Of all the Sturm und Drang generated during the 2016 presidential election, the worst may have been the feeling of mutual incomprehension that set in among voters. It was difficult to fathom how someone could champion the candidate you opposed, and impossible to imagine what circumstances – cultural, economic, or otherwise – led to such a choice.
Joan Didion, who turned 82 in December, would recognize the folly of such thinking. The author of such major nonfiction books as “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” Didion resists political categorization. Although liberal in many ways, she has a streak of independence that led her to support Barry Goldwater in 1964 and to regard warily the enthusiasm for Barack Obama in 2008.
Without directly commenting on current affairs, Didion’s new book reflects her curiosity about, and relative patience with, unfamiliar places, people, and attitudes. South and West: From a Notebook includes the jottings the author – a native of Sacramento, Calif. – made during travels to the Deep South (namely, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) in 1970 and to San Francisco in 1976. The notes failed to cohere into publishable pieces, although – as novelist Nathaniel Rich writes in the introduction – they “surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers.”
Didion’s core insight is that the civilization she encountered in the South was in a perpetual state of torpor. By 1970, she writes in an explanatory note, it had been nearly 30 years since she had last spent time in the region: “I had not been back since 1942-43, when my father was stationed in Durham, South Carolina, but it did not seem to have changed that much.”
In fact, Didion repeatedly reflects on the literal, physical slowness of the South – a slowness that would, perhaps, seem to stop time. In New Orleans, Didion writes that “all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.” Later, en route to Biloxi during a rainfall, Didion observes a pond out of which a gaggle of youngsters climbed. “One felt that the rain had spoiled their day, and they would be at loose ends, restless,” she writes. “The cliché of the lonely road in the South took on a certain meaning here.” The sloth was contagious, as Didion admits that “all the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South.”
Didion also writes of a kind of psychic detachment the South has from the country as a whole. While staying at the Edgewater Gulf Hotel in Biloxi, Didion attended a women’s brunch featuring eye-rolling musical acts and door prizes that included a Masonite-paneled room and a carving set. “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold,” Didion writes. “All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.”
Picking up on this thread, Rich attempts to explicitly link Didion’s sociological observations with the recent presidential contest. He writes that “a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life” and that such people helped to elect Donald Trump. Yet Rich’s sensibility is miles apart from Didion’s. In her notes, Didion often seems annoyed and distressed by the South, but she cannot conceal her fascination, either; even when her tone is dry, her accounts have the liveliness of a cultural anthropologist.
About Pass Christian, Miss., which she visited the year following Hurricane Camille, Didion writes: “The devastation along the Gulf had an inevitability about it: the coast was reverting to its natural state.” North of Pass Christian, in Grenada, Miss., Didion ruminates on the omnipresence of graveyards, “with plastic sweet peas on the graves of infants.” Sometimes, she seems ecstatic, as when she describes, in startlingly poetic terms, walking through New Orleans’ Garden District while the words “olly olly oxen free” resound “in the soft twilight, around the magnolias and the trees with fluffy pods of pink”: “What I saw that night was a world so rich and complex and I was almost disoriented....” she writes.
In the divisive years to come, readers would do well to follow the route mapped out in “South and West”: to be inquisitive about those with whom they seem to have nothing in common, including electoral preferences. At one point in the book, Didion distinguishes herself from a vacationer – a neat summary of her perspective: “Actually I’m a writer.... I like going places I’ve never been.” The book’s 14 pages of notes on San Francisco are more inward-looking – because, of course, California is home to Didion and therefore less intriguing.
Freelance writer Peter Tonguette contributes to The Columbus Dispatch, The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and other publications.