My Thoughts on “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion

Joan Didion reflects on her personal past in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” through a collection of numerous essays. She was subjective in her storytelling (“What Followed”) which can be seen as unprofessional as a journalist because it appears that she finds others she writes about to be inferior compared to her, and it is hard to decipher the truth as a reader if what she is writing about is credible since it is her own opinion, and not necessarily factual.

During the 1960s, drugs were running rampant throughout the Haight in California, which Joan Didion herself experienced. By using other characters’ tragedies when drugs were being used, Didion inserted herself through first-person literary journalism. These tragedies portray Didion’s feelings toward mishaps that often occurred during this period such as suicides, car wrecks, divorces, etc. Because she wanted to remember what it was to be her old self (“What Followed”), she told a story to her readers about how close she was to the edge in her past life. Her personal opinions apply to every scenario in all of the essays encased in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which makes her work subjective and quite possibly not credible. Throughout these essays, we can see her resistance to closure as California transforms. She is unable to move on from Old California to New California. I see this subjectivity as Didion’s way of trying to make peace with her past. However, Didion adds a lot of subjective details that are hard to discern as either a truth or a lie. Just because she is subjective, I do not think that gives her the opportunity to undo some details that seem deceptive for readers.

In Michiko Kakutani’s article about Joan Didion that was featured in the New York Times, she mentioned that Didion’s tone is “unsentimental.” I find this to be false because in a lot of these essays, Didion is nostalgic in her mood and her tone. In her essay “Goodbye to All That,” she talks about her younger twenties and her move to New York. When talking about her instinct of what New York would be, she said “…and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read…” (“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” p. 226). She recognizes that her transition from California will be quite hard and is sentimental to say goodbye upon her arrival to New York due to songs and stories she has heard previously. Didion’s use of first-person takes us as readers into her feelings. In “On Epidemic Personism,” Herbert Gold said, “In the fantastic heart of writers there is always the temptation to justify, to brag and confess, to make their own immortal souls the prime issue for everyone else.” Gold’s statement is true of the sentimentality Didion provides for her readers. She opens her heart in her essays a lot, even though you cannot always feel for her because the scenario she explains does not seem so terrible.

Another example of Didion’s subjectivity applies to the bride in “Dreamers of a Golden Dream.” She says the bride is wearing an “illusion veil.” To readers, this can be seen as harsh judgment because this “illusion veil” portrays that the bride is blind to what is in front of her. I do not find this to be making fun of the bride, but rather satirizing weddings overall because marriage is never what people expect it to be. In Kakutani’s article “Joan Didion: Staking Out California,” she explains how Didion has seemed to be fixed on failures of life and marriage since she was young. Didion’s first book was about failed marriage, so I think it is important to realize that Didion is not being harsh with her marriage views, just the thought of marriage itself consumes her which is why she writes so much about it. She writes another essay in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” titled “Marrying Absurd.” She explains the wedding culture of Las Vegas and how cheap it is to get married. She inserts a lot of pessimism in her essays about marriage, which shows the readers that at one time in her past, she dealt with a failed relationship.

In Didion’s writing about how California has transcribed, it is obvious that she is sentimental to the era of her childhood. She writes about California as though it is a mythical place. To Didion, California was her whole world. In the reading “What Followed,” Didion’s writing was described as “the phenomenal world she is reporting on.” Even Kakutani says California was Didion’s place. Through her description, we see Didion reporting California to her readers as she knew it. When explaining how prominent drugs were during her time, she wrote about a scene when a three-year-old set fire in an apartment. She said the hippies who resided did not even notice “because they were in the kitchen trying to retrieve some very good Moroccan hash which had dropped down through a floorboard damaged in the fire” (“The Struggle for Articulation and Didion’s Construction of the Reader’s Self-Respect,” Paul Heilker). At this time, people’s priorities were different with drugs in mind.

Didion also writes about her social status in what was known to be “Old California.” She was an educated female with class and wealth. In “The Courage of Her Afflictions” by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Harrison finds Didion to be putting people down for their social status. I do not agree with this because Didion is being sentimental for what California used to be, and unappreciative for what it turned into. Didion’s rhetoric throughout her essays portrays that she sees new California as fake, compared to when it was full of order, civilization and values. Didion sees new California as a loss and writes about what has changed it and how it dies in the essays “I Can’t Get That Monster Out of My Mind” and “On Mortality.” Rather than seeing Didion’s writing as judgmental, we should appreciate her nostalgia for the place she used to know.

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