Joan Didion will be awarded with PEN Center USA's Lifetime Achievement Award at the 23rd Annual Literary Awards Festival on October 14, 2013.
TODAY, AT THE AGE of 78, Joan Didion is a unique quantity in America’s literary firmament, admired for an ability that’s difficult to precisely define. As her citation for the National Humanities Medal notes, with telling vagueness, she is known for “noticing things other people strive not to see.” Her features, most recently pictured at the National Humanities Award ceremony in June, seem to reinforce, even if they do not explain, this nebulous impression. It is an arresting face: the lines precise and ingrained, the expression an unsmiling one that can without considerable imagination be construed as pitiless, possessing the carefully delineated focus that accrues to someone who has spent her life listening to and dismantling the constructions of other people. She looks pared down, rigorous, rarified — akin, in fact, to the prose style she has cultivated increasingly since the late 1980s.
Yet there is something slightly askew with this image, of the remorseless observer attuned to the abstruse. In the picture, she wears a blue top and flowered beige wrap-skirt, her ear sticking through one side of her grey-brown hair: the suggestion is of something girlish and exotic. Here is a more recessive facet of the same person, a link to a less mature, more emotive, more imaginative personality. This facet comes through clearer on the cover photograph of her book of collected nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. The picture is from the 1970s, taken around the time she wrote her early and perhaps best loved works of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. Didion is in her 30s, and she leans out of a white Stingray, wearing a flowing white top. Her hair is straight and brown, her face is unlined and her lips are pressed very slightly together. She is curious, searching, intensely involved in whatever she is watching, and she appears very, very young. The overall impression is of someone not quite removed enough to be entirely clear-eyed.
What connects these images, these different illustrations of a single evolving authorial voice, is a historical circumstance. The figure in both photographs grew up in Sacramento, California, in the years during and after World War II, the era immediately preceding the great economic boom that reshaped America. Her priorities as a writer have been consistently molded by this societal shift, to an extent that is often underappreciated and difficult to overstate. Sacramento and the postwar boom are where to start understanding the dynamics that gradually made her an author, and more specifically an essayist who noticed “things other people strive not to see.”
“The change is not what I remember first,” she wrote in 1965, in “Notes of a Native Daughter”:
First I remember running a boxer dog of my brother’s over the same flat fields that our great-great grandfather had found virgin and had planted. I remember swimming […] the same rivers we had swum for a century: the Sacramento, so rich with silt that we could barely see our hands, a few inches beneath the surface […].When I think now of [the] winters I think of yellow elm trees wadded in the gutters outside the Trinity Episcopal pro-Cathedral on M Street. There are actually people in Sacramento now who call M Street Capital Avenue, and Trinity has one of those featureless new buildings, but perhaps children still learn the same things there on Sunday mornings: Q: In what way does the Holy Land resemble the Sacramento Valley? A: In the type and diversity of its agricultural products.
This was a place attuned to an unusual destiny, one whose preferred sensibility was both cloistered and outlandish — the dual inheritance of the last frontier. People who grew up in this culture were unafraid to make what others might construe to be unrealistic plans, as Didion notes, confident that they could rely on themselves to carry them through. “This is one of the trying mornings for me, as I now have to leave my family or back out,” wrote William Kilgore in 1850, expressing a brief moment of doubt about the logic of his trek cross-country to Sacramento. “Suffice it to say,” he concluded, “we started.”
One of William Kilgore’s distant relatives cultivated a similar imaginative determination. “I never had much interest in being a child,” Joan Didion wrote in Vogue in 2011. “As a way of being it seemed flat, failed to engage.” Instead, at the age of six or seven, she was working to transcend her situation, “trying to improve the dinner hour by offering what I called ‘lettuce cocktails’ (a single leaf of iceberg lettuce and crushed ice in a stemmed glass), and inventing elaborate scenarios featuring myself as an adult,” for example, “standing on the steps of a public building somewhere in South America…wearing dark glasses and avoiding paparazzi…because I was getting a divorce.”
The inevitable charge of self-absorption was eventually leveled at her by Nina Warren, the daughter of the governor of California, whom a 14-year-old Didion considered to be “the most glamorous and unapproachable 15-year-old in America.” This accusation, which “dumbfounded” its recipient, was made in Nina’s room on the third floor of the Governor’s Mansion, “a large white Victorian Gothic House at 16th and H Streets in Sacramento,” during Didion’s blindfolded initiation into the Manana Club, a secret organization of around 60 high school girls. It was during this process that the initiate learned “for the first time that my face to the world was not necessarily the face in my mirror.”
This storyline, of an upbringing that imparted imaginative sensibility in exchange for rigorous insularity, is not an uncommon one, nor is the story’s inevitable trajectory — the eventual shedding of this insularity, and the modification of imagination, in the face of experience — particularly unusual. What was unique here was that the protagonist’s awakening dovetailed with — and in some cases proceeded from — the world changing around her.
In 1934, when Didion was born, the Sacramento Valley was fertile and largely settled by ranchers: a prosperous, insulated area of small towns and agriculture that played host to what, at the time, was California’s relatively unburdened government. It was also located in the middle of America’s largest and most untapped state, which in 1945 would become a tabula rasa for national policymakers who needed to quickly and economically invest an unprecedented amount of public money. 1945 was the year the Second World War ended and the Cold War to all intents and purposes began: when it suddenly became necessary to devote resources to countering the Soviet Union, preventing the economy from falling into post-wartime depression and providing work for the soldiers about to demobilize.
Policy proceeded accordingly. Cheap land was purchased and defense plants appeared, attracting low-skilled workers with high and apparently secure wages. Loans were supplied for white veterans who wished to become students, entrepreneurs or homeowners, and the market responded to the spiraling demand for real estate with suburbs. Highways were built connecting the suburbs to the city and the defense workers to their families back east. Cumulatively, what was being created, for better and for worse, was a cultural deluge — a brand new society that emphasized extended credit, hypermobility and consumer goods over careful saving, family ties and agriculture.
Sacramento Valley was one of the places that experienced this postwar deluge, and its ambiguities, most immediately. Between 1945 and 1955, Sacramento became the site of aerospace plants and the home of the new culture. By the mid-1960s Aerojet General, located just outside of Sacramento, employed 15,000 people, “almost all of them imported.” State legislators no longer fanned themselves on the veranda of the Senator Hotel: they’d relocated to the new hotels, equipped with pools and tiki-torches, outside of town, and the veranda was converted into an airplane ticket office. Banks of America, five-minute car washes and State Farm Insurance offices set up shop near “shopping centers and miles of tract houses, pastel with redwood siding.” In 1969, in the process’s logical culmination, Nina Warren’s old White Victorian house at 16th and H Streets was deemed a “firetrap” and relegated to landmark status by Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who built a new residence for the governor outside of town: a $4 million dollar version of the suburban dream homes that the aerospace engineers had begun erecting 15 years earlier.
This “change” began a few years before Joan Didion’s Manana Club initiation, and shadowed her through stints at Berkeley and in New York. It is usual to have to grow up, but less usual to come of age in a society whose self-assumptions are also undergoing a tectonic shift, with your hometown at its epicenter. The effect of this synthesis in this particular case was profound.
Delivering the Regents Lecture at Berkeley in 1975, Joan Didion explained why she wrote in the following terms:
During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract [...] Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
This piece-by-piece, empirical approach to discerning reality is one that does not take much for granted. It was developed by a woman whose coming of age did not give her reason to take much for granted: one whose early romantic assumptions were supported by the existence of a particular sequestered culture, who was suddenly confronted with a culture based on wildly different assumptions, and who set out to decode the shift.
California in the 1950s and 1960s was not an easy culture to decode — certainly not one, as Didion had intuited, that the Marxian and Freudian ideas popular in 1950s Berkeley would provide much help in analyzing. It was the product of an unprecedented amount of wealth accruing to an unprecedented number of people, and there was no immediately evident roadmap, though there were a number of optimistic assumptions, about how it would work. The relatively uncritical line taken by the policies’ initiators, and by its beneficiaries, was that the pioneers to the Golden land were doing the necessary work of protecting the nation and reaping a reasonable reward. (“VETS NO DOWN! EXECUTIVE LIVING ON LOW FHA!” the government issued bulletins read.) This notion is still referred to with oblique wistfulness as the American Dream, though it bore little resemblance to the dream with which Didion grew up.
But the culture did not lack its critics. By 1964, the year she returned to California, the state was feeling the beginnings of internally generated dissent from the children just coming of age. As the same mentality that provided their parents loans in exchange for protecting the nation ground into gear to send them to Vietnam, the dissent increased precipitously. It was on the day-to-day life of both the culture that had supplanted Old California and that culture’s young critics that Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album focused. What she found happening on the ground was more complicated than either narrative — the neat quid pro quo colored in patriotic shades or the idealistic dissenters arrayed against the monolith — suggested.
On the one hand, what had been created in 1945 was not a seamless harnessing of patriotism and wealth so much as an easy-access dreamscape, powered by a great deal of money based on credit and consumer goods:
It was a space where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.
Some people were in thrall to the dream and ran with it to exhaustion, like Dallas Beardsley, who took out an advertisement in October of 1968 in The Daily Variety reading “there is no one like me in the world. I’m going to be a movie star” and who worked two jobs and had foregone dating and a social life in pursuit of this elusive goal. Others, perhaps further into the process than Dallas, were simply lost, like the people who came every week to Gamblers Anonymous to report on how they were beating, or not beating, their addiction, in tones learned from analgesic commercials. Others entered the process with no apparent hope of success, no cards with which to deal themselves into the scramble of wealth, and instead languished on lower economic rungs and spent their money on products designed to stoke their resentment: “Children of vague hill stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.”
On the other hand, the dissenters from this fractured culture were hampered by the fact that they were also its products. They were trying to develop an alternative society without many viable models, and so they were not so much escaping from the dreamscape as perpetuating it in a different form. At its best this meant verbally impoverished innocence: as with Joan Baez, camped out in a retreat in the Carmel Valley where she ran the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, and wrote reflections like “My life is a crystal teardrop,” attempting to “hang on to the innocence and turbulence and capacity for wonder, however ersatz or shallow, of her own or anyone else’s adolescence.” At its worst, it was something else entirely, as in Haight-Ashbury: “a child on the living room floor, wearing a reefer coat, reading a comic book…licking her lips in concentration and the only off thing about her is that she’s wearing white lipstick…for a year now her mother has given her both acid and peyote.”
To see in any of these dubious experiments revolutionary potential was, in Didion’s view, simply delusional. The pronouncements of the few people holding genuinely ideological commitments — say, the Marxian revolutionaries or the Marxian feminists, who had derived from their studies that the ineluctable endpoint of the social tremors would be the triumph of the proletariat — had failed to appreciate the logic of a process that could only be understood empirically. The end point of liberating the youth or the women was not a more equal society; it was more reefers on one hand and more lipstick products on the other.
These judgments were formidable precisely because they appeared so even-handedly condemning. Yet they had a cumulative, and at times explicit, allegiance, which was towards the culture of Old Sacramento. Contrasting the Reagan’s $4,000,000 suburban mansion with Earl Warren’s old Victorian, Didion called the former house “malevolently democratic,” and “evocative of the unspeakable.” She admitted that “when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined the shape of certain of our dreams.” She described Howard Hughes as “the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.” She wrote her most unequivocally admiring and atypically idealizing piece, in 1976, about Georgia O’Keefe:
Some women fight and others do not. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O’Keefe seems to have been equipped fairly early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.
In other words, the ideal here was self-sufficiency, and the particular style of self-sufficiency was the unapologetically extreme mode of the western frontier. This was not a style that had room for those people — say, committed feminists, or anti-consumer activists — who were trying to cope with the cultural fallout on the front lines of social activism. It was the product of a writer who could venture into the confusing new society — could see Dallas Beardsley’s advertisement in The Daily Variety and pay her a visit; could spend a week in Haight-Ashbury — but who could always go home, to her husband and child on the Pacific coast or to her family in Sacramento, away from the noise. It was also the product of someone who, not entirely surprisingly, voted for Barry Goldwater, a fellow westerner, in 1964 for president.
Still, the dominant characteristic — the one that would determine the later development of this critic of the new society — emerges most clearly from her most famous piece, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” about the young rebels providing their children acid and peyote. “We were seeing the attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed.” The authorial voice here was not a reactionary’s, someone who thought it possible or even desirable to turn back the clock. The voice was insisting on confronting reality, which was that Sacramento of the 1940s would not come back, and it was necessary to deal with the world that had been remade.
This commitment to reality above any form of fantasy would become apparent when Didion covered another movement of dissenters that was just getting underway, one whose contention was precisely that a cultural reversal was possible. It was a movement that would appropriate symbols of the culture that Didion had traced disappearing — of extended great-aunts, acres of land, church on Sundays — and use it for its own political purposes. This crusade came out of California as well, in the middle of the 1970s, and its foot soldiers were the members of the boom culture: the owners of the tract homes outside of Sacramento who wanted their taxes low and their culture stable.
“On an evening late in April in Washington,” wrote Joan Didion in November 1999, in The New York Review of Books, “some 350 survivors of what they saw as a fight for the soul of the republic gathered at the Mayflower Hotel.” The 350 people she was referring to had been instrumental in bringing the charges of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton to the floor of the House of Representatives. The tone of their festivities was not entirely apropos to the year 1999:
Live from the Mayflower, there [on CSPAN] were the familiar faces from the Sunday shows, working the room amid the sedate din and the tinkling of glasses. There were the pretty women in country-club dinner dresses, laughing appreciatively at the bon mots of their table partners. There was the black-tie quartet, harmonizing on “vi-ve la vi-ve la vi-ve l’amour” and “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby”… Midge Decter, a director of the Independent Women’s Forum, praised [Congressman] Henry Hyde’s “manliness,” and the way in which watching “him and his merry band” on television during the impeachment trial had caused her to recall “whole chunks” of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”
Yet this retrograde atmosphere did not dampen the enthusiasm of the evening’s participants:
[Their] mood was less elegiac than triumphal, less rueful than rededicated, as if there in a ballroom at the Mayflower was the means by which the American political dialogue could be finally reconfigured: on the sacrificial altar of the failed impeachment, in the memory of the martyred [congressmen], the message of moral rearmament that has driven the conservative movement to what had seemed no avail might at last have met its moment.
These were the people who had been sent to Congress by the middle class the postwar boom had created. They kept their constituents’ taxes low enough for them to be able to afford tract homes and in the meantime pursued the nation’s moral rearmament from the dubious position of Washington, DC. Didion’s contention in After Henry and Political Fictions was that their imposition of hypermoralized rhetoric into the political sphere had further obscured the problems inherent in the culture, problems which had helped propel them to power in the first place. In the case of Clinton, the crusaders had overreached, as was evidenced by the loss of five congressional seats in the 1998 elections, but their focus on “values,” that is to say the values of a past America, had permeated the increasingly nationalized and professionalized political and media complexes.
Both of these complexes were preternaturally attuned to the needs and desires of those middle class swing voters who were among the nation’s most politically engaged citizens, and who, not coincidentally, were reliable viewers of cable news and commentary. The lower-earning members of this demographic were acutely conscious of their social statuses as members of the patriotic middle class, and the higher-end voters among them were at leisure to be concerned about the culture at large. This demographic would respond enthusiastically to “values” rhetoric when it was strategically applied. In pursuit of Clinton, Kenneth Starr had discarded strategic thinking and leapt too far ahead of the public for comfort. But on issues that opened up the right socioeconomic resentments and shibboleths — immigration policy, gun control, prison policy and welfare reform — conservatives could press the buttons for reliable advantage. This seemingly successful strategy was increasingly employed by movers on both sides of the political aisle. In the 1988 presidential campaign, for instance:
[The predominant tone] was not awareness of a new and different world but nostalgia for an old one, and coded assurance that symptoms of ambiguity or change, of what George Bush called the “deterioration of values,” would be summarily dealt with by increased social control […] Michael Dukakis had promised [...] “no safe haven for dope dealers and drug profits anywhere on this earth”[...] George Bush, for his part, had repeatedly promised the death penalty, and not only the Pledge of Allegiance but prayer, or “moments of silence,” in the schools. “We have to change this whole culture,” he said in the Wake Forest debate.
Not surprisingly, changes on the ground were not receiving much attention from politicians operating at such a high moral altitude and communing with such a relatively narrow group of constituents. What was happening on the ground was the end of the postwar boom, a situation that made many of its threatened beneficiaries especially susceptible to the narratives of a virtuous and besieged middle class offered by conservatives, as well as to their ameliorative policies (say, cutting welfare benefits, which occurred, to bipartisan acclaim, in 1996.) These were voters scrambling to keep afloat on the raft of prosperity to which they and their children had become accustomed, and the spectacle, though predictable, was not always an attractive one:
Good citizens…were encouraged to see their problem as one caused by “the media” or by “condoms in the schools” or by “less good citizens” or non-citizens. This year  the California State Legislature has undertaken consideration of twenty different pieces of legislation intended to limit or punish immigration, most of them exclusively symbolic, some tending toward a result counter to that intended…[including] full taxpayer support, via the already-burdened criminal justice system, of all California illegals.
This was from an article about the Lakewood Spur Posse, a group of high school boys from a defense company town in Southern California who, having formed a gang and organized their activities around a point system to keep track of conquests, were arrested for sexual assault. The responses of their parents were instructive and, again, not unpredictable: “It’s the society, they have these clinics, they have abortions, they don’t have to tell their parents, the schools give out condoms, jeez, what does that tell you?” and “Of course there were several other sex scandals at the time, so this perfectly normal story got blown out of proportion” and so on.
In the meantime, when they were not satisfying the urges of these constituents, the political representatives of the movement were impeaching the president in order to achieve the moral rejuvenation of the nation. Or, a decade earlier, they were pushing back the Contras in Nicaragua by funneling them the proceeds of arms sold to Iran, using an infrastructure of non-governmental organizations closely linked with the White House, and made possible by a number of wealthy conservative interest groups. This particular move also provided dual rewards: it satisfied the movement’s more ardent followers, like Oliver North, while allowing accusations of anti-Americanism to be leveled against those on the left less committed to rolling back the communist threat in Latin America.
All of these — Iran-Contra, the Clinton impeachment, welfare reform, pledges to restore the culture — were the solutions offered by “a populist revolution trying to make itself, a crisis of raised expectations and lowered possibilities, the children of an expanded middle class determined to tear down the established order and what they saw as its repressive liberal orthodoxies.” They were funded by “a relatively new kind of monied class in America, a group devoid of social responsibilities precisely because their ties to any one place had been so attenuated.” Didion had followed this populist revolution and its failures from its roots in California and Ronald Reagan’s governorship through its taking of the White House and then the Congress. She had traced its operatives’ moves as they set up complex networks of extra-governmental funding; enacted domestic policies which benefited a small portion of the country at the expense of others; pursued foreign misadventures of striking proportions; and, perhaps most shockingly for her, politicized, without resistance, a vanished culture:
In style and substance alike, the Reagans and their friends were said to display…“the California Club mentality.” I recall hearing about this “California Club mentality” at a dinner table in Georgetown, and responding with a certain atavistic outrage (I was from California, my own brother then lived during the week at the California Club); what seems curious in retrospect is that many of the men in question, including the President, had only a convenient connection with California in particular and the West in general.
They were instead members of the new monied class, with a president culled from Hollywood and with electoral support from suburbanites who were living on a government created bubble but wanted to believe in their own authenticity. The influence of these constituents had effectively pushed the competition, the Democrats, towards what was now called “the center” of the political spectrum. Economic deregulation was floated by both parties because it would presumably help big money backers and the target voters. So was the case with low tax rates and pledges to clean up the streets. That these were all equally unsuccessful solutions to concrete economic and social problems did not surprise Didion, but at this point the hour had grown late — the rubber was meeting the road, the boom was deflating, the economy was increasingly dependent on finance and low-paying consumer service jobs.
The hour was later still in the early 2000s, when the movement used the same strategies to elevate to the presidency a man more in thrall with the true believers (both moral crusaders of Ken Starr’s ilk and neoconservatives of the Oliver North persuasion) than with his financial backers. It was this mixture of evangelical zeal and geopolitical idealism, combined with the necessary precipitating event, 9/11, that led the president and the country into Iraq, against the urging of pragmatic, business-oriented conservatives. So the rhetorical strategy of the Republican party — the fantasy of the “assumption of competence, of the ability to manage a hostile environment […] that feeds on wish fulfillment, a dream of the un-empowered, the kind of dream that can be put to political use, and can also entrap those who would use it” — had come back to devour itself. “We have now reached a point,” Didion wrote, grimly predictive, in November, 2003, nearly eight months into the Iraq War,
when even the White House may be forced to sort out how a president who got elected to execute a straightforward business agenda managed to sandbag himself with the coinciding fantasies of the ideologues in the Christian fundamentalist ministries and those in his own administration.
This was in some sense the logical culmination of one of the trends Didion had been following since 1980, when she first encountered the results of Republicans’ foreign policy fantasies in El Salvador for two brutal weeks. Her pieces from these years were less concerned about American life on the ground and more with piercing the rhetorical labyrinth and tracing the structures that manufactured it. Her style was quotation-heavy, factually dense, and devoid both of imagery and of the kind of personal reflections that had so captivated earlier readers. Her sentences, perhaps because they were balancing extensive use of names and quotations, were complex. Her approach was clinical. Her tone was irritated and, increasingly, universally condemning. Her grasp of policy, as opposed to its broader implications in the historical trajectory, was unsure. Occasionally, her proclamations about the broader significance of the process she was tracing were imprecise and overwrought — a predictable trip-up for someone who defined herself against abstraction of any kind. “There’s no difference between the parties, is there?” she told Jon Weiner in 2001, “We don’t have an actual argument. We have two parties that calibrate everything they do to attract a very small group called “the target voters.” As for the rest of us, I don’t think it’s too strong to say we have been disfranchised.” On the evidence, all of these claims are in fact too strong.
But the main point of these essays was describing the concrete, and here the authorial voice was utterly on point. It was rooted in a memory of the old society but had no illusions that that society was recoverable, and so its judgments were unlikely to be distracted by fantasies of idealism, in whatever direction they tended. In November 2008, in her last piece for The New York Review of Books, Didion addressed the election of Barack Obama as president. This development — coupled with the fact that a massive recession had just brought home some of the costs of government policies since 1945 — might have seemed a first step in putting behind the politics of unrealism of the past 30 years. Yet the woman who had seen the idealism of four decades ago was less sedate:
The spirit of a cargo cult was loose in the land. I heard it said breathlessly on one channel that the United States, on the basis of having carried off this presidential election, now had “the congratulations of all the nations.” “They want to be with us,” another commentator said. Imagining in 2008 that all the world’s people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.
Apparently the children of the people she had called “dreamers of the golden dream” were as susceptible to illusion as their parents, and as able to imagine that they were capable of entirely transforming a culture in which they’d grown up and from which they’d taken their moorings. This is an observation that many of us would prefer not to notice.
But there was something else that had come out of this focus on late 20th-dcentury political fictions coupled with social decay, something more personal. In an attempt to understand the dominant ideological movement produced by the postwar boom and contraction, Joan Didion had learned about the structural ways money and politics mixed. During this process, she had not kept Sacramento far from her mind. In the second part of her essay on the Lakewood High School Posse Gang in 1993, portions of which were included in her memoir about California, Where I Was From, published a decade later, Didion turned again to the older generation of Californians who had watched the new arrivals in the 1950s. “The trouble with these new people,” I recall hearing, again and again, as a child in Sacramento, “is that they think it’s supposed to be easy.”
The social disintegration Didion was now chronicling appeared to have proven Old Sacramento’s point, but matters, she thought now, were more complicated. “Places like Lakewood could be seen, by people like my grandfather, as the wrong side of the American dream, but the true ambiguity is this: places like Lakewood are also what made California rich.” In the process they had also made Old Californians rich, including those many Sacramento residents who, as she noted back in 1965 without recognizing its implication, had sold their rights of way to the new arrivals. There was, then, “a conundrum that occurs to any Californian who profited from the boom years: If we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?”
Everyone, in other words, was complicit. There was no culture that deserved overriding loyalty, no ideal remembered from childhood to hold high. This is the voice of the authentic existentialist, a woman who over 60 years had come to the point where she could see her society clearly. It is the voice of someone who had learned to think for herself, who is by definition enlightened, a type of voice that is much desired in our current culture but not often heard. The tradeoff for this quality is a certain pitilessness, a rigor that cuts out sentiments and focuses on facts, that provides no space for nostalgia.
Yet, at the age of 78, Joan Didion still wears a blue top and a flowered beige wrap-skirt, and her ear still sticks through her hair. The echoes of Sacramento are still there, and perhaps the reason for their presence is this: without a particular quality that Sacramento allowed to exist, she could not have cultivated this unblinking gaze, could not have become known for “noticing things other people strive not to see.” Attaining this kind of perspective is impossible without an instinctive hunger for both the rainbow and the rainbow’s end: an internally generated momentum that will allow the seeker to set out on the improbable journey; to make the choice to follow the evidence to its endpoint, no matter how ominous that endpoint looks; and, finally, to stare “without regret or hope,” at whatever reality she eventually uncovers. The possessors of this quality draw it from different sources, but here the foundation seems clear. “This is one of the trying mornings for me, as I now have to leave my family or back out,” wrote Joan Didion’s relative William Kilgore in 1850. “Suffice it to say, we started.”
Matthew Wolfson is a writer living in New York.