Finding meaning on Joan Didion’s frontier

With the release of a new collection, the 86-year-old author returns to her old work and a vast, complicated legacy.

 

“California belongs to Joan Didion,” the book critic Michiko Kakutani declared in The New York Times in 1979. Born in Sacramento to a family that proudly traced its heritage to 19th century settlers, Didion has become inseparable from California and the West. Plenty of readers continue to take Kakutani’s claim at face value, even though Didion has resided in New York City for decades. Didion’s novels and nonfiction, and her chic brand of California cool, are still lauded as an alternative to the masculine myth of the frontier.

Didion, who is 86, hasn’t published a book of new work in nearly a decade. Her latest, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is a slim volume of previously uncollected essays that contains just a smattering of reflections on California and the West. Most of the pieces, which range from a begrudgingly admiring feature on Martha Stewart to a self-effacing reflection on being rejected from Stanford, will be familiar to any Didion fan with an internet connection. The collection nonetheless offers an important opportunity to revisit the question of Didion’s fraught connection to place, one that has always been more complicated than Kakutani’s declaration suggests.

As its title implies, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is part of Didion’s effort to define her own legacy. She is wary of literary marketing gone awry: In one of the essays, “Last Words,” she reflects on the decision of Ernest Hemingway’s fourth wife to violate her husband’s wishes by posthumously publishing much of his uncollected and unfinished work. “What followed was the systematic creation of a marketable product,” Didion writes — his name was ultimately licensed to Thomasville Furniture Industries for the “Ernest Hemingway Collection.” Didion’s horror at seeing one of her literary heroes reduced to a marketing slogan for a middlebrow furniture line hints at the motivation behind her own publication. Let Me Tell You What I Mean does not peddle the false promise of a glimpse at the woman behind the authorial persona. Instead, it allows Didion to achieve what Hemingway could not: a collection of B-sides that enriches, rather than undercuts, her carefully constructed literary brand.

Portrait: Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty
Photo illustration: Julia Lubas/High Country News

This is a timely maneuver, as a new generation of readers approaches Didion’s work with a more critical eye. In a May 2020 piece in Electric Literature entitled “It’s Time to Take California Back from Joan Didion,” Chicana author Myriam Gurba calls for a “rebellion against Didion’s racial grammar” that could “unseat her as California’s thin-lipped literary grand dame.” Gurba critiques Didion’s early work, focusing on her writing about the Donner Party, the storied band of would-be California pioneers who resorted to cannibalism in the snows of the Sierra Nevada. Accusing Didion of whitewashing history, Gurba restores to the narrative the stories of Antonio, a Mexican, and two Miwok Indians, Lewis and Salvador, who travelled with the Donners but are never mentioned in any of Didion’s writings. Lewis and Salvador were hunted down and shot by the white settlers for food; Antonio was cannibalized after dying of exposure.

In her conclusion, Gurba writes that “Didion inherited a wagon-trail morality from her ancestors. From my queer Brown ancestors I inherited a different kind of morality, one that drives me to write for Lewis, Salvador, Antonio, and Jeanne (Córdova)” — a queer Chicana activist who worked for a time as Didion’s nanny. “In this moment, California belongs to them. This sentence is their title, their deed.”

“In this moment, California belongs to them. This sentence is their title, their deed.”

Gurba confronts Didion’s image from the other side of a literary frontier, highlighting the voices of those who defined California before the arrival of Didion’s ancestors and before American statehood. A different image is painted by The New Yorker critic Hilton Als in his introduction to Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Als’ Didion is the late-career author who examines “the racial bias and the Central Park Five” in The New York Review of Books, “Reagan-era El Salvador” in her third novel, and “the smug, violent, white male carelessness” of a Southern California high school gang, known as the “Spur Posse,” in her 2003 memoir Where I Was From. This Didion is not only presciently attuned to issues of social justice; she is someone whose identity as a Californian is merely incidental to her brilliance: “Could be California, could be anywhere.”

Indeed, in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, the West takes center stage only briefly. “A Trip to Xanadu” offers an incisive appraisal of the aesthetics of San Simeon, the monstrous California castle built by William Randolph Hearst; “Fathers, Sons, Screaming Eagles” uses a reunion of the 101st Airborne Association in Las Vegas to meditate on the cost of the nation’s endless wars. Taken on their own, these essays do little to reconcile Als’ image of Didion as a woke cosmopolitan with Gurba’s portrait of a racist regionalist. The book’s most significant lessons about Didion’s relationship to the West arrive more subtly.

One such lesson comes in “Why I Write,” a 1975 meditation on craft. Here, Didion wrestles with her own tendency to play both the role of detached observer and that of committed social commentator. It opens with a declaration of the insidious nature of writing’s persuasive force. “There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition,” she writes. Didion meditates on her failure as a young writer “to forge for (herself) a mind that could deal in the abstract,” acknowledging that her “attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible.” 

These sentences echo “On Morality,” an essay she wrote a decade earlier in a Death Valley motel room while trying to ward off the apocalyptic desert heat. “With the help of the ice cubes I have been trying to think … in some abstract way about ‘morality,’ ” she writes, “but my mind veers inflexibly toward the particular.” In a meditation on the Western landscape, frontier history and the social unrest of the summer of 1965, Didion traces this insistence on the particular to the  “wagon-train morality” of the frontier. Against the “insidious ethic of conscience,” Didion embraces this morality “that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good.” The celebrated coolness of Didion’s style, the detachment from fashionable moral imperatives that enabled her incisive perspective on both hippies and Reaganites, is inherited, in her telling, from the pragmatism of her pioneer ancestors.   

Against the “insidious ethic of conscience,” Didion embraces this morality “that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good.”

Such pragmatism is easier to celebrate when one forgets that some of the prominent “moral imperatives” in early 1965 were those that led Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery. “On Morality,” like so much of Didion’s early writing, elides the contemporary and historical racial violence that Gurba uncovers. In her debut novel Run River (1963), Didion’s semi-autobiographical protagonist Lily Knight ponders her family’s frontier story only to conclude that it “had been above all a history of accidents — of moving on and accidents.” One can hardly imagine Indigenous or Mexican Californians describing the history of Anglo settlement of the state in those terms. Beneficiaries of that history like Didion, on the other hand, have far more motivation to explain its violence as incidental. 

If this “wagon-train morality” shaped Didion’s approach to her craft, then an honest assessment of her legacy demands that we echo Gurba’s questions about the writer’s relationship to the violence of settlement. But it’s just as important to acknowledge that Didion has posed these questions herself.

In Where I Was From, Didion interrogates her own “confusions about the place in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California, misapprehensions and misunderstandings so much a part of who I became that I can only to this day confront them obliquely.” Here she draws connections that are anything but accidental — tying her ancestors’ violent encounters with Indigenous people to the crimes of the late 20th century “Spur Posse” that Hilton Als mentions. The book’s title expresses, on the one hand, doubt over the very possibility of regional belonging. On the other, to borrow Didion’s words, it implies that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Let Me Tell You What I Mean reminds Didion’s readers that the most enduring theme of her work is an endlessly recursive self-scrutiny, a movement from the abstractions “floating in the distance” of her mind to the disillusions of the particular. This is an important lesson for anyone who finds her work either an inspiring or odious model for negotiating one’s place in the American West. Her genius emerges neither from a detached pragmatism nor an unacknowledged idealism, but from the ongoing tension between the two. “Didion’s California” will always be a storied place in the process of disenchantment.

At the conclusion of her essay on San Simeon in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Didion remembers her own childhood fascination with the then-private Hearst castle. She reflects on what has been lost — what fantasies have been dispelled — by taking her young niece on a tour of the grounds with her. “She liked the flowers and the pools and the ornate ceilings, but it occurred to me as we left that she would have found it more affecting had she only glimpsed it from Highway 1, the gates barred, the castle floating in the distance,” Didion writes. “Make a place available to the eyes, and in certain ways it is no longer available to the imagination.”   

Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of U.S. culture and transnational settler colonialism. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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