April 18, 2017

South and West: From a Notebook
Joan Didion

The Hypnotist – In the first few years of the 1980s, I was an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, majoring in political science and journalism. I threw more effort into my jobs – reporter and editor positions at the student-run newspaper, The Northern Star – than I did into my studies. That’s something I don’t especially regret, but just a bit more effort in the classroom would’ve paid off, I now see. Still, I loved working at The Star – interviewing people from all walks of life, writing daily news articles and features about their triumphs and struggles, covering the ins-and-outs of local politics, debating the newspaper’s editorial positions, banging out a few personal essays, learning the value of a good editor’s insightful questions, and adjusting the barricades around my own narrow thinking thanks to regular jousts with our older, more conservative faculty adviser, Jerry E. Thompson. The skills I honed then have served me well during the past 35 years; plus, I made many lifelong friends (the photo below shows Ed Underhill and me outside the newspaper office after our building’s sign had been vandalized).

The early 1980s were an exciting time to study and practice journalism. The aura of Woodward and Bernstein was forefront in our consciousness; in addition, student reporters just a class or two ahead of ours’ at The Star had similarly “taken down” a president, the president of the university, after he committed a hit-and-run accident. What’s more, it was a joy in those days to swim in the warm, buoyant gulf stream of New Journalism. On many paydays, we’d cash our checks, walk into town to drink too much cheap beer, and then stumble back toward campus to scour paperbacks at the Junction Bookstore. From there, we’d head to Pizza Villa or the Dill Pickle to soak up the Miller Lite, armed with books by the literary journalists: Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Joan Didion.

So, this was the time in my life when I became hypnotized by Joan Didion, entranced by her essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” The spell of her writing – the persistent undercurrent of aching dread combined with a riptide of intense curiosity – nearly overwhelmed my inherent optimism. Still does. Didion’s writing also indelibly shaped my impressions of California two decades before I would set foot in that great nation-state.

Over the years, I was enticed, again and again, by her sorcery – in “Salvador,” “After Henry,” and, most recently, in her heartbreaking masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

Now comes “South and West,” collected impressions from her notebooks rather than formal, finished essays; but, as writer Nathaniel Rich states in his foreword, Didion’s notes “surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers.” Indeed. Among the gems:

Writing about her visit to Biloxi, during which a radio man introduces an act by saying, “Out in Colorado … or out somewhere in the West there … there’s a quaint little village named Taos.” Didion shares some of the audience’s conversation as the act takes the stage, then observes: “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all, if Taos is not in Mississippi?”

Didion later quotes Charles L. Sullivan, who is introduced as “lieutenant governor of the state of Mississippi and a member of the Clarksdale Baptist Church.” The politician declares: “I have come to think we are living in the era of the demonstrators – unruly, unwashed, uninformed, and sometimes un-American people – disrupting private and public life in this country.” He then goes on to complain about the media. This is Mississippi, 1970, but could easily be Trump squatting upon his Golden throne, Tweeting his latest early-morning harangue.

On corruption: “Most southerners are political realists: they understand and accept the realities of working politics in a way we never did in California. Graft as a way of life is accepted, even on the surface.”

On racism: Didion quotes a white man, who claims progressive thoughts on race relations: “And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing.”

After visiting Hodding Carter III and others in the Delta, Didion observes: “The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”

In Meridian, feeling more and more like a foreigner, an outsider, Didion makes an appointment with the director of a local cosmetology school. When the writer arrives for the appointment, the door is locked. She waits, she goes downstairs to drink a Coca-Cola, but when she returns, the doors are still locked. “We had misunderstood one another, or we had not,” Didion concludes, in what might be the quintessential Didion statement.

And her last line on California: “I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.”

Joan Didion has been casting spells to help us understand places and their people for nearly 50 years. Her work is not done.


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