Forgotten Accounts: Didion’s “South and West”

By Colin DickeyFebruary 19, 2017

Forgotten Accounts: Didion’s “South and West”

South and West by Joan Didion

ONE OF THE MORE BEFUDDLING — but in retrospect, inevitable — talking points to come out of the 2016 election is this notion that California is no longer a valid part of the United States, that it is, in the words of Washington Examiner columnist Michael Barone, a place “geographically distant and culturally distinct” whose residents harbor “contempt for heartland Christians.” Donald Trump recently claimed that “California and the United States of America are on a collision course” over immigration and sanctuary cities, as though the former is no longer a part of the United States. California, we’re told, doesn’t represent American values, and conservatives have taken to spouting the particularly bizarre claim that, without California, Donald Trump would have won the popular vote.

Bizarre, because California is, of course, home to an eighth of the population, and accounts for roughly 15 percent of the nation’s GDP. Inevitable in the sense that the GOP understands that it will never again win the popular vote in a presidential election because of California. After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, Reince Priebus commissioned a post-mortem that laid out a definitive case as to why their coalition of older, rural whites is fading into the minority; and there are simply not enough young fascists hiding behind Pepe avatars to replace them. Unable to make a case to minorities or immigrants, the GOP cannot claim the will of a majority of the population. The GOP slivered out an electoral college victory in 2016, and may be able to do so again in future elections, but the simple truth is they cannot win the popular vote without California. Since it became the most populous state, George W. Bush in 2004 was the only Republican to ever manage this feat (and he was backed by a war). It’s possible, of course, that California could someday swing back to the GOP, but for the time being, having given up on it politically, the Republicans must also ostracize it culturally, the simple fact being that without a popular vote victory, there is no mandate, no matter how hard they try to spin it. And so the GOP has taken to discrediting the nation’s largest state as somehow outside the mainstream, and unrepresentative of “Real America.”

Where is this Real America? It’s wherever demagogues say it is at the current moment — but usually it’s the South, the land of Good Ole Boys: rural, Evangelical, patriarchal, and white.

It’s in this landscape that Joan Didion’s latest, South and West: From a Notebook, arrives. Originally written in the 1970s as a pair of diaries, it finally sees the light of day at a moment when California and the Real America of the South are warring over the soul of the country. As she herself notes, this war was already at play. Justifying her decision to come to the South, she writes early on:

I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.

South and West is an odd and compelling book — rooted utterly in a past now all but lost to us, while also incredibly timely and relevant.

In her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion stressed the importance of writing strictly for oneself: not for publication, but simply as a record of what it is like to be in this world. That way, “some morning when the world seems drained of wonder […] on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interested, paid passage back to the world out there.” South and West is not this notebook, since both halves were originally intended to be material for published essays, but it nonetheless has this flavor, and its publication now, demonstrates the kind of interest that can accumulate in over 40 years’ time.

Of its two halves, “Notes on the South” is far larger — it chronicles a journey Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne took in 1970. For a month they traveled aimlessly through the South, starting in New Orleans and wandering through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, getting as far north as Oxford. While she’d hoped it might turn into a piece of some kind, it never came to fruition, and now stands as series of diary entries. A svelte volume, it is not necessarily a quick read; its pace is as languid as the countryside it depicts, moving from the relatively cosmopolitan New Orleans to places like Meridian, Mississippi; Winfield, Alabama; and Guin, Alabama. Small bits of mainstream America can still be found here — The Jackson 5’s “ABC” follows her wherever she goes, as does the film The Losers — but soon she and her husband are in territory where time seems to have more or less stopped. “The way in which all the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South,” she notes at one point. “I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.”

Even underwater, and in its unpolished state, South and West still bears the hallmarks of Didion’s sparkling prose: her use of detail, juxtaposition, and compression. This paragraph, for example, is striking in its use of sentence fragment, description, and insight:

The sense of sports being the opiate of the people. In all the small towns the high school gymnasium was not only the most resplendent part of the high school but often the most solid structure in town, redbrick, immense, a monument to the hopes of the citizenry. Athletes who were signing “letters of intent” were a theme in the local news.

The diary format plays to Didion’s strength; like The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, as well as older pieces like “The White Album,” South and West works because it is fragmentary, a constellation of observations in lieu of an advanced thesis.

But this style also cannot help but highlight some of Didion’s usual shortcomings. Her penchant for gnomic phrases means that some of them, lacking elaboration, simply fall flat. “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.” Since much of the book is about the insularity and isolation of the small Southern communities Didion is wandering through, it’s hard to make sense of this — no one she writes about seems awed by the thought of travel or distance. Whatever thought process may have motivated this phrase, it remains stuck on a siding, while Didion’s own train of thought moves on.

The book also too often simply transcribes speeches without commentary or context. A long conversation between two plantation owners revolves around their benevolence toward the Black sharecroppers who work their land. “Automation changed things, the cotton picker meant we didn’t need so many. We never put anybody off the land, they just gradually left for Detroit or they moved into town,” one comments, as though the Great Migration was simply the result of industrialization or personal choice. Didion offers no comment.

There’s a reason, perhaps, she keeps her opinions about such statements to herself. While at Oxford, Mississippi, she tries (unsuccessfully) to locate Faulkner’s grave:

I read a book about Faulkner in Oxford, interviews with his fellow citizens in Oxford, and I was deeply affected by their hostility to him and by the manner in which he had managed to ignore it. I thought if I took a rubbing from his gravestone, a memento from this place, I would know every time I looked at it that the opinion of others counted for not much one way or another.


Faulkner’s ghost hovers throughout these pages, always lurking just behind Didion’s own observations. His aphorism — “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past” — is well known, but often misunderstood. This is not a call to study history or remember important events, nor that history is doomed to repeat itself. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment — particularly for the South that he chronicled — that we live in past and present like a doubly exposed film, that the two overlap only in occasional harmony, that each and every action we make changes the meaning and tenor of the past. The time traveler’s Butterfly Effect goes both ways.

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old,” Faulkner writes in his 1949 novel Intruder in the Dust,

not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world's roaring rim.

The mistake is to read this passage as affirming nostalgia or merely wounded pride, when in actuality it reveals the degree to which, in the South, time itself has ruptured and become apocalyptic. In the South, history is mythic: both perennially unreachable and also immediately present at all moments, in all things. The wound of the Confederacy’s loss is grist for an endless set of grievances, and it can be evoked at a moment’s notice. Didion echoes this observation throughout the first half of South and West. “The time warp,” she notes at one point: “the Civil War was yesterday. But 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”


The second part of the book, “California Notes,” is barely a dozen pages, and it lacks the scope and narrative of the first. Sent by Rolling Stone to cover the Patty Hearst trial (William Randolph Hearst’s granddaughter, Patty Hearst, had been kidnapped by the fringe Symbionese Liberation Army, then brainwashed into joining them on a number of high profile robberies), Didion started making notes for the piece, though they are even more amorphous and fragmentary than her “Notes on the South.” (Eventually, she abandoned the assignment.) But despite its scattered brevity, and lack of obvious connection to the book’s Southern section, it’s quickly evident how “California Notes” manages to bring the first half into sharp relief.

And the other way around: if “Notes on the South” shows Didion’s alienation from the Gulf Coast landscape, “California Notes” suggests her alienation from herself. Rattling off facts and trivia about the Golden State, Didion writes abruptly, “I am trying to place myself in history. I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.” Despite being raised in a Sacramento family of privilege, Didion in these pages does not see herself as quite belonging to the Californian Dream — but this may be in part, we eventually begin to understand, because no one really does.

“In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” The California Didion writes about promises of a perpetual new day, without much of an obligation to who or what came before. Fundamentally, her “California Notes” suggests the opposite: that California’s sense of constant reinvention is rooted in a lack of a past. At one point she quotes C. Vann Woodward: “Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, its general superiority,” and then comments acidly, “This has not been exactly true in San Francisco.”

Throughout it all, Patty Hearst herself remains an enigma. In the prefatory note from March 2016, Didion writes that “I thought the trial had some meaning for me — because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.” Though she’s never explicit about it, Hearst seems to represent to Didion the absolute mutability of the Californian aristocracy. Though born into one of the most powerful families in the state, inheritor not only of great wealth but of the bluest blood the West Coast has to offer — Hearst’s very identity crumbled in a matter of months. The ability of the SLA to turn her so quickly speaks to the lack of any steadfast ideology in the West — further evidenced, perhaps, by the dizzying shifts in allegiance among Silicon Valley’s elite in recent days, as progressive and libertarian moguls are quick to align with the nascent fascism of the Trump administration.

It may be unfair to read too much of 2017 into South and West, but given its publication at this moment in time it’s also impossible not to read too much into it. What emerges here, between California and the Real America, are not just two different communities, or political affiliations, but two different articulations of time itself. One is based on rupture, on a past that can never be redeemed and can always be mined for perpetual grievance; the other is grounded in a perpetual present, an unending promise of a better tomorrow, and one that — for all its potential — is rootless and vanishing. The history of the United States is written in this tension, in the reveries of these two very different kinds of dreamers.

South and West is vital, ultimately, for how it demonstrates (even inadvertently) how such a tension plays out. As a document of its time, Didion’s book offers little by way of context: no names or events are footnoted — the book assumes you have the same casual familiarity with the 1970s events as Didion did. During a tour of Meridian, Mississippi, Didion’s guide points out “the courthouse where the famous Philadelphia trials were held, the trials for the so-called Philadelphia deaths.” Depending on how well you know your Civil Rights history, you may or may not recognize this reference to the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by the KKK in 1964; certainly you’ll find no additional context in the book itself.

Other events that are on everyone’s lips in these pages seem to have since disappeared almost altogether. There’s repeated reference to Kent State, but often mentioned in the same breath are the events at Jackson State University: a Baptist preacher at one point tells an audience, “Ah don’t believe the right to disagree is the right to destroy the University at Jackson or Kent State”; after his speech, one of the attendees leans over to Didion to whisper that “Jackson State was a setup.” What happened at Jackson State University? On May 15, 1970, 11 days after Kent State, a group of about a hundred protesters, all of them Black, gathered for a protest on the campus’s main street: the students pelted cars with rocks and lit fires in trashcans, and were subsequently dispersed by police and firefighters. They regrouped in front a dormitory, and it was there that highway patrol officers, advancing within 50 feet of the crowd, opened fire on the students. They kept shooting for nearly half a minute, firing over 140 times at the unarmed protesters. By the time they stopped, every window in the dormitory had been shattered, 12 students had been injured, and two had been killed. The story is chilling not just for the deaths of civilians but because of how quickly it’s been written out of American history. I first learned about Kent State when I was junior high, then again in high school and again in college. Didion’s book was the first time I’d ever heard of Jackson State.

We don’t know, in other words, which events that today seem vital, even earth-shattering, will be lost to time, forgotten in a few short decades. It’s impossible to predict how the caprices of public memory will shape even the most momentous of our days. Resurrecting old diaries like Didion’s South and West is one way to push back against this; keeping one yourself is another.

Grab a pen. Keep a notebook. Write it all down.


Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

LARB Contributor

Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


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