Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Long-standing readers of this blog may recall my admiration for Joan Didion’s work, both her fiction and her non-fiction pieces. I’ve already written about three of this writer’s books: her debut, Run River; her seminal novel, Play It As It Lays; and, probably my favourite so far, her remarkable memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem brings together twenty of Didion’s essays, mostly articles that were originally written for magazines between 1965 and 1968. It’s a perceptive, erudite collection, piercing in its ability to capture a certain time and cultural mood, reflective in its observations on the social context of the day. There are some standout pieces here, many of which would stand up to a second or third reading – I hope to give you a flavour of them in this review. (This is my contribution to Simon and Karen’s 1968 Club which is running throughout the week.)

The book comprises three sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land; Personals; and Seven Places of the Mind. One element that runs through several of the pieces, irrespective of their central theme, is a palpable sense of place – nicely illustrated by this passage from the opening paragraph of the first essay in the collection, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.

The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. (p. 3)

Some Dreamers is an account of love and death in the golden land, the story of a marriage that has broken down, a woman who was tried for murder and judged for perhaps wanting too much from life. It’s a haunting piece, underscored with a sense of the dissolution of the American Dream.

Didion is particularly good on the eerie nature of Las Vegas, a place where the notion of time, at least in the traditional sense, does not seem to exist.

Almost everyone notes that there is no “time” in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future […]; neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-food sign which blinks “STARDUST” or “CAESAR’S PALACE.” Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with “real” life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train. (pp. 80-81)

In Marrying Absurd, she writes about the commercialisation of the marriage business in Vegas, the nineteen wedding chapels that compete with one another, each offering bigger, better, faster, more ‘genuine’ services than the next – the implication being that the addition of candlelight or a free phonograph record of the ceremony will somehow make the wedding feel more authentic, more sincere.

Elsewhere in this collection, Didion reveals her fondness for Hawaii, a place that moves and touches and saddens her like no other, stimulating her senses in the process. In many respects, she finds it a troubling island, one where the legacy of war runs far and deep.

War is in the very fabric of Hawaii’s life, ineradicably fixed in both its emotions and its economy, dominating not only its memory but its vision of the future. (p. 196) 

Other pieces in the collection focus on particular people, various cultural figures from the sixties: iconic individuals such as John Wayne, whom Didion visits on the set of The Sons of Katie Elder; Joan Baez and her ability to engage with a generation (‘She was the right girl at the right time’); and Howard Hughes, a man renowned for his idiosyncratic behaviour. At the time, there were endless stories about Hughes, passed around and traded ‘like baseball cards’.

By July of 1967 Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. “Howard likes Las Vegas,” an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, “because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.” (p. 71)

As far as Didion sees it, the fact that we have made a folk hero of this man – someone who actually represents the complete opposite of our traditional heroes – tells us something interesting about ourselves. She argues that the real point of money and power in America is not the obvious one (the things that money can buy and the buzz to be gained from flexing one’s muscles); rather it is the ability to facilitate personal freedom, mobility and privacy that is important. This is the real deal.

A couple of my favourite pieces in the collection focus on the personal, areas that reveal something enlightening about Didion herself. A compulsive notetaker from the age of five, Didion states that it was never her intention to make notes as a way of maintaining a factual record of what she had been doing or thinking at certain periods in her life. Instead, she views the keeping of a notebook more as a way of capturing her feelings, a reminder of how things felt to her at the time. Either way, she views the keepers of private notebooks as somewhat troubled individuals, ‘lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.’

Other personal essays in the collection cover Didion’s reflections on morality, self-respect and going home to her family in the Central Valley of California. In Notes from a Native Daughter, she writes vividly about what it is like to come from Sacramento, one of the somewhat insular valley towns in the heart of the state. She describes a town that had grown up on the farming industry only to discover (much to its shock) that the land could be put to more profitable use – certainly as far as the wider world of the 1950s was concerned. In this elegiac piece, Didion mourns the passing of several things: the passage of time; the various changes to the town over the years; the loss of connections with the old Sacramento; the loss of people with the knowledge of how things used to be.

I mentioned earlier the strong sense of place that runs through many of the pieces in this collection. Before I finish, I’d like to highlight another couple of common themes, the first of which revolves around some form of social fragmentation or disintegration. It’s there in several of the essays I’ve discussed so far; and it’s also present in the titular piece, an account of the time Didion spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco where she hung out with the street kids, the movers and shakers in the neighbourhood. This was a time when she observed first-hand the atomization of a society.

It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves. (p. 84)

In this piece, Didion offers the view that at some point from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, we had failed to take care of these children, failed in our duty as guardians and protectors.

‘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’. (p. 123)

As a consequence, the children of Haight-Ashbury seemed less in rebellion against the society than uninformed about it.

The final theme I’d like to highlight is a feeling of anxiety or unease, a quality that underscores many of these pieces. Once again, this is apparent in some of the essays I’ve already covered. It’s even there in a brief passage on the Los Angeles weather, the hot, dry Santa Ana wind, a foehn wind with the potential to create both physical and mental turmoil in the city. I’ll leave you with a final quote which is taken from Los Angeles Notebook, one that seems to capture something of this palpable sense of angst.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. (p. 221)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; personal copy.

45 thoughts on “Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

  1. heavenali

    This sounds absolutely fantastic. So many fascinating themes and glimpses of 60s America. I have put this title on my Christmas book wishlist. Brilliant review.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Really glad you like the sound of it, Ali. I think she captures the time and place so well. The opening piece, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, is both fascinating and haunting. Up there with the very best of her work, I think.

  2. A Life in Books

    You’ve made me want to go back to these essays, Jacqui, partly prompted by that description of Las Vegas and its ‘geographical implausibility’. A vivid reminder for me of visiting the city before heading out into the desert.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to hear, Susan. I think they’d stand up to a re-read for sure. Would you believe, I’ve never been to Vegas or any other part of the American West for that matter? All my images and impressions of the city have been formed through reading about it or seeing it in the movies. I loved Didion’s depiction of Vegas, the sense that the city exists in a bubble which is detached from reality.

      1. A Life in Books

        We’ve been to that are four times,. now. Stupendous scenery. I remember our first sight of Monument Valley, so familiar from the movies. Las Vegas was a strange place made all the more so by jet lag.

  3. madamebibilophile

    I’ve only read Year of Magical Thinking, which was so moving. This collection sounds astonishing, the quotes you’ve pulled are just masterful. I will definitely be looking to read more Didion!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth reading. especially if you’re interested in the cultural feel of America at that time. She really nails that, I think. Plus, as you’ve noted, her prose is faultless.

      The Year of Magical Thinking was pretty remarkable stuff, quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It must have been heartbreaking for her when you consider everything she had to deal with at the time…

  4. Naomi

    This sounds like an excellent choice of a book to give you a feel for the times. I’m especially intrigued by her theme of social fragmentation…
    Also the note-taking she did throughout her life… how fascinating. Did she save them all? It makes me wish I had taken my own notes!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it feels like a particularly apt choice for the Club given that the aim of the latter is to capture a year in reading. The notebook sections were fascinating, very personal and insightful. And yes, I think she must have kept them all. Her latest book, South and West: From a Notebook, contains extracts from her journals – from the 1970s, I believe. One for the future, no doubt.

  5. Maureen Murphy

    Thank you Jacqui, I share your admiration for Joan Didion. Am very bummed that it can’t be found at the moment, but I remember responding in a rebuttal comment to an essay that described Joan Didion as “precious.” I violently disagree with any such characterization.

    To me, Didion grew up with some roughness to the spirit (dislocation, hard times) and in a variety of environments, some harsh, some not so much so. She is a true thoroughbred, a racehorse, with a diamond hard and fine sensibility, which shows in her amazing writing on “place.” If she sometimes has a bit of a cool, observer shell, well why would she not? She needed her protective coloration and a layer to protect the fine nervous mechanism underneath.

    I contrast her way of “being” in the world, in which she managed to keep her sensibility and constitution intact throughout a long, productive life, to the less protected and briefer life of another trancendant artist, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. From what I read of him, he felt a constant “pull” between his desire to dream and write his poetry and what he felt his vocation as priest demanded of him. So there you found him, this physically frail and cultured man in a rough Irish neighborhood, in the cold and the damp, surrounded by the kids, and rough folk who loved him. He was a wonderfully diligent and dutiful priest, but TB got him at such a young age!

    Throughout this brief life, despite his ambivalence, his wonderful and immortal poems grew like small gems within him. I just wish he had been better able to integrate his innate artistic nature and his faith. I personally believe “The God Force” in whatever form He/She/They/It takes, is joyful when “the children” manifest themselves as they truly are.

    Well, enough of this diatribe, to the work desk! Will DEFINITELY read this collection!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not a diatribe at all! It’s fascinating to hear your perspective on Didion. I was struck by your mention of an element of dislocation in her early life. I certainly felt a sense of that quality in her novel Play It As It Lays, particularly in the portrayal of the central character, Maria. It’s not my favourite of her books, but I do admire its style. As for any accusations of preciousness in her work or attitude, I too would refute that suggestion. Objective, I can buy, but not precious.

      An interesting contrast with Gerard Manley Hopkins, too. Not a writer I’m terribly familiar with in spite of his standing. My loss, I suspect…

      1. Maureen Murphy

        Hi again Jacqui! I recently wrote a short (1200 word) story, sort of a fantasy/absurdist fable that had several “touches” of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I don’t have a writing website, but would love to share a copy with you (Simon saw it and gave me some wonderful suggestions and perceptive feedback). It covers a dark period in the 50’s, the time of Joe McCarthy & the purges.

        Would this be OK with you? If so, just let me know how to send it off!

  6. Caroline

    I got this a while ago but haven’t had a chnace to read all of it yet. What I’ve read was excellent though. I’m never sure if I should start with her two recent memoir or rather with this.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Having read the memoirs, I would suggest that you continue to dip into Slouching as a good place to begin with Didion. It feels more logical in terms of timings/dates of publication etc. I actually started with her debut novel ‘Run, River’ (1963) which proved to be a great entry point too. She’s so good on time and place, especially in those early works.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, this would make a great point of entry! The opening essay, Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, is probably as good as anything she’s written. Let me know how you get on – I’d love to hear.

  7. 1streading

    Another great Didion review and you’ve finally convinced me to buy her – that and the fact that Play It As It Lays is currently 99p on Kindle!
    (Your many readers might want to know that Slouching is being published as a Picador Modern Classic this week).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray! I doubt you’ll regret it – especially for the princely sum of 99p! While it’s not my favourite Didion, it’s still very much worth reading. The sense of social fragmentation/dislocation is palpable. Oh, and thanks for the heads up on the Picador edition of Slouching – I wasn’t aware of that. It’s nice to see it being recognised as a modern classic. :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this would be a good introduction to her style which is cool, insightful and observational – she’s a perceptive observer of people and cultural phenomena. A fascinating read, particularly if you have an interest in the time and place depicted here.

  8. Scott W

    A great post on what is by far my favorite Didion book; I could live for years on “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” alone. Yes, her sense of place is palpable, to the extent that while in the ever-expanding and bizarre inland eastern reaches of Los Angeles I find it difficult to look at many of the people without imagining their lives through the lens of this essay. The piece on Vegas is unfortunately a bit dated; nothing quite the place’s former atmosphere quite holds there anymore, aside from its atemporal quality. But what a great observer of American life – and of California life in particular (Las Vegas being a Los Angeles creation…).

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Scott. I have you to thank for introducing me to Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream as you recommended it elsewhere – possibly in the comments thread on Run, River? Anyway, it turned out to be my favourite piece in the whole collection. A very affecting essay – there’s something terribly haunting about it, not just the story itself but the mood Didion creates in the telling.

  9. Elena

    Jacqui, you never fail to inspire me, always reviewing books that have long been on my TBR list or pile. Didion is one of those authors that every single blogger whose taste I trust (and share) keeps reviewing, and I still don’t even own a copy of any of her works. I’m not sure The Year of Magical Thinking would be the best for me, as I’ve lost quite some relatives in the past years, but her essays sound fantastic. I’m also very tempted to try Play it as is Lays though, as you all know narrative is my favourite genre. Which one would you recommend I read first, her essays or her novel?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Elena. I would suggest you try her essays first – that seems more logical in terms of timelines and order of publication. Also, I think they might be an easier way in than Play It As It Lays – more accessible and less hard-hitting if that makes any kind of sense. (I found Play It As It Lays quite difficult to read from an emotional perspective.) Either way, the most important thing is to start somewhere with Didion as she’s definitely worth reading!

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