What Joan Didion Saw

Joan Didion receives an honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Harvard University in 2009. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Fifty years later, her observations on American atomization and despair feel eerily contemporary.

Despite America’s recent decades of unprecedented material prosperity, Americans have become increasingly pessimistic about the state of society and the future. Social fragmentation, alienation, and loneliness are the rule, not the exception. However, American social attitudes did not change overnight. To a perceptive observer, these changes have been apparent since the mid 20th century. Joan Didion, in her thoughtful tracing of disparate lives, proves a useful guide in examining the roots from which American civil life has decayed 

In her essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Didion traces Americanism through the Golden State, from a peculiar murder trial that shakes the inhabitants of an upwardly mobile middle-class town on the outskirts of San Bernardino to the hippies of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, who wandered across the country and through their minds on mental trips in search of purpose or understanding.  

The types of people she describes in Slouching Towards Bethlehem could not be more distinct. But all share the quiet bleakness of living in the shadow of a dream that never is realized — the dream of a progressive, materialistic America where the future always offers more happiness than the past, and where what is new must be better than what is old.  

In most cases, their desperation and despair is not from a lack of access to material goods or opportunities. Didion saw that all these people put all their hopes in the future without proper regard for the past.  

Didion is not a conservative, exactly, although the case has been made for her being an unorthodox one. She stands out among cultural critics of the 20th century in that she was writing not to support a certain perspective, but simply to make sense of the lives of Americans. 

Didion was at once fiercely defensive of America and acutely aware of its deficiencies. She became an expert on the American sensibility at a time when the country was in a fevered adolescence. She was fascinated by the nation’s shifting character during the 60— marked by its peculiar mix of optimistic progressivism, spiritual fervor, and potentially self-destructive self-reliance.  

In a 1960 essay for National Review, Didion eviscerated typical European criticisms of America. She described the London Times Literary Supplement’s special number “The American Imagination” as “an indelibly British blend of gross clichés, vapidity, and startling misconceptions about the nature of American experience — one more round in that old Anglo-French game, Understanding America.”

Didion was writing during a time of social upheaval. And what she found in each case she observed was naïve, absolute hope filling the void that was left by the decline of civil habits, traditions, and institutions.   

She describes dusty San Bernardino as a symbol of the ceaselessly unfulfilled promise of the future: People freely throw away what they have — old cars, old marriages — assuming something better is always just on the horizon.  

“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past,” she wrote. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer.”  

The first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is on the case of Lucille Miller, who was found guilty of killing her husband, Gordon, in an automobile fire. Didion writes of the extramarital affairs, drug abuse, and socio-economic climbing that marked the Millers’ lives. But the case was only as shocking as any other passing scandal, and was “pushed off the Examiner’s front page only by the Academy Award nominations.” There is something mundane about the proceedings, and there are few gestures towards justice or even vengeance. Although it garnered attention for a time, once it was no longer new, the case was no longer meaningful to many people.

The Millers lived focused on the assumption of an idyllic future but were not able to temper their expectations within the context of societal history or the experience of previous generations. The bleakness of the promise of progressivism is apparent in their empty aspirations. 

Elsewhere in California, deep in the hippie enclave of San Francisco, Didion noticed a newly formed cleft between the generations that has only deepened since:  

Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.

Many of the hippies were young, aspiring members of the middle class — highschoolers who had dropped out and left their homes to join a movement. Yet they were not alienated because they had run away. They had already been orphaned by their society that had given them little in the way of direction.  

The hippies were philosophically nihilistic because they had nothing sensible to ground themselves in besides empty platitudes. Didion describes the hippies scrounging around Haight-Ashbury as “less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.”

The Millers’ lives were not nearly as precarious as those of the hippies. But both had a dearth of guiding values and a surplus of mad hope. Drugs and affairs replaced virtues and responsibilities. 

These problems apparent in mid-century California have only metastasized. We have little left that is shared, and deeper ignorance begets increasing isolation. Today’s teenagers break fewer laws than their hippie predecessors did. But the new passive obedience is born more out of digital distraction than genuine satisfaction with life or a rediscovery of lost guiding values.  

What Didion said of the hippies then is only truer of young people now: “Their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes.” Now it is not even so much a conscientious rejection of older societal standards but an unawareness of them. The youth, taking a cue from their progressive ancestors, may want to reject societal expectations or traditions, but they have few expectations and little patrimony left to reject.  

Somewhere along the way, we replaced the lessons of years of human history with anodyne axioms. The absence of an inheritance that is substantive rattles through the generations. 

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