Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion-Book
In the literary world Joan Didion’s work is spoken of almost with reverence. I must admit that I was intimidated and put her off for years. Then I watched a documentary about her life on Prime or Netflix. She was born in 1934 and died in 2021 which means we experienced many of the same years and events; attitudes and politics. She was married to John Gregory Dunne in 1964. He died in 2003. Two years later their daughter Quintana Roo died.
I always thought she would be a west coast Dorothy Parker, witty and biting, or that she would be obscure and academic. She was a west coast girl, brought up in Sacramento who went to live in New York City in her twenties where she met her husband. After they married, they moved to LA.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the title of Didion’s book and is the title of an essay in her book. The title comes from the last line of a poem by W. B. Yeats called The Last Coming. The book is a good place to start because it is made up of short observational articles that Didion previously published and collected for this iconic book. The articles were written in her twenties and thirties between 1961 and 1968, peak counterculture years. Turns out that Joan Didion is not the least bit like any of writers I imaged she might be like. She is not sarcastic, although she is honest. She is not obscure and academic, although she did live in a rarified world most of us don’t even visit. She was an observer and her take on the things she observed was uniquely her own. Her writing seems deceptively easy to read but would not be easy for anyone else to write.
In the ‘Preface’ Didion says, “This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun: those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.”
The first section is named “Life Styles in the Golden Land. ” This section ends with the title piece, observations made during a stay in Haight Ashbury by someone who is not a flower child. She is documenting what she sees; she’s not a participant in the rather messy lives she briefly occupies. What she sees is not romanticized, it is reported, but it is also immersive and presents a verbal sketchbook that offers up reality without too much judgement.
The second section is labeled ‘Personals’ and the articles begin with “On” or “I” like the ruminations of 18 th century poets or essayists. “On Self-Respect” will lead you to examine yourself and see how you measure up to your ideas of yourself. “Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at least, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no precisely drawn lists of good intentions.”
The last section is labeled “Seven Places of the Mind.” These articles are literally thoughts set down in or about different geographic locations. All take us to the location Didion is examining in her mind and perhaps in person. The last place, in the article entitled “Goodbye to All That” shares Didion’s take on New York City, especially as a west coast transplant. She stayed far longer than she intended but she always felt like she might leave at any moment. “Quite simply,” she writes, “I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way. I mean I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and brought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I have come out of the West and reached the mirage.”
I no longer buy a lot of print books since moving with book is so difficult and I didn’t want to leave the task to one of my sister’s when I am gone, but I decided that owning Joan Didion’s books allowed me to take as much time as I wished. Especially because the articles in this book are short it is easy to pick up the book, which is quite flexible and not the least bit formal (the kind of book a guy could roll up and put in a pocket) open it up and read one article or several or all of them in one sitting.