First published in 1968, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays, largely about California and published mainly within the pages of The Saturday Evening Post across the previous decade.
Fifty years on, what is most striking about the collection is the writing, which is vivid and alive. The style of New Journalism is no longer as revolutionary as it once was, but Didion inserts herself into all these narratives to create greater nuance, detail and democratization of the subject matter. She is an impassive narrator, but her distinctive prose makes it clear where her true feelings lie.
Almost all journalism these days feels like New Journalism, so it is easy to forget just how progressive these essays must have been at the time. It also means that the style hasn’t dated in the way the subject matter undoubtedly has. The title comes from the Yeats’ poem The Second Coming where ‘things fall apart/ the centre cannot hold’ and in these essays, society is often coming loose. Focusing mainly on California in the late 1960s, Didion explores the lives of people who have come to the Golden State in search of something unreachable, something that will give their lives meaning and purpose. In excavating the ways in which California has let them down, she takes the shine off the State’s golden promise.
California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
This is a portrait of a very particular type of America in the sixties. She focuses on Hollywood celebrities; what it was like growing up in Sacramento; the caretakers of Alcatraz and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury which became the symbol of the heart of the American counterculture.
The title essay is a barnstorming piece of writing, where the clear-eyed Didion – free of judgement explores the lives of the youth who flocked to Haight-Ashbury looking for peace and free love. Then aged 32, Didion feels much older and wiser than the kids she encounters and very clearly sees that the hippie dream is in fact a bland reality of dirt, drugs and lost children.
The essay is written in real time and features tight, focused vignettes on a small group of people, many trying to live the dream and others trying to take advantage. Either way, she paints a bleak picture that is far removed from the rose-tinted ideal of beautiful hippies dancing with flowers in their hair.
These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbours who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
In ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’ she writes of a housewife being tried for the murder of her husband, whose guilt or innocence has divided the State. In ‘John Wayne: A Love Song’ she elevates Wayne to god-like status, picturing him living in
A place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world, in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free…there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the early morning sun.
Didion has a little less patience with Joan Baez and her school for ‘non-violent’ thought or for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a private club where celebrities and politicians come together to debate key issues of the day. In these essays she perfectly captures that innate sense of self-delusion, while at the same time trying to understand what it is these people are trying to achieve.
In all the essays, the prose is beautiful and the writing whip-smart and lucid. Didion has a great skill for honing in on the nugget of truth at the centre of a story
San Bernardino, a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed.
She also has a great journalistic ability to be accepted by her subjects, to blend in and become their friend in order to get a better story.
My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.
Some readers may take issue with the fact that Didion is always reminding us of her role as the writer. She inserts herself into any story, whether her presence is warranted or not. An essay on writing in notebooks feels throwaway and at times the distinction between memoir and journalism blurs into a touch of self-absorption. She pulls it back though with one of only a few pieces not set in California, the masterly essay ‘Goodbye to all that’ which explores her time as a young writer in New York. In this essay, her trademark self-reflection is a strength, bringing to life that universal feeling of awe and excitement when you are at the start of your adult life.
One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before
It’s a fabulous piece of writing that captures both an era and a personal experience and then makes it a universal one, taking the romance of writing and the romance of youth and crystallising it into an emotion that we can all relate to.
The subject matter of Slouching Towards Bethlehem may have dated but the writing in these essays is timeless. Didion presents a very particular era, one that we have a tendency to idealise and asks us to look deeper, through the lens of her first-person experience.
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