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Slouching Towards Bethlehem ()


Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers

Do you ever have a group of authors that you just can't differentiate in your mind?  I get that sometimes with writers, particularly those who I haven't read as they were writing.  Like I finally just read a book by Eric Hoffer, whose stuff I'd always seen around but who I continually confused with Eric Fromm, Eric Erickson and a couple other guys who were popular in the '60s.  Similarly, I've never been able to keep Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Joyce Carol Oates straight, but I was sure I didn't like at least a couple of them and had no desire to sort through and figure out which.  What a revelation then to pick up a book of Joan Didion's essays; they are terrific.

The first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, opens with an introduction by the author, in which she says that the title is a reference to Yeats's great poem The Second Coming, with which many of the essays share an apocalyptic vision :

    'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which
    derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me both the
    most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was
    printed.  It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the
    proof that things fall apart

It is this realization that animates both this collection and The White Album (which should really be read together), the sense that American society was splintering in the 60s and 70s and that traditional moral and cultural restraints could no longer hold it together.  Whether she's writing about a sensational murder or profiling California celebrities, discussing student demonstrations, the Black Panthers or the Women's Movement, or portraying her own physical and emotional problems, the consistent theme is one of the breakdown of the social order, or of the American psyche.  But there's also a strong subtext which shows that the center, though embattled, really is holding; it is the margins, both at the upper and the lower ends of the social spectrum which are falling apart.  The real danger lies in the middle's loss of confidence in it's own beliefs, a crisis of faith.

The disintegration at the bottom of the social scale is most clear in her reporting on crime, drug culture and the inanity of youth, racial and gender politics.  But she lays the blame squarely, and fairly, at the feet of Middle America, as here when she's discussing the failure to provide any guidance to America's youth :

    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 . . .  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 society than
    ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam,
    Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

    They feed back exactly what is given to them.  Because they do not believe in words--words are
    for 'typeheads,' Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of
    those ego trips--their only proficient vocabulary is in the society's platitudes.  As it happens I am
    still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one's self depends upon one's mastery of the
    language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their
    mother and father do not live together, that they come from 'a broken home.'  They are sixteen,
    fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

Now, normally, those words would come from parents, clergy, schools, etc., but self doubt inhibited their willingness to impart them, and kept them from enunciating these ideals to the rest of society.

The reason for their timidity is made apparent in a batch of essays which celebrate middle class good sense and sensibilities while contrasting them to the snobbishness and self-righteousness of elites.  In essays on John Wayne, Howard Hughes, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Reagan-built California Governor's Mansion, Didion shows how out of touch intellectual opinion is with these symbols that the rest of us find so appealing.  Here she is on the mansion :

    A guard sleeps at night in the old mansion, which has been condemned as a dwelling by the state
    fire marshal.  It costs about $85,000 a year to keep guards at the new official residence.
    Meanwhile, the current governor of California, Edmund G. Brown, Jr., sleeps on a mattress on the
    floor in the famous apartment for which he pays $275 a month out of his own $49,1000 annual
    salary.  This has considerable and potent symbolic value, as do the two empty houses themselves,
    most particularly the house the Reagans built on the river.  It is a great point around the Capitol
    these days to have 'never seen' the house on the river.  The governor himself has 'never seen' it.
    The governor's press secretary, Elisabeth Coleman, has 'never seen' it.  The governor's chief of
    staff, Gray Davis, admits to having seen it, but only once, when 'Mary McGrory wanted to see it.'
    This unseen house on the river is, Jerry Brown has said, 'not my style.'

    As a matter of fact this is precisely the point about the house on the river--the house is not Jerry
    Browne's style, not Mary McGrory's style, not our style--and it is a point which presents a certain
    problem, since the house so clearly is the style not only of Jerry Brown's predecessor but of
    millions of Jerry Brown's constituents.  Words are chosen carefully.  Reasonable objections are
    framed.  One hears about how the house is too far from the Capitol, too far from the Legislature.
    One hears about the folly of running such a lavish establishment for an unmarried governor and one
    hears about the governor's temperamental austerity.  One hears every possible reason for not living
    in the house except the one that counts : it is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living
    room.  It is the kind of house in which one does not live, but there is no way to say this without
    getting into touchy and evanescent and finally inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of
    class.  I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable.

In such a situation, where the proclivities of the opinion-making class had diverged so far from the preferences of the middle class, it would have taken an inordinate amount of courage for middle America to hold it's ground, even more so in the face of the concurrent rebellions by youth, feminists and people of color, all of them attacking traditional tastes, beliefs, and mores.

The piece though that most dramatically illustrates this dichotomy and demonstrates just how embattled was Middle America and how arrogant were the intellectuals is the quite devastating, Bureaucrats.  In straightforward fashion, all the more effective because understated, she relates the efforts of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to, in the words of it's director : "pry John Q. Public out of his car," by creating Diamond or HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes on the thruways, beginning with the Santa Monica :

    Of course this political decision was in the name of the greater good, was in the interests of
    'environmental improvement' and 'conservation of resources,' but even there the figures had about
    them a certain Caltrans opacity.  The Santa Monica normally carried 240,000 cars and trucks every
    day.  These 240,000 cars and trucks normally carried 260,000 people.  What Caltrans described as
    its ultimate goal on the Santa Monica was to carry the same 260,000 people, 'but in 7,800 fewer, or
    232,200 vehicles.'  The figure '232,200' had a visionary precision to it that not automatically create
    confidence, especially since the only effect so far had been to disrupt traffic throughout the Los
    Angeles basin, triple the number of daily accidents on the Santa Monica, prompt the instigation of
    two lawsuits against Caltrans, and cause large numbers of Los Angeles County residents to behave,
    most uncharacteristically, as an ignited and conscious proletariat.

She goes on to show that the bureaucrats at Caltrans are bent on reengineering the behavior of motorists regardless of their resistance and of the disastrous results.  The coup de grace is delivered in the final sentence : "Yesterday plans were announced to extend the Diamond Lanes to other freeways at a cost of $42,500,000."  It's one of the finest essays I've ever read, exposing the arrogance of little men with too much power.

Throughout, the two books are filled with terrific stuff like this and more memorable sentences than you can count.  The only weak spots are the predominantly personal essays, which I could have done without.  Thankfully, we muddled through the decades-long period of dread out of which these pieces grew, but anyone who is trying to recapture the pervasive sense of desperation and gloom that drenched the late '60s and the '70s can do no better than to look here.  At least in these two early collections, Joan Didion's work must rank her with Tom Wolfe as one of the most perceptive observers of late 20th Century American culture.  I really just can't recommend them highly enough.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

Joan Didion Links:

    -ESSAY: Everywoman.com (Joan Didion, 2000-02-21, The New Yorker)


    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Where I Was From by Joan Didion (Thomas Mallon, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ARCHIVES : "didion" (NY Review of Books)
    -VIDEO : In Depth: Joan Didion (Book TV, C-SPAN, May 7, 2000)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion: God's Country (Nov 2, 2000 , NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : Nov 4, 1999 Joan Didion: 'The Day Was Hot and Still...' (NY Review of Books)
               Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris
    -REVIEW : Jun 24, 1999 Joan Didion: Uncovered Washington (NY Review of Books)
               Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story by Michael Isikoff
               Active Faith: How Christians Are Changing the Soul of American
               Politics by Ralph Reed
               Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American
               Decline by Robert H. Bork
    -REVIEW : Oct 22, 1998 Joan Didion: Clinton Agonistes (NY Review of Books)
               Referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title
               28, United States Code, §595(c) Submitted by the Office of the
               Independent Counsel
    -REVIEW : Apr 23, 1998 Joan Didion: Varieties of Madness  (NY Review of Books)
               The Unabomber Manifesto "FC."
               A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
               Drawing Life by David Gelernter
    -REVIEW : Dec 18, 1997 Joan Didion: The Lion King  (NY Review of Books)
               Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary
               Leader by Dinesh D'Souza
    -REVIEW : of THE GOLDEN AGE OF AMERICAN GARDENS Proud Owners, Private Estates, 1890-1940. By Mac Griswold and Eleanor Weller (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer (Joan Didion, NY Times Book Review)
    -EXCERPT : from Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -ESSAY : On Going Home from  Slouching Towards Bethlehem  by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Why I Write (The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1976)
    -EXCERPT : "The Women's Movement" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from Joan Didion's "Marrying Absurd"
    -EXCERPT : From "The White Album" by Joan Didion
    -EXCERPT : from The White Album Chapter IV Soujourns
    -INTERVIEW : Joan Didion (dave eggers, Salon, 10/96)
    -Joan Didion,  SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM
    -Joan Didion (1934- ) (American Literature on the Web)
    -Joan Didion (Selves in the Valley)
    -PROFILE : DIDION & DUNNE: THE REWARDS OF A LITERARY MARRIAGE (Leslie Garis, NY Times Sunday Magazine)
    -PROFILE : JOAN DIDION  (Sandra Braman)
    -PROFILE : JOAN DIDION: ONLY DISCONNECT  (October, 1979, From Off Center: Essays by Barbara Grizzutti Harrison (1980))
    -ESSAY : Slouching Towards Bethlehem:  A Brief Structural Analysis (Allan T. Grohe, Jr.)
    -ESSAY : Joan Didion and Twentieth-Century Acts of Interpretation (George P. Landow, The Core)
    -ESSAY :  Joan Didion and "Company": A Response to John Whalen-Bridge (GORDON O. TAYLOR, Connotations 6.2 (1996-97)
    -ESSAY : BOOK NOTES : A Talked-About Dedication (Esther Fein, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : WRITING FOR THE MOVIES IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS (Diane Johnson, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : "On Morality" from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (j turner)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (1996)(MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Michael Wood, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Oct 31, 1996 Elizabeth Hardwick: In the Wasteland (NY Review of Books)
               The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (James Wood, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Dwight Garner, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Kate Tuttle, Boston Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Tai Moses, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion (Donna Seaman, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Last Thing He Wanted (Anna Shapiro, Book Report)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry By Joan Didion (1992)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of After Henry by Joan Didion (Hendrik Hertzberg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami by Joan Didion (1987)(James Chace, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Miami By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR. By Joan Didion (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of SALVADOR By Joan Didion (Warren Hoge, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Democracy by Joan Didion (1984)(Mary McCarthy, NY Times Book Review)
 

JOHN GREGORY DUNNE :
    -PROFILE : HOW JOHN GREGORY DUNNE PUTS HIMSELF INTO HIS BOOKS (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -PROFILE : AT LUNCH WITH: John Gregory Dunne; The Bad Old Days In All Their Glory (BERNARD WEINRAUB, The New York Times, September 14, 1994)

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