“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 are, after all, on familiar terms with the personal details of her life. But the writing itself—the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance, elevating personal experience into universal revelation—has an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain. South and West offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls.
For each piece she reported, Didion converted pages of loose-leaf notebooks into scrapbooks of material related to her theme. She inserted newspaper articles and other writers’ works, like C. Vann Woodward’s “The Search for Southern Identity,” biographical summaries, lists of suggested themes, and overheard dialogue, which often seems taken from one of her novels. (“I never been anyplace,” says a Biloxi woman, “I wanted to go.”) In her notes we learn of her “reporting tricks,” which are less tricks than an intuitive genius for locating the people in a given community who will best reveal its character: the director of the local College of Cosmetology, the white owner of the black radio station, the bridal consultant of the largest department store.
The notebooks also include transcriptions of her observations, which she typed at the end of each day. These notes represent an intermediate stage of writing, between shorthand and first draft, composed in an uncharacteristically casual, immediate style. There are sentences that are ideas for sentences, paragraphs that are ideas for scenes: “The land looks rich, and many people from Birmingham, etc. (rich people) maintain places here to hunt.” “The country way in which he gave me names.” “The resolutely ‘colorful,’ anecdotal quality of San Francisco history.” “The sense of sports being the opiate of the people.” “The sense of not being up to the landscape.” The effect can be jarring, like seeing Grace Kelly photographed with her hair in rollers or hearing the demo tapes in which Brian Wilson experiments with alternative arrangements of “Good Vibrations.”
Yet even in its most casual iteration, Didion’s voice, with its sensitivity to the grotesqueries and vanities that dance beneath the skim of daily experience, is unmistakable. The New Orleans atmosphere “never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” The audience dutifully watching Loving at the movie theater in Meridian gazes at the screen “as if the movie were Czech.” The rivers are always brown and still: “A sense,” she writes, “of water moccasins.” Didion’s implacable fatalism is at home in the South, particularly in New Orleans: “Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die.”
She made her tour in a rental car but the road-trip aspect is barely commented upon; instead we have the surreal image of Didion swimming her way across the Gulf South through its motel pools. At the Edgewater Gulf Hotel pool in Biloxi “the water smells of fish,” at the Howard Johnson’s in Meridian a child dries off in a Confederate-flag beach towel, at the Ramada Inn in Tuscaloosa “everything seemed to be made of concrete, and damp,” in Winfield the pool is filled with algae, at the Oxford Holiday Inn the broadcast of a radio station can be heard underwater, and at the St. Francis Motel in Birmingham, her bikini attracts excited comment from the bar. Lying poolside, she feels “the euphoria of Interstate America: I could be in San Bernardino, or Phoenix, or outside Indianapolis,” but these motels have the appearance of stage sets. They are American markers artificially planted in the brooding wildness of the Deep South, which in these notes resembles a foreign country as exotic as El Salvador, Vietnam, Granada, or the other tropics “of morbidity and paranoia and fantasy” to which she gravitated in her nonfiction and fiction.
Even the glimpses of unlikely beauty—the wild carrots growing around the raised railroad tracks in Biloxi, the small girl sitting in the sawdust stringing pop tops from beer cans into a necklace—contribute to the general atmosphere of uneasiness, rot, and “somnolence so dense it seemed to inhibit breathing.” There is a long tradition of northern visitors seeing in the Gulf South an atmosphere of perpetual decline, in which “everything seems to go to seed.” Didion quotes Audubon’s line about “the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition,” though you could go back to 1720, when a visiting French official described the territory as “flooded, unhealthy, impracticable.” Didion is on narrower footing, however, when she describes her central thesis:
a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.
How could the hidebound South, in its perpetual disintegration and defiant decadence, at the same time represent the future? Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. Part of the answer, she suspects, lies in the bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage—“distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny and to leave deliberately unmentioned.” In the South such distinctions are visible, rigid, and the subject of frank conversation. She visits Stan Torgerson, the owner of Meridian’s “ethnic station,” who programs gospel and soul and a show called Adventures in Black History, “to point out the contributions black people have made.” He speaks of the importance of increased minimum wage and education funding, while being careful not to overstate his own open-mindedness. “I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight,” he tells her, as they drive through the deserted downtown, “’cause I’m not.”
Didion encounters the same conception of social order at the Mississippi Broadcasters’ awards banquet, where the lieutenant governor decries violent campus protests, and in Birmingham, where someone jokes about the “feudal situation” in which white tenants live on wealthy country estates. Everybody in the South knows where they stand. There is no shame in discussing it. It is suspicious, in fact, to avoid the subject.
This kind of thinking seemed retrograde in the Seventies. From the vantage of New York, California, even New Orleans, it still seems so today. But this southern frame of mind has annexed territory in the last four decades, expanding across the Mason-Dixon Line into the rest of rural America. It has taken root among people—or at least registered voters—nostalgic for a more orderly past in which the men concentrated on hunting and fishing and the women on “their cooking, their canning, their ‘prettifying’”; when graft as a way of life was accepted, particularly in politics, and segregation was unquestioned; when a white supremacist running for public office was “a totally explicable phenomenon”; when a wife knew better than to travel through strange territory with a bikini and without a wedding ring.
An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive. Nobody, certainly, in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, which since Didion’s reporting has only accelerated in its embrace of an ethic in which the past is fluid, meaningless, neutered by technological advancement. In this view the past is relegated to the aesthetic realm, to what Didion describes in “California Notes” as “decorative touches”—tastefully aged cutlery and window curtains. In this view the past was safely dead and could not return to bloody the land.
Two decades into the new millennium, however, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life. They still believe in the viability of armed revolt. As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval, particularly disapproval by the northern press. They have resisted with mockery, then rage, the collapse of the old identity categories. They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration. They have resisted new technology and scientific evidence of global ecological collapse. The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.
A writer from the Gulf South once wrote that the past is not even past. Didion goes further, suggesting that the past is also the future. Now that we live in that future, her observations read like a warning unheeded. They suggest that California’s dreamers of the golden dream were just that—dreamers—while the “dense obsessiveness” of the South, and all the vindictiveness that comes with it, was the true American condition, the condition to which we will always inevitably return. Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America.