When it comes to essays, Joan Didion is among the greats, at least she is by reputation. Before reading this collection, I’d not read many of her essays, “Goodbye to All That” and maybe a few others. I’d also read The Year of Magical Thinking several years ago, but that’s a lengthy memoir on a difficult and personal theme. Would her essays prove as rich? Or would a collection of writings from the 1960s just feel like a dated artifact?
The essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem cover a range of topics and styles. There are journalistic pieces, like the riveting true crime story that opens the collection, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” There’s a piece on John Wayne and another on Joan Baez, in which Didion observes:
Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happen, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the bird and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who “feels” things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez never leaves the Carmel Valley.
The journalistic pieces are very much of their time, but Didion explores the time and place in such a way evoke grander themes than those of the here and now (or the there and then). The Baez essay discusses celebrity and image and aging, and much that Didion says about Baez could apply to any number of young female celebrities in the decades since.
The title piece, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” digs into the culture of Haight-Ashbury in the spring of 1967, a place where “the center was not holding.” I especially liked reading a contemporary account of this world because now, almost 50 years later, it’s tempting to apply a clear narrative to a phenomenon that didn’t make much sense even to those in the midst of it. As Didion describes it, there was no single movement that brought people to the Haight, no revolution in the offing. Didion writes, “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.” Didion neither glorifies nor condemns these children. She observes them, makes notes, comments. It’s not a think piece or a hot take, but it makes you think.
Didion includes herself in her journalistic pieces, but she also writes straight-up personal essays, several of which are in this collection. I especially loved “On Keeping a Notebook,” where Didion writes:
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; on of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat …. The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished.
The piece “On Morality,” with its “fashionable madmen,” is alarmingly relevant, and I’ll probably need to read it many more times to fully take it in.
The travel essays that close the collection are also very good. As a whole, the collection is pleasing in its variety. Didion had range.
As I read these essays, I kept thinking of how many of today’s essayists blend the personal and the observational in the way that Didion does. Leslie Jamison specifically came to mind as an heir of Didion. Didion’s insights and her words feel so much weightier than a lot of what I read today. I wonder how many of today’s essayists will still be read in 50 years. But does Didion seem especially profound because, in this collection, she’s speaking from another era? Whatever the case, I’m eager to read more.