Collected Essays by Joan Didion

Collected Essays coverCollected Essays: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry
Joan Didion
Open Road Media (March 6, 2018), 665 pages
Kindle edition $15.99
purchased on sale for$4.99

This book is not collected essays in the formal sense of the term. Joan Didion published other essay collections that are not included here. The three volumes do, however, represent a solid body of Didion’s work from the sixties, seventies, and the eighties.

Having never read Didion before, I did not realize that she belonged to the school of gonzo journalism (or new journalism) that Hunter S. Thompson originated and others like Tom Wolfe practiced. If one defines this school of reporting as the writer involving him or herself in the story he or she is writing, however, these three volumes certainly qualify. And if one stereotype of this approach is that the practitioners are known for their substance abuse, Didion seems to fit the mold. Regarding writing the essay from which the first book takes its title Didion writes, “I was in fact as sick as I have ever been when I was writing ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’; the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.” That passage made me wonder how Didion lived to age 87. (She died on December 23, 2021.)

In The White Album Didion covers the waterfront, if you will forgive the cliché, of the sixties. She writes about John Wayne shooting a movie and has dinner with him and his wife. She visits the school for social thought Joan Baez set up in Carmel Valley. She writes about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, a sort of liberal think tank that had its heyday in the sixties. Didion’s ability to craft a sentence in her unique style shows up in this essay:

quoteI have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric, which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.

The title essay, taken, of course, from the W.B. Yeats poem, involves her visit to some of the young runaways in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. While some of us (and I include myself) are wont to look back with nostalgia on the hippie era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” portrays a bleak and sometimes depressing picture of the lives these young people lived.

The second volume, The White Album, is a rather different set of essays. Didion writes about her family and her origins in the rural country outside Sacramento. She writes about Santa Ana winds and California wildfires. She writes about the Manson murders and the subsequent trial. In true gonzo fashion Didion picks out the dress for one woman who was a witness at the trial. In a less grim setting, Didion attends the Jaycees’ 32nd Annual Congress of America’s Ten Outstanding Young Men, although she is not comfortable with the values of the organization. She writes that participating in that event “was a curious and troubling way to spend a few days in the opening weeks of 1970.” In her survey of shopping malls in their heyday she writes, tongue firmly in cheek, that she considered building such a mall as a way to support her fiction writing. She carefully describes the definitions of the three types of shopping centers: A, B, and C.

The title After Harry refers to an editor Didion and her husband shared, and in particular to his untimely death. (She always refers to her husband simply as “my husband,” even though he was, of course, the well-known writer John Gregory Dunne.) Didion writes about the 1988 presidential campaign, focusing in particular on Michael Dukakis. She discusses the last days of Tom Bradley’s mayoral tenure in Los Angeles and her time as a visiting professor at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, when she visited both Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs. She offers a history of the Los Angeles Times and reports in detail about how many staffers and readers believed that the (then) new Orange County edition distracted the paper from its proper mission.

Since Didion is a native Californian I was rather surprised that she wrote California Highway 1 “runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line.” In fact, Highway 1 ends at Dana Point on the south end and on the north ends at Highway 101 near Leggett, after having turned inland past Rockport. To be fair, her focus was that section of Highway 1 in Los Angeles and Orange Counties referred to at the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. (Being an exiled Northern Californian, I would never use that term to refer to the stretch of Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo north.) And that is a small matter in a set of books full of informative and well-written essays.

As someone who had never previously read Joan Didion’s work I found Collected Essays interesting and entertaining.

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