Today, an excellent writer (Louis Menand) examines the work of another excellent writer (Joan Didion) and the result is an magical essay about who we are and why we are. If this is (fair & balanced) example of writerly appreciation, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Out Of Bethlehem
By Louis Menand
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
In the late spring of 1967, Joan Didion, accompanied by a photojournalist named Ted Streshinsky, began making trips from Berkeley, where she was staying, to Haight-Ashbury, to do research for a piece on the hippies for The Saturday Evening Post. Didion was thirty-two, and she had been a magazine writer for eleven years. She and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had moved from New York City to Southern California three years earlier, and, in March, 1966, they had adopted a daughter and named her Quintana Roo, after an area on the Yucatán Peninsula.
In the summer of 1967, the Haight was a magnet for people looking for a place to do drugs. Didion hung out mainly with runaways and acidheads. She met people like Deadeye, a dealer, and his old lady, Gerry, who wrote poetry but gave it up after her guitar was stolen. Deadeye tells Didion he is looking for a ride to New York City. She shows him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He asks her where Chicago is.
She meets Jeff and his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Debbie, who has run away from home. Didion asks them about their plans. “We’re just gonna let it all happen,” Jeff says. She meets Steve, who says, “I found love on acid. But I lost it. Now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.” She meets Vicki, who dropped out of Laguna High, “because I had mono,” and followed the Grateful Dead to San Francisco. She meets a Hare Krishna named Michael, whose brother-in-law explains that “if everybody chanted there wouldn’t be any problem with the police or anybody,” and a five-year-old named Susan, who takes LSD and informs Didion that she is in High Kindergarten.
Didion got plenty of material, but she had no idea how to make a story out of it. Under deadline pressure, she decided to create a verbal montage of scenes from the Haight. She chose a phrase from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” for the title, and, in September, “The Hippie Generation: Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” with photographs by Streshinsky, was a cover story in The Saturday Evening Post. An editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Robbins, encouraged Didion to turn the piece into a book. Nine months later, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” appeared as the title essay in her first collection of nonfiction. It is the phrase everyone knows Joan Didion by.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a classic of what was later named the New Journalism. Didion used a vernacular voice that mimicked the laid-back aimlessness of Haight speech. More New Journalistically, she adopted a Haight personality. She blended into the scene; she internalized its confusions. She gave readers the sense that she was putting herself at risk by reporting this story, that she might get sucked into the Haight abyss and become a lost soul, too:
We drink some more green tea and talk about going up to Malakoff Diggings in Nevada County because some people are starting a commune there and Max thinks it would be a groove to take acid in the diggings. He said maybe we could go next week, or the week after, or anyway sometime before his case comes up. Almost everyone I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future. I never ask why.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture.
The Diggers were not wrong. The mainstream press (such as the places Didion wrote for, places like The Saturday Evening Post) was conflicted about the hippie phenomenon. It had journalistic sex appeal. Hippies were photogenic, free love and the psychedelic style made good copy, and the music was uncontroversially great. Around the time Didion was in San Francisco, the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and soon afterward the Monterey Pop Festival was held. D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert came out in 1968 and introduced many people to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar. Everybody loved Ravi Shankar.
Ravi Shankar did not use drugs, however. The drugs were the sketchy part of the story, LSD especially. People thought that LSD made teen-age girls jump off bridges. By the time Didion’s article came out, Time had run several stories about “the dangerous LSD craze.” And a lot of Didion’s piece is about LSD, people on acid saying “Wow” while their toddlers set fire to the living room. The cover of the Post was a photograph of a slightly sinister man, looking like a dealer, in a top hat and face paint—an evil Pied Piper. That photograph was what the Diggers meant by “media poisoning.”
There was nothing unusual about finding, at the core of a life-style trend of which the use of controlled substances is an integral feature, a group of full-time dropouts. Seven years earlier, the sociologist Ned Polsky had gone to Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side to study the Beats. He found the same mixture Didion found in San Francisco: runaways and people who, when he interviewed them, rehearsed the Beat mantras. Having a job is selling out; politics are a drag; and so on. What they all had in common, Polsky concluded, was drugs. Only a small proportion were addicts, but a Beat’s day was basically about buying and taking drugs.
And there weren’t that many of them. Most of the people who walked around the Village looking like Beats in 1960, like most of the people who walked around San Francisco or Berkeley or Cambridge looking like hippies in 1967, were weekend dropouts. They were contingent rebels. They put on the costumes; they went to the concerts and got high; and then they went back to school or back to work. It was a life style, not a life.
Even if you factored in the contingent leisure force, the hippie counterculture was small. The sensationalized press coverage of the period has left a permanent image of the late nineteen-sixties as a time when everyone was tripping or stoned. In 1967, when Didion’s article came out, only one per cent of college students reported having tried LSD. In 1969, only four per cent of adults said they had smoked marijuana. Recreational drug use soared in the nineteen-seventies, but the press was no longer interested. The whole thing had stopped being sexy.
Didion presented her article as an investigation into what she called “social hemorrhaging.” She suggested that what was going on in Haight-Ashbury was the symptom of some sort of national unravelling. But she knew that, at the level of “getting the story,” her piece was a failure. She could see, with the X-ray clarity she appears to have been born with, what was happening on the street; she could make her readers see it; but she couldn’t explain it.
In the preface to the book, she noted that no one had understood the article. “I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point,” she wrote. A few years later, in a radio interview on KPFR, she blamed herself. “Usually on a piece there comes a day when you know you never have to do another interview,” she said. “You can go home, you’ve gotten it. Well, that day never came on that piece. . . . That piece is a blank for me still.”
People liked the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem  (though it was not, at first, a big seller). People were intrigued by Play It as It Lays (1970), Didion’s second novel, which came out two years later (though it got some hostile reviews). Mainly, though, everyone was fascinated by the authorial persona, the hypersensitive neurasthenic who drove a Corvette Sting Ray, the frail gamine with the migraine headaches and the dark glasses and the searchlight mind, the writer who seemed to know in her bones what readers were afraid to face, which is that the center no longer holds, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, the story line is broken.
Didion created the part—she was a master of the author photo—and she could have played it right up to the final curtain. But, after Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It as It Lays, she completely reassessed not only her practice as a journalist but her understanding of American life, her politics, and even the basis of her moral judgments. She decided she wanted to get what she had failed to get with the hippies. She wanted to get the story.
Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song (2015) is a biography of Joan Didion written partly in the style of Joan Didion, a style of ellipses, fragments, and refrains. This is not what you ideally want in a biography. The point of a biography is to reveal what’s behind the ellipses. Daugherty operated under difficulties, though. He was unable to persuade Didion to coöperate, and it’s obvious that many people close to Didion refused to talk to him as well.
That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t thorough. He had access to Didion’s papers, housed at Berkeley, and a large amount of information was already out there. For someone with a reputation for being guarded and tongue-tied, Didion did a lot of promotion. She went on book tours and submitted to profiles. She did radio; she did television; she talked to Publishers Weekly. It added up.
She also wrote obsessively about herself—not only in her memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), about the death of her husband, and Blue Nights (2011), about the death of her daughter, but in reported pieces and in personal essays, which she started producing almost as soon as she started publishing. (She eventually got bored with the genre and gave it up. “I didn’t want to become Miss Lonelyhearts,” she said.) She once delivered a lecture called “Why I Write.” She began by pointing out that the sound you hear in those three words is “I, I, I.”
Much of The Last Love Song is therefore an intelligent and elegant paraphrase of things Didion has already said or written. There is some sniping from the odd acquaintance or estranged friend, but revelations weren’t in the cards. The “real” Didion Daugherty shows us is just the obverse of the image: ambitious (hence the anxiety), controlling (hence the brittleness), and chic (hence the Corvette).
You could work up a dichotomy here, but it doesn’t get you very far. Didion and Dunne made an excellent living as Hollywood screenwriters and script doctors. They lived in Malibu and then in Brentwood Park, O.J.’s old nabe, and were part of the Hollywood talent élite. Dunne’s brother Dominick was a producer for movies and television; their nephew was Griffin Dunne, the actor. And Didion knows something about fashion and style—she began her career at Mademoiselle and Vogue. But there’s no reason that any of this should be incompatible with one day writing about death squads in El Salvador.
John Dunne was a gregarious man, a social drinker and a raconteur, and he and Didion worked up a sort of Penn and Teller routine. One sang, the other mostly didn’t. They rarely gave separate audiences. If you asked to speak to one, you almost invariably spoke to both, even on the telephone. “I was at first surprised that John Dunne sat through most of the interview and did nearly all the talking,” Susan Braudy wrote after interviewing Didion for Ms., in 1977. Didion’s explanation is that she isn’t a talker; she’s a writer. “I’m only myself in front of my typewriter,” she finally told Braudy. There is no reason to doubt this. The person we’re interested in is the person on the page.
It’s a common mistake, in assessing Didion’s work, to interpret her sensibility as a reflection of the times—to imagine, as Daugherty puts it, that she has “always spoken for us.” That’s certainly not the way she has presented herself. In a column she started writing for Life in 1969, she introduced herself as “a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.” She’s not like us. She’s weird. That’s why we want to read her.
Didion came from a family of Republicans. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, a fifth-generation Californian. Her father started out in insurance, speculated in real estate, and ended up spending most of his career in the military, a very California trifecta. Turned down by Stanford, Didion attended Berkeley, in an era when campus life was socially conventional and politically dormant. In 1955, she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle and spent a few months in New York City. A year later, she won a similar contest at Vogue, and she moved to New York in the fall of 1956 and began her magazine career there. Leaving home, she later said, “just seems part of your duty in life.”
Didion worked at Vogue for ten years. She continued to write for Mademoiselle, and, in 1960, she began contributing to The National Review, William F. Buckley’s conservative weekly. She wrote pieces about John Wayne, her favorite movie star, and, in the 1964 Presidential election, she voted for Barry Goldwater. She adored Goldwater. It was hardly a surprise that she found Haight-Ashbury repugnant. Her editors at the Post understood perfectly how she would react. They designed the cover before she handed in the piece.
Didion’s transformation as a writer did not involve a conversion to the counterculture or to the New Left. She genuinely loathed the hippies, whom she associated with characters like Charles Manson, and she thought that the Black Panthers and the student radicals were both frightening and ridiculous. She found Jim Morrison kind of ridiculous, too. [Ned] Polsky, in his study of the Beats, had dismissed the theory, endorsed by some social critics in the nineteen-fifties, that disaffected dropouts are potential recruits for authoritarian political movements. Didion never rejected that theory. She thinks that dropouts are symptoms of a dangerous social pathology.
What changed was her understanding of where dropouts come from, of why people turn into runaways and acidheads and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, why parents abandon their children on highway dividers, why Harlem teen-agers go rampaging through Central Park at night, why middle-class boys form “posses” and prey sexually on young girls—and, above all, why the press fixates on these stories.
Didion later said that her period of self-doubt began around 1966. “Everything I was taught seems beside the point,” she wrote in Life in 1969. “The point itself seems increasingly obscure.” She had said something similar in her piece about the hippies: “We had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing.”
Most readers would have had a hard time knowing exactly what rules she was talking about, or what “the point” was that everything seemed beside. She probably didn’t have a very clear idea herself. Her moment of insight came in 1971 or 1972, during a summer visit with Quintana, then five or six, to Old Sacramento, an area of the city reconstructed to look like downtown Sacramento, where Didion’s father’s great-grandfather owned a saloon, circa 1850.
She began telling Quintana about all the ancestors who had once walked on those sidewalks, and then she remembered that Quintana was adopted. Quintana had no relationship to Old Sacramento and its sidewalks and saloons. And this thought made her realize, as she put it later, that, “in fact, I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana did: it was no more than a theme, a decorative effect.” Looking back, she decided that this was the moment when the story she had grown up with—“the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life”—began to seem foreign.
Didion described the Old Sacramento episode in her book about California, Where I Was From. That book, with its grammatically pointed title (the phrase, of course, is “where I am from”), was published in 2003, but she had tried to write it thirty years earlier. She decided to wait until her parents were dead.
She also changed her publishing venue. She began writing for The New York Review of Books in 1973, at first about the movies, but increasingly about politics. Her editor there, Robert Silvers, was one of the people not interviewed by Daugherty, and this leaves a major hole in the biography. For Silvers was the key figure in Didion’s journalistic transformation. Her books Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), and Political Fictions (2001) are all based on pieces she wrote for him.
In 1988, after she and Dunne returned to New York, she began writing for The New Yorker as well. Daugherty didn’t interview her editors there, including Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Yet many of the essays in the nonfiction collection After Henry (1992) and important parts of Where I Was From were first published in The New Yorker. (Full disclosure: you are reading this piece in The New Yorker.)
Where I Was From is the central book in Didion’s career. The subject is American self-deception. The California version has to do with what Didion calls “the crossing story as origin myth.” This is the legend of the pioneers in covered wagons who trekked across the Rockies and settled the state, the men and women who made the desert bloom—Didion’s ancestors. It’s a story about independence, self-reliance, and loyalty to the group. Growing up, Didion had been taught that for the generations that followed the challenge was to keep those virtues alive. There was always a new wave of settlers ready to sell out the pioneer spirit.
After the Old Sacramento moment, Didion came to see the whole pioneer mystique as bogus from the start. The cultivation of California was not the act of rugged pioneers, she decided. It was the act of the federal government, which built the dams and the weirs and the railroads that made the state economically exploitable, public money spent on behalf of private business. Didion called it “the subsidized monopolization” of the state.
Big business had always run California. First, there were the ranches, then the corporate agribusinesses, and then, after the Second World War, the aeronautics industry, Boeing and Douglas, Lockheed and Rockwell. Defense contracts and government-funded infrastructure kept these businesses flush. Everyone else was a pawn in the game, living in a fantasy of hardy individualism and cheering on economic growth that benefitted only a few.
Social stability was a mirage. It lasted only as long as the going was good for business. When conditions got cheaper elsewhere or defense contracts shrank or mergers became appealing, the plants were shut down, workers were laid off, and the middle-class dream vanished in the smog. “This process,” Didion wrote, “one of trading the state to outside owners in exchange for their (it now seems) entirely temporary agreement to enrich us . . . had in fact begun at the time Americans first entered the state, took what they could, and, abetted by the native weakness for boosterism, set about selling the rest.”
When the social structure starts to crack is when the dropouts and the delinquents and the crazies turn up. These are not people who don’t know the rules. These are people who can see, without understanding why, that the rules no longer make sense. But, once people like that are thrown out of the system, once they become druggies or panhandlers or abusers of various sorts, no one wants them back in. They get scapegoated. Individual moral failure is taken to be the problem. It can’t be the system.
Part of wagon-train morality was leaving the weakest behind to freeze in the mountain passes. Survival, not caring, is what Didion thinks that ethos finally boiled down to—“careless self-interest and optimism,” the California mentality. California’s answer to the problem of broken people was to build more prisons to put them in.
Didion’s most famous work in this mode is “Sentimental Journeys,” her article on the Central Park Jogger, which appeared in The New York Review in 1991. “Sentimental Journeys” is not really about the crime—the beating and rape in Central Park, in 1989, of a young white professional named Trisha Mieli—and it’s not about the trial of the mostly African-American teen-agers who were supposed to have confessed to it. The article is really about the coverage.
There were 3,255 reported rapes in New York City in 1989, some of them horrific. The press and the politicians seized on the Jogger story, Didion thought, because they saw a way to make it into an exemplary tale. The key to that story was that Mieli, although terribly battered, survived. Her personal fortitude could be made a symbol of the fortitude that all true New Yorkers display when the healthy frictions inherent in the city’s “gorgeous mosaic,” as its mayor, David Dinkins, called it, spin temporarily, if tragically, out of control. Nous sommes the Jogger.
Didion argued that Mieli’s story was milked to distract attention from the city’s underlying problems—specifically, the decay of its economic base, a condition that had been laid bare by the stock-market crash of October 19, 1987, Black Monday. “Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims,” she wrote, “have long performed as the city’s endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems.” (Son of Sam may have performed a similar role in the nineteen-seventies, the “Bronx is burning” decade.)
Didion thinks that this is why the press latches on to stories like the Jogger’s. It’s not because those stories tell us who we are. It’s because they don’t. They leave unexamined and untouched the class antagonisms and economic failures that are the underlying causes of socially destructive events. Personal stories feed the American illusion that the system is never the cause of anything. Those stories are always about fortitude, character, loyalty to the group.
The journalistic nut of the Jogger piece is the case of Laurie Sue Rosenthal. She was the mistress of an assistant city commissioner for elevator and boiler inspections, a man named Peter Franconeri, who happened to own an apartment at 36 East Sixty-eighth Street, between Madison and Park, and a house in Southampton. On the night of April 26, 1990, Rosenthal called her parents, in Queens, from the Sixty-eighth Street apartment and said she was being beaten. Sometime after that call, she died. In the morning, Franconeri rolled her body up in a carpet, put it out with the building’s trash, and went to work.
The story did get into the papers, but officials downplayed the significance. “There were some minor bruises,” said a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. A police officer complained to a reporter about Franconeri, “Everybody got upside down because of who he was. If it happened to anyone else, nothing would have come of it. A summons would have been issued and that would have been the end of it.”
Essentially, it was. Laurie Sue Rosenthal was determined to have suffered an accidental death from the combined effects of alcohol and Darvocet. Franconeri pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and got seventy-five hours of community service. The suspects in the Jogger case got sentences of five to fifteen years, for crimes including a rape that, it turned out, they had not committed. But the Central Park suspects did not belong to what Didion called “the conspiracy of those in the know, those with a connection, those with a rabbi at the Department of Sanitation or the Buildings Department or the School Construction Authority or Foley Square, the conspiracy of those who believed everybody got upside down because of who it was, it happened to anybody else, a summons gets issued and that’s the end of it.”
Sentimental Journeys was a brilliant interpretation of the Jogger story, and an impressive display of journalistic intuition. Didion was right to suspect that the accused teen-agers were wrongly convicted, something that was not established until 2002. She was wrong to suspect, though, that the city was on the rocks. Her hunch was that a shift from manufacturing to financial-services jobs was unsustainable. It did look that way for a while. But after 1992 the market took off, real-estate values along with it, and the city has not looked back. It is no longer fear of violent crime that is driving the middle class out of Manhattan.
Didion has always disliked interviewing. This is partly a matter of temperament: she doesn’t think on her feet; she thinks in front of a keyboard. But it’s also because she is convinced that you don’t learn anything from interviews. “It doesn’t matter to me what people say to me in the interview,” she has said, “because I don’t trust it.” She considers reporters who fetishize the personal interview vacuous. “In any real sense,” she wrote in a piece on the best-selling books by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “these books are ‘about’ nothing but the author’s own method.” She prefers documents, and most of her political journalism is based on a careful reading of newspaper stories, press releases, hearing transcripts, and the like.
This makes her later work, particularly the pieces collected in Political Fictions, which treat subjects like the Iran-Contra affair and the Starr Report, seem a little more like literary criticism than like reporting. Didion was an English major at Berkeley at a time when close reading was the gold standard in literary analysis, and Daugherty suggests that those methods stuck with her. She has said as much herself.
There is a small but immitigable fallacy in the theory of close reading, though, and it applies to political journalism as well as to the reading of poetry. The text doesn’t reveal its secrets just by being stared at. It reveals its secrets to those who already pretty much know what secrets they expect to find. Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked. The teacher has already inserted into the hat the rabbit whose production in the classroom awes the undergraduates.
Didion interprets the political text of American life according to a set of beliefs about disparities of wealth and class. She arrived at those assumptions worthily: by analyzing her own education and experience. And that’s what she sees when she reads the newspaper or follows a campaign. She is never less than amazed by the willingness of everyone in the press to pretend, in the name of keeping the show going, that American life is really not about money and power.
In 1988, she covered Michael Dukakis’s campaign for President. Dukakis was having “regular guy” problems running against George H. W. Bush, a Connecticut blueblood who had somehow managed to trans-class himself into a self-made Texan. It was just the sort of non-issue issue that Didion thinks has completely divorced electoral politics from the needs of the actual electorate. To address the guy gap, Dukakis and his aides came up with the plan of having the candidate, whenever his plane landed somewhere, play catch with his press secretary on the tarmac. Reporters duly filmed this performance, often in hundred-degree heat, to be shown on the evening news. It was, as Didion wrote, “a repeated moment witnessed by many people all of whom believed it to be a setup yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naïve’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.”
She thinks that this is how what she calls “the permanent political class”—the press, the talk-show experts, the campaign strategists, the political parties, even the candidates themselves—has rigged the game. Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected, but everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-grouped.
One topic that Didion does like to talk about is writing. “I learned a lot of fictional technique” from script writing, she explained to Hilton Als, in an interview in 2006. And the novels are screenplay-like. She told Als that she became impatient with “the conventions of writing,” like description. Her scenes tend to be story-boarded—this character is here, that character is there. The main action is the dialogue.
You can see from the deftness and precision of that dialogue why she and Dunne were in such demand as script doctors. Although Didion’s novels are lurid enough, much of the speech is comic, in a gimlet-eyed, dead-end sort of way. But the books are literary caterpillars, texts that seem to be seeking their ultimate realization in the form of a motion picture.
The fiction has been influential: Bret Easton Ellis, who went to college with Quintana, is a sworn disciple. But Didion’s nonfiction is what sets her apart. Daugherty thinks that it was the Vogue years that made the prose Didionesque, and this seems right. Didion is the quintessential magazine writer. Her books are short. “I always aim for a reading in one sitting,” she told Als, and that is how people normally read magazine pieces. The job of the magazine writer is never to give readers a reason to stop before they reach the end.
The No. 1 sin in print journalism is repetition. Pages are money; editorial space is finite. Writers who waste it don’t last. Conditions demand a willingness to compress and a talent for concision. The ellipses and the refrains that characterize much of Didion’s writing are methods of economizing the exposition and managing the reader’s experience, ways of getting the reader to participate in the job of making sense of whatever it is, hippies or someone who once wrote about hippies, that the writer is trying to think through. Ω
[Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991, and has been a staff writer since 2001. His book The Metaphysical Club (2001) was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. Additional books by Menand are shown here. Menand also is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. Menand received a BA (Enlgish) from Pomona College and a PhD (English) from Columbia University.]
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