I’d long postponed reading Joan Didion because, of all the so-called New Journalists who started writing in the United States in the 1960s, she seemed to pay the least attention to the civil rights movement. It seemed something of an odd topic for a writer of that time to sit out, though the inverse might also be argued: she must be a writer of titanic skill if she still developed a towering reputation despite that fact that, when faced in real time with one of the most significant historical movements of American history, she seemed to have shrugged and said, “eh, I got nothin’.”
When she died last month, I decided to see what I was missing. Many of the New Journalists were separated from the people about whom they first wrote by age, class, or temperament, and Didion is no different. It is fascinating watching class recede as a visible marker the more her subjects resemble her, and irony rise as a literary tool the less they do. Didion, always remembered as a fine and fastidious prose stylist, was no Truman Capote — she would never, in those early days, bite the hand of the ladies who lunch. She charted certain changes in society with a pen as sharp as a scalpel.
In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, the collection of essays on changes in postwar America with which she made her name, Joan Didion distances herself from many of the people of whom she writes with a thick veil of irony, as in the vignette that closes a piece on the Las Vegas marriage industry:
I sat next to one such wedding party in a Strip restaurant the last time I was in Las Vegas. The marriage had just taken place; the bride still wore her dress, the mother her corsage. A bored waiter poured out a few swallows of pink champagne (“on the house”) for everyone but the bride, who was too young to be served. “You’ll need something with more kick than that,” the bride’s father said with heavy jocularity to his new son-in-law; the ritual jokes about the wedding night had a certain Panglossian character, since the bride was clearly several months pregnant. Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. “It was just as nice,” she sobbed, “as I hoped and dreamed it would be.”
Travel is an important theme in the book, with its normative value determined by who is traveling, where they go, and what they do there. Traveling to Mexico to get away from everyone seems to be alright, while doing the same for a boys’ working holiday is both impressive and hollow. Traveling to Vegas to be married is déclassé, as is dressing down while socializing with Hawaii’s upper crust during a vacation there. Travel is best, it seems, when it doesn’t entail any human interactions, as these inevitably reveal the social faultlines of the traveler and the place from which she comes.
Didion’s collection is organized thematically, with seven essays set in and around California (including the one on marrying in Vegas and another about John Wayne in Mexico) followed by five “personals” and seven from locales more widely spaced than those featured in the first section. She covers Gilded Age elites in “The Seacoast of Despair”  and the postwar replacement of old money by new in “Notes of a Native Daughter” and “Letter From Paradise” but the lack of temporal organization and the retention of essayistic niceties that make the most sense in arresting the attention of a reader otherwise engaged in the consumption of other authors’ reflections both prevent the book from making a unified argument. The decision to place the title essay at the close of the first section clearly reflects a sense that it is a sort of capstone, but placing it before the essays about prewar elites, for example, robs it in the moment of the sense that America, in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” is coming from anyplace in particular.
In that essay, Didion discusses how San Francisco hippy culture both was and wasn’t political, contrasting this image with what she describes as the journalistic consensus that it couldn’t be political at all, according to which
there really were no activists in the Haight-Ashbury, and those things which happened every Sunday were spontaneous demonstrations because, just as the Diggers say, the police are brutal and juveniles have no rights and runaways are deprived of their right to self-determination and people are starving to death on Haight Street, a scale model of Vietnam.
Instead, she classifies what she sees inchoate political potential masked by political ignorance: “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.” Didion is at pains to note that she is generationally separate from the postwar Baby Boomers, with the age of thirty (and, less often, the personal memory of World War II) acting as a dividing line. She may be at her least accurate but her most telling when she writes in “On Going Home,” “Sometimes I think that those of us who are now in our thirties were born into the last generation to carry the burden of ‘home,’ to find in family life the source of all tension and drama.” This stance illuminates the extent to which the ironic distance Didion places between herself and teen mothers or youthful social demonstrators is not merely stylistic: she thinks they lack something unrecoverable that she and all her good readers have. The generational divide goes a long way to determining who her ever-present “we” is, while also enabling sufficient critical distance for the adumbration of conclusions about the movements of the 1960s:
This is not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. [. . .] These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. [. . .] They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
That the United States’ war in Vietnam and its deployment of the atomic bomb and development of an ever-growing collection of such bombs are categorized as existing societal “self-doubts” rather than anything worth rebelling against, as well as the lack of any piece on the civil rights movement, add to this sense of a good country unmoored, while also reflecting Didion’s bedrock conservatism. The class-based aspect of her “we” is on display in passages that recur with greater frequency later in the book: “I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks.” Likewise:
To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F. A. O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live.
That New York might also be a plausible place for people to live in the eyes of native New Yorkers who don’t have uncles on Wall Street, and whose families do not entertain their children weekly at choice toy stores is outside Didion’s ken. When Didion sees fancy shoppers at Gristede’s in New York and “some Veblenesque gorge would rise in my throat,” these consumers of luxury are marked for her not by class, which she does not see as long as it is high and in its element, but simply locality — this is what “women,”  undifferentiated, do in this city.
Her essay “On Self-Respect” makes clear who are the Americans who might be possessed of “what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues,” and who are the external threats who help settler Americans develop and demonstrate “character.” The relevant sentences are short, following a passage about settlers in the California frontier in 1846, confronted by the indigenous population: “In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price.”
Didion displays the limits to which her willingness to deploy conservative idealism in her essay on the movie industry in Hollywood, in which she denies four theses: that Hollywood had a golden age; that it used to be more formulaic than it is now; that it is in decline; and that the young directorial “voices” like Stanley Kubrick being heard from Hollywood in the 1960s were working “with originality and brilliance.”
Didion’s conservatism is also limited by her relativism, and in the lengthy conclusion of her essay “On Morality,” she associates moral absolutism with revolutionary fundamentalism:
You see I want to be quite obstinate about insisting that we have no way of knowing — beyond that fundamental loyalty to the social code — what is “right” and what is “wrong,” what is good” and what “evil.” I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears; in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self-indulgence ata work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not conver upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in nay case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deciving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then s when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.
Here, again, Didion’s “we” crops up, a “we” that might be considered as those white Americans who are likely to have home subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post, the magazine that published most of the essays here collected. Whether an Amerindian or an African American, or a person who cares about Vietnamese people, for instance, might be driven by a moral imperative to try to make the world different is not addressed in Didion’s debut collection.
 (Didion 1968, p. 83)
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 Didion 1968, p. 165)
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 Didion 1968, pp. 152f)
 Didion 1968, pp. 162f)