Unchanging times, in Joan Didion's South and West
Californians live with a particular affliction. We suffer from a sense of timelessness, an ahistorical bent for the future. California may represent the end of the American dream, the realization of a brutal manifest destiny, but it is mostly a land of new beginnings, technological and cinematic alike. At times, it can forget that it is not its own country, focused as it is on the Pacific horizon. It looks back east, over its shoulder, only when the ties that yoke it to America go taut. November 2016 was one of those times, when its purported myth of future-building was outdone by the sea of red states still angry about the past. California, long-enamored with its visions for a utopian future, was made aware that it could not control it.
Joan Didion knows more about this than just about anybody, and she knew it forty years earlier. In 1970, Didion, a native Californian herself, made a pilgrimage to the South, where she spent a month driving through Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi with her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The notes she took while there make up the bulk of South and West, the first released writing from her notebooks. She went with no journalistic imperative, in hunt for no particular story, but rather to test a hypothesis: "I had only some dim and unformed sense… that the South… 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."
The psychic center of the South will be familiar to anyone who followed this year's electoral post-mortems. She sits through the Mississippi Broadcasters' awards banquet where speakers complain about the audacity of the "unruly, unwashed, uninformed, and sometimes un-American" demonstrators and bemoan the mainstream media's bias against Southern values, "the solidarity engendered by outside disapproval, a note struck constantly." She talks to a cotton farmer who worries about sending his children to segregated schools, even as he goes out of his way to show off his camaraderie with his black employees."The time warp," she writes: "the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago." She remarks upon the candidness with which Southerners talk about race relations, disregard the intellectual establishment, and address issues of poverty and class. At one point, she wonders: "the curious ambivalence of the constant talk about wanting industry. Is not wanting industry the death wish, or is wanting it?"
Didion doesn't seem to particularly enjoy her time in the South, even as she is somehow fascinated by it. "A traveler in the rural south in the summertime is always eating dinner, dispiritedly, in the barely waning heat of the day," she writes despairingly. "One is a few hundred miles and a culture removed from anyplace that serves past 7:30 or 8 p.m." As she travels from state to state, craving iced coffee and shocking onlookers with her bikini, she looks for answers about the South everywhere, reporting from dinner parties, graveyards, and laundromats. If she is charmed at times by the nostalgia and the decaying elegance of the place, she also finds herself unmoored by the unfamiliar landscape: "I had the feeling that I had been too long on the Gulf Coast, that my own sources of information were distant and removed, that like the women at the Ladies Brunch I might never get anywhere I wanted to go." She finishes: "I never wrote the piece."
If this sounds a little opaque, it is worth remembering that Didion's observations here are not fully formed. And this is the charm of South and West: while its political observations are both prescient and canny, the greater pleasure is the view into her mind at work. For a writer who has never shied away from exploring the personal in her writing, Didion's notebooks might be her most vulnerable work yet. Readers can observe her experimenting with phrasing, following her reportorial instincts, and testing the limits of her own reflection. Strange and beautifully precise images are half-formed, metaphors positioned but stripped of their symbolic implication, left to simmer in their own potential. Observations are noted and left without comment: "In Laurel, pop. 29,000: Free Flag Decals, as everywhere. Pump Your Own Gas Save 5 cents. It's Fun. Shacks on the backstreets. A black woman sitting on her front porch on the backseat from a car." But coming in at a slim 144 pages, there is hardly enough content to hold onto. What is most delightful about an author's journal is the full expanse of the mind at work that embraces mistakes and contradictions and that gives the reader an access that borders on voyeurism. These notebooks are precisely edited, closer to those "patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees," as she put it in her famous essay "On Keeping A Notebook."
The last dozen pages excerpted from her reporting on Patty Hearst's trial in San Francisco in 1976 make up her return to the West. Her writing becomes more introspective as she analyzes her own Californian upbringing and her relationship to privilege. "It is not about Patricia Hearst," she writes. "It is about me and the peculiar vacuum in which I grew up, a vacuum in which the Hearsts could be quite literally king of the hill." The cultural heritage of California is a different vacuum than the one she found in the South, but it comes with its own set of delusions. "In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history." She writes. "In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it."
"How could it have come to this?" Didion asked herself then, although it could easily be mistaken for the question of today. South and West provides a model for the American trying to make sense of where we are now, a case study for the two halves of this country trying to reconcile: the South, anchored in the past, and the West, drifting haltingly toward the future.
Julia Bosson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has been featured in Tablet, Entropy, and elsewhere. She teaches in Cooper Union's Center for Writing.