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Joan Didion is a distinguished figure in American letters, respected both as a novelist, screenwriter, and as a writer of personalized, journalistic essays. The disintegration of American morals and the cultural chaos upon which her essays comment are explored more fully in her novels, where the overriding theme is individual and societal fragmentation. Consequently, a sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work, and her novels have a reputation for being depressing and even morbid.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Embracing Wagon Train Morality
The daughter of Frank Reese and Eduene Jerrett Didion, Joan Didion was born in Sacramento on December 5, 1934. She comes from a family that has been rooted in northern California since 1848. Some of her best writing is about the pioneer legacies left to her native state, where the past coexists with the present. Her great-great-great-grandmother came to California with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party—a group of several dozen American settlers led by George Donner and his brother James F. Reed— but left the group before it became stranded in the Sierra Nevada winter and resorted to cannibalism. Didion insists on ”wagon train morality,” a code that values survival and responsibility over utopian ideals. For Didion, the Donner Pass always lies just ahead.
Didion was raised in Sacramento, which was closer in resemblance to a farm town than the buzzing state capital it is today. In her essay ”On Going Home” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), she describes her family as “difficult, oblique, deliberately inarticulate,” while sharing a love of nature, independence, and community. However, during her childhood, ”some nameless anxiety colored the emotional charges” between Didion and the place she came from.
Launch of Writing Career and Married Life
Didion received her undergraduate degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956, then moved to New York after winning both a literary prize, the Prix de Paris, and a job at Vogue magazine. In 1963, she left Vogue and married Time magazine editor John Gregory Dunne, with whom she moved to Los Angeles in 1964. Didion and Dunne collaborated on screenplays, columns, and other projects until Dunne’s death in 2003. In 1966, they adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, who died recently in 2005.
Didion’s first novel, Run River (1963), is the story of two proud families, the McClellans and the Knights, who live in the Sacramento Valley of Didion’s childhood. The novel explores the changes brought about by World War II, its aftermath, and how those changes affected people who live out the mythologies and illusions of their pioneer ancestors.
Didion narrows the epic vastness of this changing California landscape in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), an admired collection of twenty reports and essays, many of them previously published in the Saturday Evening Post. The book contains a preface followed by three sections. ”Life Styles in the Golden Land” contains eight stories dealing with western figures; five ”Personals” are more intimate reflections; and ”Seven Places of the Mind” unifies the external and interior landscapes of the two previous sections.
Reputation Solidifies with Backing from Tom Wolfe After spending time in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, Didion was less than taken with the 1960s youth counterculture. She found that for the first time she had ”dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” (The phrase ”things fall apart,” and the title Slouching Towards Beth lehem, both refer to the famous poem ”The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats.) Best-selling American author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who had written his own critical profile of the counterculture, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), included Didion’s essay ”Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” in his anthology The New Journalism (1973). Following this inclusion, Didion came to be regarded as a preeminent literary journalist as well as a novelist.
Didion’s most successful novel, Play It as It Lays (1970), became a best-seller and was nominated for a National Book Award. In it Maria Wyeth, an actress separated from her husband, a self-absorbed film director, seeks a traditional family but is unable to find meaning or security in the moral vacuum of the cinema capital, Hollywood.
A Book of Common Prayer (1977) is the story of Charlotte Douglas, a mysterious socialite who becomes involved in the political life of an imaginary Central American country while seeking her eighteen-year-old daughter. All the characters in the novel are in some way touched by political violence, which seems the end product of the chaos of the 1960s—a decade marked by social and political upheaval both in the United States and abroad. In a world devoid of apparent meaning, it is only by choosing to love one another that life becomes redemptive. A Book of Common Prayer is the most existentially powerful of Didion’s novels.
Telling Stories (1978) contains an essay and also three short stories Didion wrote in 1964. Also in 1978, Didion and Dunne moved to Brentwood Park in Los Angeles, where she completed The White Album (1979), Didion’s lament for the late 1960s and early 1970s. The book is organized in five sections containing a total of twenty magazine stories, most of which appeared in Esquire between 1968 and 1978.
The White Album begins with Didion in confusion and despair. In 1968, she had been described in a psychiatric report, which she includes in the preface, as alienated, pessimistic, and depressed. Didion’s state of mind seems appropriate to the events she writes about. Didion meets Linda Kasabian, a participant in the Charles Man-son trial, and other cultural icons such as The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Eldridge Cleaver. Through these encounters and interviews she further beholds the disorder she began to document in SlouchingTowards Bethle hem. Issues no longer matter. She finds only disorder for the sake of disorder. For Didion the 1960s came to an end in 1971 when she moved to Trancas, a coastal town near Los Angeles. Her new house, like Didion, seemed haunted with memories of the previous decade.
Critique of Women’s Movement Stirs Controversy
Didion’s critical essay on the women’s movement, which generated controversy when it first appeared in the New York Times Book Review in 1972, attempts to separate the movement’s political, social, historical, and moral dimensions and is followed by profiles of Doris Lessing and Georgia O’Keeffe. Whereas what is known as the ”first wave” of the women’s movement was centered around giving women the right to vote at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the ”second wave” of the movement—the one to which Didion is responding in her essay—lasted from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. Participants of the second wave movement sought an end to the discrimination women faced in all aspects of their lives.
Salvador (1983), Didion’s most successful work of journalism, was originally published as two articles in the New York Review of Books in October 1982 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Ostensibly a report on the war in El Salvador, based on a two-week visit with Dunne to the embattled republic in June 1982, Salvador reprises Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). Salvador contemplates the meaning of existence when one confronts absolute evil.
Didion’s 1984 novel Democracy is the story of Inez Christian Victor, the wife of a United States senator with presidential ambitions. Miami (1987), a work of report age less absorbing than Salvador, attempts to unravel the complex political structure of the Florida city, which received much media attention during the 1980s. After Henry (1992) is a collection of essays, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. In the title essay Didion pays homage to her late editor, Henry Robbins, a literary craftsman who nurtured Didion and left her with the knowledge that she could carry on without him. After Henry ends with Didion’s return to New York, where she took up residence in 1988. The final essay, an astute blend of journalism, literary and cultural criticism, and rhetorical analysis, examines an assault on a jogger in Central Park.
In 2001, Didion published Political Fictions, a collection of essays that had first appeared in the New York Review ofBooks. Issues and personalities covered in the essays included The religious right, Newt Gingrich, and the Reagan administration. Where I Was From (2003), a memoir, explores the mythologies of California, and the author’s relationship to her birthplace and to her mother. Indirectly, it also examines the American frontier myth and the culture that we see today in California as a direct consequence of a population of survivalists who made it ”through the Sierra,” Didion finally poses the question, ”at what cost progress?”
Coping with Grief
Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) was awarded the National Book Award for nonfiction. This long essay chronicles the year after her husband’s death, while their daughter remained seriously ill. The book explores the grieving process and offers a vivid account of Didion’s experience with losing her partner of forty years. Quintana died of complications from acute pancreatitis on August 26, 2005. Didion did not adapt her already published work to reflect her daughter’s death. She did, however, adapt the memoir into a one-woman play, which premiered on Broadway in 2007 to mixed reviews.
In 2007, Didion received the National Book Foundation’s annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for ”her distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence” and the Evelyn F. Burkey Award from the Writers Guild of America. She currently resides in New York City.
Works in Literary Context
An elegant prose stylist and celebrated journalist, Joan Didion possesses a distinct literary voice, widely praised for its precision and control. She began, by her own admission, as a nonintellectual writer, more concerned with images than ideas and renowned for her use of telling details. For years, Didion’s favorite subject was her native California, a state that seemed to supply ample evidence of the disorder in society. She has broadened her perspective in more recent years, turning her attention toward the troubled countries of Central America and Southeast Asia for new material; her most recent work, The Year of Magical Thinking, explores her experiences dealing with loss and grief. Didion has acknowledged the influence of writers including Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald amongst many others.
Despair and Moral Emptiness
For Didion, what ails American society is a growing loss of community caused by materialism, media, militarism, self-indulgence, the loss of heroes, and the absence of belief. As the culture disintegrates, subcultures arise in an attempt to restore community. A troubling sign of the social discord is the corruption of language, creating ”an army of children waiting to be given the words,” as she writes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Hillel Italie of the Associated Press, reporting on Didion’s National Book Award, notes the significance of Didion’s recent work on American literature. She writes, The Year of Magical Thinking ”is quickly becoming a classic portrait of grief.” Didion’s contribution to literature has been recognized with numerous awards including, in 2005, the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres from the
American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is given every six years. Likewise, Didion was awarded the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the 2006 Los Angeles Times book awards.
Works in Critical Context
Despite a rough start to her career as a freelance essayist, Didion succeeded in carving out a niche for herself, and eventually drew significant critical attention to all of her work. She is most highly regarded for her work as an essayist, although she draws positive reviews of her fic tion, screenwriting, and memoir. Didion is one of the most interesting writers in America,” writes Vivian Gornick in Women’s Review of Books, ”a writer whose prose continues to lure readers high and low with its powerful suggestiveness.”
Critics generally liked Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but the book had its detractors as well. In The Christian Science Monitor (May 16, 1968) Melvin Maddocks, while praising Didion’s originality, saw her insistence on converting themes into myths, dreams, and symbols as a journalistic conceit. In the National Review (June 4, 1968) C. H. Simonds attributed to Didion a perfect eye for detail and an unfoolable ear,” while T. J. O’Hara complained in Best Sellers (June 1, 1968) that most of the essays suffer from a lack of relevance or depth when they are not smothering under the heavy hand of irony.” Dan Wakefield, in the New York Times Book Review (July 21, 1968), found the book ”a rich display of some of the best prose written in this country.”
While contemporary critics differ in their opinions of her work, most agree that Didion is a significant figure in modern literature, a perceptive chronicler of the tumult of culture and consciousness.
- Connery, Thomas B., ed. A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
- Henderson, Katherine Usher. Joan Didion. New York: Ungar, 1981.
- Loris, Michelle Carbone. Innocence, Loss and Recovery in the Art of Joan Didion. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
- Winchell, Mark Royden. Joan Didion. Boston: G. K.Hall, 1989.
- Davidson, Sara. ”A Visit with Joan Didion.” New York Times Book Review (April 3, 1977): 1, 35-38.
- Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti. ”Joan Didion: The Courage of Her Afflictions,” The Nation 229 (September 26, 1979): 277-286.
- Kazin, Alfred. ”Joan Didion: Portrait of a Professional.” Harper’s 243 (December 1971): 112-122.
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