Suppose, then, we imagine a mind always thinking of what it has just done and never of what it is doing, like a song which lags behind its accompaniment. Let us try to picture to ourselves a certain inborn lack of elasticity of both senses and intelligence, which brings it to pass that we continue to see what is no longer visible, to hear what is no longer audible, to say what is no longer to the point: in short, to adapt ourselves to a past and therefore imaginary situation, when we ought to be shaping our conduct in accordance with the reality which is present.
—Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic
The Sacramento papers, however, simply mirror the Sacramento peculiarity, the Valley fate, which is to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant.
—Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter”
I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.
—Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” writing at the age of twenty-seven
Probably most Americans have somewhere in our family tree, in the still remembered or the invisible past, stories of a hardship endured—a tyranny escaped, or servitude or poverty outlasted—that would make our current life feel slack by comparison if we could savor the harsh details. Not as many of us have forebears who were so situated, once their hardship ended, as to consider themselves among the founders of an iconic American way of life. Fewer still grew up in the place where this origin myth took hold, generations later and surrounded by its relics.
Such has been the strange, glamorous, burdensome inheritance of Joan Didion. The year in which the story begins, 1846, is a year that, during the triumphant midcentury of Didion’s youth, would have been understood as a turning point in history—the start of a long arc of American ascendance, heralded by historian Bernard DeVoto as the “Year of Decision.” Two decades ahead of the transcontinental railroad that made the journey a reasonable one to attempt, Didion’s great-great-great-grandmother set out from the Missouri Territory, where family before her had previously migrated from Virginia and the Carolinas to the banks of the White River (the same patch of the future state of Arkansas that in the 1990s would bring down upon us the specious labors of Kenneth Starr, prompting Didion later to note, “This is a country at some level not as big as we like to say it is”). Traveling west, this pioneer ancestor rode with the Donner party. But she escaped its outlandish fate as part of a group that peeled off in northwest Nevada and headed for Oregon. On a separate crossing, another great-great-great-grandmother of Didion’s helped to guide her party’s oxen and mules across land not yet set up for their journey; she faced death from mountain fever and saw one child die and gave birth to another.
The women of these and then the next two generations, cut off from old ways but eventually established in newly American Sacramento, still managed to pass on to later generations a few of their delicate heirlooms and intricately worked textiles, samples of which would one day hang on Didion’s wall. The men of the family left behind land and the ethos of the ranch owner, whose identity depended on the vigilant assertion of boundaries. Emotionally, their legacy seems both attractive and impossible. It’s hard to live up to an ideal of pure action, on the one hand, and on the other hand a dream of refinement, consciously cultivated in adversity. It’s hard to pay enough tribute to the past while living out its lesson that you’re the child of radical new beginnings.
In fact, Didion spent a couple of crucial childhood years on the move, outside of California, near army bases in Colorado and North Carolina and Washington State, while her father worked on military contracts during World War II. Judging from Hawaii’s frequent appearance in her early writing it seems likely that her emotions and thoughts were also drawn to this island colonial outpost, which, before the shock of Pearl Harbor, had been the summer escape of choice for Sacramento society. Did these years give Didion training in a second paradox that would later add tension to her prose? In such uprooted circumstances, a sensitive child might feel a special proximity to world-changing events. Yet the very up-closeness of her perspective, so much more alive to her than the general national understanding, might also make it feel like a kind of periphery. And on the periphery, it’s easier to make observations that buck the consensus timeline of history.
When the Didions did live at home, for instance, it was clear that California’s founding days were long over. Partly to blame, or so it seemed to her family at the time, was America’s boosterish transformation after the war. (Much later, in her 2003 memoir Where I Was From, she would challenge this old belief, hinting at some historical blind spots and the family tendency to depression that had fostered it.) Starting in the 1940s, linked booms in aerospace and real estate were turning millions of newcomers into Californians. Grateful to own their homes, maybe a bit too hopeful about the weather, these newcomers tended to see the land as subdividable, not hallowed. Worse, from the conservative old-timer’s point of view, was their eager participation in a mass phenomenon, half orchestrated for them by the government and by banks offering loans. These new Californians bet their lives on the future. “My own childhood,” Didion would write in “Notes from a Native Daughter,” “was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour.”
As a young woman, Didion would dedicate herself to recovering in prose her descendants’ confusing legacy of pride and obsolescence. She was interested in the unique power of writers to stake claim on a place. “Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them,” she would propose in The White Album. “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway.” For a young writer starting out now, this late-modernist ambition of ownership might be a more fraught goal to pursue: artists today may have lost some of the old vastness of aspiration, but they have gained something of value in an awareness that Kilimanjaro exists because it exists. Still, it was in rendering the landscape in and around Sacramento in her first novel, Run River (1963), that Didion began to find her stunning spare rhythms and her distinctive approach to detail: blankly elemental for stretches, then tense with specificity, and gathering by the end of her best sentences an energy of suspense. In this brief sample of a much longer passage, the heroine rides home from San Francisco to Sacramento through untouristed California farmland and backwater Main Streets:
The afternoon heat could bleach those towns so clean that the houses and the buildings seemed always on the verge of dematerializing; there was the sense that to close one’s eyes on a Valley town was to risk opening them a moment later on dry fields, the sun bleaching out the last traces of habitation, a flowered straw hat, a neon advertisement which had blinked a moment before from a wall no longer visible: More Yield from Every Acre with Seeds from Northrup-King.
Writing here seems to function like a kind of insurance, keeping the record for later, in case familiar things suddenly up and disappear. And notice a striking phrase: “There was the sense that…” Soon enough, declarations in this vein would become a signature move in Didion’s work as a journalist. Boldly, she would mix authority and impressionism, the objective-sounding “there was” with the far more elusive “sense”—a transient perception, usually attributable to one perceiving mind. And in so doing, she would come up against one of the key problems in American nonfiction prose in the last half-century. She herself would help to formulate the problem, in fact, and she has never stopped trying—not to solve it, for there may be no solution, but to stay in its challenging presence.
The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?
Intelligent and fiercely styled as her five novels are, Didion’s lasting reputation will be as a writer of nonfiction. Still, it’s important that she trained herself early and devoutly in the art of fiction-writing, and that her best journalism has reached for the artistic play and the wider moral mysteries of literature. The tag of “New Journalism,” applied to her work in the 1960s and 1970s and yoking her with the looser jottings of the likes of Tom Wolfe, matters far less than this. We know from her reverent acknowledgments in print, and from the many interviews she has given over the years, several of the writers she loved. She read Hemingway and Henry James for their very different modeling of an ideal sentence, and she learned from Conrad how a writer might want to hide his meaning in the side pocket of the story. In college, she underlined passages in Henry Adams’s pioneeringly alienated yet history-minded memoir. The spirit of Evelyn Waugh, whom Didion praised in an early uncollected magazine piece, seems visible, if not always to the best effect, behind the valedictory-aristocratic mood of Run River. But it seems mixed in with explorations of American honor and hucksterism influenced by her readings of Faulkner and Fitzgerald, whose narrative daring and social antennae she also admired.
These are a few of Didion’s acknowledged early influences. Unlike several of them, she also had from the start a degree of pop charisma. But this too may have been more complicated than it looked. I’d suggest there’s one more category in which to think about her—a category not of influence or intent but of temperament. There is a certain kind of writer who may be melancholy and shy in youth, absorbing the insecurity of her surroundings. When young, she may keep a notebook in which she makes contact with wild possibilities, dreams, and anxious nightmares. (Of her notebook at the age of five, Didion recalls, “The first entry is an account of a woman who believed herself to be freezing to death in the Arctic night, only to find, when day broke, that she had stumbled onto the Sahara Desert, where she would die of the heat before lunch.”)