Wednesday, January 9, 2013

On Re-reading "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," by Joan Didion

I have read much of Joan Didion’s writing over the years, and since I started this blog, have read or re-read some of her work. (See my posts of 3/23/11 and 1/17/12.). As I wrote on 12/9/12, a recent blogpost by Caroline Leavitt reminded me to re-read more of Didion’s books. I have just finished “Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968, republished 1990) and was blown away by Didion’s powerful, incisive, original style. I had forgotten that Didion essentially invented a new way of writing, and although she has influenced many other writers since, her essays retain all of their thrilling vividness still. She writes mostly about California, where she has lived most of her life, as well as New York, where she lived for some years, with essays about Newport and Hawaii also included. But the California essays are the most compelling. She writes about her hometown, Sacramento, and about Los Angeles, where she lived for so long. She writes about the landscapes and the characters. A specialty is focusing on a particular person or incident, and letting that portrait illuminate much about California, especially during the 1960s. The most fascinating and devastating writing is perhaps that in the long title essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which tells of Haight Street and surroundings in the San Francisco of 1965, during the famous and notorious “summer of love.” Didion stayed In San Francisco for some time, meeting many of the young people on Haight Street, in nearby Golden Gate Park, and around the city who had been drawn there by the music, clothing, drugs, “free love,” and vaunted freedom and (in some cases) idealism offered by the counterculture. Didion’s portrayal of the people and the times is up close and unnervingly, sometimes devastatingly, perceptive. As someone who was young during that time period, and although living far away in the Midwest at the time, who was cautiously somewhat caught up in some of the ethos of the time a few years later (I have occasionally -- and with full acknowledgement of how lame it sounds -- characterized myself during the late 60s and early 70s as a “weekend hippie”), I felt recognition, pleasure, and sadness at the memories of that time period churned up by reading this essay.

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