D is for Didion, Joan, for Making California Count in the Literary Sense


Michiko Kakutani made an important point, citing Joan Didion herself, who in her book The White Album wrote that Kilimanjaro belonged to Ernest Hemingway, while Oxford, Mississippi was William Faulkner’s– a place belongs to those who claim it the hardest, who remember it best, but also who recreate it in their own image. California, in that sense, Kakutani believed, belonged to Joan Didion.

Time and again, Didion has written about her roots and pioneering ancestors: people who had to leave everything behind, endure extreme hardship but kept their eye on the prize and that prize was California…

Aside from her Didion’s novels and essays about California and culture in general, in the last few years, she has become renowned for her candor to write very openly about her personal problems like nervous breakdowns which both she and her late husband and fellow writer, John Gregory Dunne, experienced in their marriage. Personal drama returned when her only child, an adopted daughter, ended up in a coma during which her husband died of a major heart attack. The daughter did come out of her coma but as Didion was promoting her amazing memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, in New York, her daughter died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage. Those are extreme sacrifices but Didion resorted to her pioneering DNA and noted that to build everything to lose everything in less than a second, was not so much part of the human condition as part and parcel of the Californian condition.

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento in 1938. One of her ancestors came over with the Donner Party but would eventually travel the northern route (via Oregon) with another group and thus escaped being eaten by fellow pioneers. (Don’t worry, I will write a “D is for Donner Party”, soon).

Didion graduated from UC Berkeley in 1956 and launched her writing career by winning the Prix de Paris in the same year, for Vogue magazine. She then moved to New York to work for Vogue and married her husband in 1963. But she couldn’t resist the pull of the West (the call of home) and moved back to California (Los Angeles) to write novels and essays.

Although California returns in her work as a kind of blueprint, her most interesting work in this sense may well be the book of essays Where I Was From (2003). While it seems as if Didion prides herself on her Californian roots and her family’s long history out West, she manages to combine this sense of Californian nostalgia with a sense of reality. In a memorable moment in the book, she tells the reader that when her grandfather saw a rattle snake by the side of the road, he would get out of his car and kill it, so others wouldn’t be endangered. Newcomers to California, however, didn’t understand this code of the West, i.e. that it was their obligation too to kill rattle snakes, nor did they know that the water that was coming from the tap in San Francisco only was possible because part of Yosemite was inundated. They, according to Didion, didn’t know the physical reality of the state or the necessary dynamics of fires and seven years’ cycles of floods and droughts. Ironically, while her grandfather was irritated by newcomers’ indifference to California circumstances, it was these newcomers, Didion writes, who also enriched California. When you read that, you think of tech millionaires and entrepreneurs but then Didion gives it another twist and mentions Latino immigrants who are too poor to live in apartments and have to make do with motels and garages, but make California’s extreme wealth possible at the same time.

While the above mentioned book begins with the interesting  frontier history of California as a state, and subsequently, the mentioning of the Californian Dream of the 1960s with the building of new infrastructure and highway system and employment in the aviation and space industry, the University of California system which practically guaranteed that every child in California had the right to a college education, the water infrastructure instituted by governor Pat Brown, the rise of Silicon Valley and the digital revolution,  and the Californian possibilities of social mobility, the book ends with the fear that the Californian Dream is turning into a nightmare: the infrastructure is no longer kept up, there is excessive urban sprawl in places like LA, the aviation and space industry have been eroded, the UC system is becoming so expensive that it’s out of reach for the middle class, Silicon Valley is experiencing boom and bust cycles (dotcoms turning into dotbombs) and the levies and dams of the Sacramento Valley are so poorly maintained that one big earthquake will lead to major floods and well, social mobility no longer seems to exist in a state in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Mind you, Didion wrote all of this before the state went bankrupt in 2009, but sadly, her predictions were uncannily accurate.

And thus she ends the book on a somber note. While looking back on a moment in time, in 1992, when she drove her elderly mother from Monterey to Berkeley, she noticed that her mother no longer recognized the landscape. “Where did it all go?’ Her mother asked. She meant, Didion adds, where were San Benito and Santa Clara Counties like she remembered them: hills on the coast north of Salinas with grazing cattle which now had been replaced by miles of new construction in pastel colors and concrete jungles of highways which formerly didn’t exist. For a few miles, Didion writes, she was quiet. Then she said California had been changed into San Jose, all San Jose.

Oi. I believe in Californian optimism but I also believe in Joan Didion’s wisdom.

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One Response to D is for Didion, Joan, for Making California Count in the Literary Sense

  1. Your post is making me want to read Joan Didion again, and I thank you for that. Enjoyed reading your piece.

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