didion’s struggle with and acceptance of her physical afflictions have influenced her adamant stance against human improvability. The snakes in our gardens— the wormy truths of error, corruption, and death—are the reality which Didion’s essays perpetually sound. We await, almost with dread, her continued rarefied perceptions.
See also New Journalism
Born 5 December 1934 in Sacramento, California. Studied at the University of California, Berkeley, 1952–56, B.A. in English, 1956. Associate feature editor, Vogue, New York, 1956–63; moved to Los Angeles, 1964. Married the writer John Gregory Dunne, 1964: one adopted daughter. Columnist of “Points West,” with Dunne, Saturday Evening Post, 1967–69, and “The Coast,” Esquire magazine, 1976–77; contributor to several other magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar, New Yorker, Ms., New York Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review; contributing editor, National Review;
Visiting Regents’ Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1975. Awards: Vogue Paris Prize, 1956; National Institute of Arts and Letters Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, 1979.
Essays and Related Prose
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968
The White Album, 1979
After Henry: Sentimental Journeys, 1992
Other writings: five novels (Run River, 1963; Play It as It Lays, 1970; A Book of Common Prayer, 1977; Democracy, 1984; The Last Thing He Wanted, 1996), short stories, four screenplays with John Gregory Dunne (Panic in Needle Park, 1971; Play It as It Lays, 1972; True Confessions, 1981; Up Close and Personal, 1996).
Oldendorf, Donna, “Joan Didion: A Checklist, 1955–1980,” Bulletin of Bibliography
(January-March 1981): 33–44
Anderson, Chris, “Joan Didion: The Cat in the Shimmer,” in his Style as Argument:
Contemporary American Nonfiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987:133–73
Braman, Sandra, “The ‘Facts’ of El Salvador According to Objective and New Journalism,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 9 (1985):75–96
Braman, Sandra, “Joan Didion,” in A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism:
Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre, edited by Thomas B.Connery, New York: Greenwood Press, 1992:353–58
Braudy, Susan, “A Day in the Life of Joan Didion,” Ms., February 1977:65–68
Diamonstein, Barbaralee, Open Secrets: Ninety-Four Women in Touch with Our Time, New York: Viking Press, 1972
Friedman, Ellen G., editor, Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations, Princeton, New Jersey: Ontario Review Press, 1984
Johnson, Michael L., The New Journalism: The Underground Press, the Artists of Nonfiction, and Changes in the Established Media, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1971
Lounsberry, Barbara, “Joan Didion’s Lambent Light,” in her The Art of Fact: Contetnporary Artists of Nonfiction, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1990:107–37
Martin, Stoddard, California Writers, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983
Weber, Ronald, editor, The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy, New York: Hastings House, 1974
Winchell, Mark Royden, Joan Didion, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1989
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