The Enduring Imperfection of Thought, or, A Few Problematic Faves
Joan Didion, after several years of not covering the civil rights movement, did so in an essay called “Black Panther.” She was not entirely impressed by Huey Newton. It might be diverting to speculate what she might have written about Angela Davis, Kwame Nkruma, or Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti but her talents, the steering of which she often described as a more laissez-faire process than it seems to have truly been, did not run in that direction.
She would later write a penetrating essay about the communal secular witch hunt that was 1980s New York City’s collective attitude surrounding the case of the so-called “Central Park Five,” a group of minority youth whose guilt was as yet undetermined (they were later found not guilty) but whom a certain collective wisdom was ready to sacrifice out of a misplaced belief that so doing would expiate the crimes of the city, redeeming for it a notional purity that, it was said, would forever be lost were these children allowed to walk free. That, despite having the habit of so doing with regard to other topics, Didion never put this piece between hard covers suggests that she saw it as a bit of a one-off: her read on the Black Panthers, that’s what she wanted to be long remembered about her view of race relations in America.
The special thing that Didion brought to most of her writing was a cynicism particular to her, a gimlet eye that allowed her to see clearly in the shadows between glittering lights. Didion outdid her contemporaries by asserting in any given instance a knowing but unwelcoming standpoint from which no one had thought to measure the view. It can seem that she waited on civil rights until there arose an opportunity to uniquely but fairly discuss the inadequacy of someone at the forefront of the movement.
In 2015 Meghan Daum wrote in the Atlantic, à propos of the first full-length biography of Didion:
As new generations of artists and tastemakers grow hungrier for voices from worlds where mothers do not give teas and closets are not full of organdy tablecloths on long rollers, it’s easy to imagine a writer of Didion’s tastes and sensibility being called out in the blogosphere and in social media as fundamentally gifted yet fundamentally “problematic” (to use a term of the moment that Didion might have great fun with) in her politics and tone. For all her brilliance, she might be deemed too haughty to tolerate, the ultimate white girl.
But that would be both reductive and a total missing of the point. Didion may be a white girl to whom generations of white girls have been disproportionately drawn, but she’s one we — and all kinds of readers — have desperately needed. In the prefeminist 1950s and ’60s, we needed her to show that it was possible for a woman to put her writing first without apology or fanfare. In the let-it-all-hang-out ’70s, we needed her to be the disciplined storyteller who could deliver the goods while keeping herself at arm’s length. In the ’80s and ’90s, we needed her to separate the nation’s ghosts from the political machine. More recently, we needed her to grow old before us and, even amid unthinkable personal tragedy, show that it’s possible not only to remain visible and vital but also to remain unimpeachably, ineluctably cool.
What is slightly frightening about Daum’s assessment is the implicit assertion that, not to be found among the chief points in favor of Didion is any argument that her writings and reasonings before the 1980s or after the 1990s have conceptual value, either in and of themselves, as case studies in her thought, or from some dialectical notion of theses and antitheses. Daum’s Didion is reduced to the silent statue of the Fearless Girl.
There is a small class of American writers, themselves conservative, whose readership is primarily liberal or progressive. Didion is one; Zora Neale Hurston is another.
In 1975, Alice Walker, then a contributing editor to Ms magazine, published there a masterful personal essay “Looking For Zora.” In it she describes a trip she and a young white graduate student named Charlotte Hunt made to central Florida to find the unmarked grave in which Hurston was buried after a long, slow, and impoverishing fall from her earlier status as the best-selling author of the Harlem Renaissance.
The essay was not just a record of a trip, or an essayistic companion to the stone marker Walker placed on Hurston’s grave. Describing Hurston’s novels as a delicious secret that ought not be secret, a source of meaning separating those in the know from those unknowing, Walker was able to kick off an explosion of interest in the late novelist that dwarfed that which she had enjoyed at the height of her career, an interest that, nearly fifty years later, shows no sign of abating.
Walker, who in 1969 had invited future Ms founder Gloria Steinem to serve as godmother to her daughter, clearly established her own feminist bona fides in the Hurston essay as she carefully described the overlapping but distinct perspectives and social privileges she and Hunt brought to the search. In so doing, she was mapping out an early stage in the development of Walker’s own thought on her way to articulating womanism, the vision for a proto-intersectionalist black feminism that she laid out in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, the essay collection in which “Looking For Zora,” which has since become standard back-matter for Harper Collins’ editions of Hurston’s work, was first reprinted.
A key point Walker made in “Looking” was that she and Hunt, neither of whom were religious, were able to lean into their cultural fluency “being Southerners and church bred” to overcome the insular doubts of the conservative men and women they meet in the small towns over the course of their search.
This leads into a core passage, without which Walker’s larger project of resurrecting the earlier author’s reputation would not be successful: contextualizing Hurston’s lifelong opposition to racial integration. Walker describes a conversation with an old black woman who had served as deputy mayor of Hurston’s hometown before concluding:
I think of the letter Roy Wilkins wrote to a black newspaper blasting Zora Neale for her lack of enthusiasm about the integration of schools. I wonder if he knew the experience of Eatonville she was coming from. Not many black people in America have come from a self-contained, all-black community where loyalty and unity are taken for granted. A place where black pride is nothing new.
This was essential: the young Walker’s willingness to look past something she might have otherwise been ideologically inclined to see as a stumbling block to accepting Hurston — Hurston’s staunch conservative outlook — and claim Hurston as a literary ancestor. Henry Louis Gates Jr, in an essay that itself became standard backmatter for all of Hurston’s books, notes it as a turning point in the history of African-American literature. For decades, each generation of (mostly male) black authors differentiated itself from its immediate predecessor by denigrating the old writers, their works and theories. W. E. B. Du Bois separated himself from Booker T. Washington; Harlem Renaissance writers like Hurston and Langston Hughes put space between themselves and Du Bois; Richard Wright distinguished his work from that of the Harlem Renaissance, as did Ralph Ellison, who also stiff-armed Wright’s legacy, just as he and members of Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts movement regarded each other warily. Walker’s earnest acknowledgement of her disagreements with Hurston while recording and celebrating her pilgrimage to the earlier writer’s grave marked the end of a too-long period of black letters being a game of king-of-the-hill, and the advent of a multigenerational big-tent black literary community (from which writers as varied as Ishmael Reed and Terry McMillan might still feel themselves excluded for one reason or another).
The word “conservative,” though it applies readily enough to certain strains of popular thought, quickly runs afoul of any attempt at unity of political or philosophical reasoning. For conservatism is nothing more nor less than an expression of a desire to maintain power relations in a manner somehow associated with the past, in the face of a movement to reform or revolutionize them. There might be value to political philosophy in an assertion of conservative thought that is in and of itself well-turned, but misapplied. By and large, though, a more important question in assessing the value of a written analysis of some historical phenomenon is how the phenomenon and the analysis play among themselves — what the analysis can tell us about the phenomenon that we might not otherwise know.
Walker illustrated, in terms easily comprehensible in a mass-market periodical, that there might be another value to an expression of conservative thought, one that can save even misguided applications of the principle. She implies that a particular conservative notion, like Hurston’s response to integrationist movements, might be part of a larger thought system that is in and of itself neither simply conservative nor simply progressive, but can broaden our understanding of the world even as certain parts of it throw up conclusions that ought be rejected.
Didion has longed been damned by glowing praise for the perfection of her periods, as she notes that she developed her writing style in part by re-typing, as a child, the works of Ernest Hemingway. The idea that she’s being kept around for her stunning sentences or as some kind of token of distinction, rather than for any thought that she ever expressed, is a through line from advance praise for Slouching Toward Bethlehem, her first collection, to appreciations like Daum’s. What is less common is any assertion that the Didion’s philosophy is imperfect, tending occasionally to offer up doozies of conclusions, but nonetheless valuable in the history of ideas, the sort of thing that may be adapted or kicked against in the development of a thought for our times. With the exception of some glowing appreciations from the late Robert Silvers, editor at the New York Review of Books (who, despite his clout as an editor there, didn’t have quite the argumentative cachet of full-time critic), full-throated appreciations of Didion as a thinker are surprisingly lacking considering her status as an essayist.
Michiko Kakutani, recently retired as chief book critic for the New York Times, is the exception that proves the rule. Since the election of Donald Trump as American president in 2016, Kakutani has underlined in her reviews, essays, and a book the intellectual heritage on which opponents of Trump’s serial violations of American political norms can agree, regardless of where they may otherwise stand on any given issues of partisan political import.
Thus, not long before hanging up her keyboard, Kakutani wrote a reconsideration of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism in which she reproduced quotes from that 1955 book apt to help close watchers of Trump’s administration place a conceptual frame around his actions and those of his partisans and assistants. In a similar vein, when Didion died, Kakutani came out of retirement to author an appreciation on the Times opinion page, to which the paper briefly placed a headline on its main website: Joan Didion was right. Kakutani didn’t situate Didion in a pantheon of specifically conservative thinkers, or even refer to the conservatism of her thought at all. She celebrated her as an almost prophetic figure for what feel to be end times: “Sometimes it’s hard not to feel we are living through another surreal and dangerous iteration of Didion’s America, where ‘disorder was its own point.’”
While the appreciation is welcome, there is something uncomfortable in zooming so far out from Didion’s thought that the details of the appreciable things that Didion disdained is lost to view. Didion was dismissive of the advent of the very late-twentieth century American cultural and political reality whose apparently impending destruction Kakutani was now mourning. As Kakutani celebrated a cherry-picked Didion as a prophet in the wilderness, we’re still not yet in Walker-on-Hurston territory, where the critic acknowledges and brackets unacceptable conclusions as the logical result of misapplying otherwise valuable thought processes. There’s a certain sorrow elicited by Kakutani’s strident plaints that, for all our political differences, we still have Arendt and Didion — “We’ll always have Paris” is what you say when all the features of your relationship more enduring than nostalgia have already fallen apart.
Didion’s status in the American literary firmament was long uncertain. Young journalists making the pilgrimage to interview her at her home would note the pricy modern art on her walls, but it was not clear how much of that was bought with the proceeds of her and her husband’s literary career, how much came from their sideline as punch-up artists for Hollywood movie scripts, and how much was acquired using their inheritance from two enduringly Edith-Whartonian subregional blue-blooded families. When her husband died in 2003, Didion wrote a memoir of her grief, entitled The Year of Magical Thinking. Its reputation grew rapidly. Didion and John Gregory Dunne, her late husband, had long let their life into their writing, though the difference between that life and those of all but a small subset of possible readers often prevented their revelations from seeming generalizable. Here, the mourning was the differentiating spark.
Year was a book whose political valences were many more levels below the surface than the typical Didion production. It appeared at roughly the same time as Didion’s more-famous fellow former New Journalist Tom Wolfe was making his final stab at interpretative relevance, in a deeply researched novel about twenty-first century university life from which his reputation would never recover. Didion’s memoir gave something seemingly wholly acceptable and informative to that sizeable portion of her audience that reacted more positively to feminism than she did, was less comfortable with ingrained inequality, was less concerned about the externalities of American’s attitudes toward drugs, and had been more boosterish than she was during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Whereas around the time of Slouching Toward Bethlehem the fact that she wrapped herself in the comfort of being older than a group she disdained — Baby Boomers — placed limits on her ability to effectively communicate with those who might be her most enduring audience, now the fact that she was closer to death than they were gave her words a prophetic air for millions of readers. This was how death in America now was: there, yet with the grace of God, go we all.
Year, a memoir, wound up being a more impactful essay than any of Didion’s actual essays had ever been. It cemented her reputation as more than a good exemplar of the journalistic method, or a writer of the kinds of well-turned sentences which, when men like Hemingway wrote them, were called “muscular,” and which, for just that reason, were going out of style faster than clothes on a clearance rack.
Entirely separately, though also since the first decade of the twenty-first century, Walker has seen her own reputation crumble, as the new thought that she has to offer has tapered and she has been more often in the news due to her occasional but stubborn willingness to parrot and promote the beliefs of a reactionary antisemitic conspiracy theorist. Womanism may have since largely disappeared into the foreshadow of intersectional feminism, but The Color Purple — and, to an extent, Walker’s reputation as the rediscoverer of Zora Neale Hurston — will keep her place, however diminished, in the intellectual history of America.