“The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.”
This has been the idea of many people who have come to New Orleans. It was the idea of the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who in 1684 set out to establish a city near the base of the Mississippi River, only to fail to find the river’s mouth from the Gulf of Mexico and, after three years, to be murdered by his mutinous crew. It was the idea of William Faulkner, who quit his job as postmaster at the University of Mississippi and moved to New Orleans because he despised taking orders, and of Tennessee Williams, who wrote in his diary, “Here surely is the place that I was made for if any place on this funny old world.” One does not have to stay long to learn how easily plans in New Orleans, like its houses, become waterlogged and subside into the mud, breaking to pieces. “This life,” wrote Williams, shortly before returning to New York, “is all disintegration.”
Joan Didion explained her decision to visit the Gulf Coast in a 2006 interview in The Paris Review: “I had a theory that if I could understand the South, I would understand something about California, because a lot of the California settlers came from the Border South.” It is a counterintuitive theory, for the South and the West represent the poles of American experience—the South drowning in its past, the West looking ahead to distant frontiers in a spirit of earnest, eternal optimism. “The future always looks good in the golden land,” Didion wrote in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” “because no one remembers the past.” In the South no one can forget it.
Didion toured the Gulf South for a month in the summer of 1970, making notes and recording conversations, but never completed a piece. She visited San Francisco in 1976 to cover the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone, but found that she wanted mainly to write about her own childhood and the West’s conception of history. Didion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future.
South and West is, in one regard, the most revealing of Didion’s books. This might seem a far-fetched claim to make about an author who has written about her ancestry, her marriage, her health, and, with painful candor, her grief—Didion’s readers…
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Copyright © 2017 by Nathaniel Rich