False Promises

Joan Didion
Joan Didion; drawing by David Levine

Just as civilizations have foundation myths, Americans have arrival myths, the whole collective notion of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free mixed with the particular memories of a grandparent arrived at Ellis Island or, in other parts of the country, recollections of military valor or imaginary Old World privilege, or of taming the wilderness, with its motifs of covered wagon, log cabin, and struggles against nature’s inhospitality. Essential to the core California mythology was the dream of Eldorado—the gold and treasure beyond the Rockies, and there was a requisite crossing story, the bitterly hard journey by which you got there. Underlying the arrival story in each region of America—and all are different—was the same explicit promise of freedom and opportunity, usually meaning freedom from persecution and freedom to become rich.

The conflation of abstract virtues like industry and fortitude with material aspiration is the basic American hypocrisy, perhaps imported from England, or from Protestantism—accounts vary—but it is ours, and it is the subject of Joan Didion’s meditation Where I Was From. “This book represents an exploration into my own confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California.” In one sense or another this has been the subject of much of her work, and its abiding perspective, here cast in a newly personal way as family anecdote, California history, personal experience. Though the regional arrival stories differ from one another, the evolution and fate of California will anticipate those of the rest of America, and it is this larger significance that gives the incidents of a particular Sacramento girlhood their premonitory power.

Like all California children, Didion had been fed the old stories of California history, but when she eventually came to think about them, she could see they didn’t “add up.” The disjunction between myth and reality was too large, the basic paradoxes of the California psyche too obvious: mistrust of government while feeding at the troughs of public works and agricultural subsidies; unchecked commercial exploitation of natural resources in the very footsteps of John Muir; the decline of education from a place near the top of the nation to somewhere near that of Mississippi; apathy, increasing rates of crime, and crime’s related social problems.

Californians, as she came to see, have been more guilty than others of myth inflation—and mythology, when it isn’t hypocrisy, is too often just a failure of analysis. As she came to understand what didn’t “add up,” it was that the process

of trading the state to outside owners in exchange for their (it now seems) entirely temporary agreement to enrich us, in other words the pauperization of California, had in fact begun at the time Americans first entered the state, took what they could, and, abetted by the native weakness for boosterism, set about selling the rest.

From the beginning, California…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.