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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.