In 1965, nearly forty years before the publication of Where I Was From, her most recent and most sustained meditation on her native state of California, the novelist and essayist Joan Didion wrote "John Wayne: A Love Song." In the essay, Didion describes a trip she made to Estudio Churubusco, outside Mexico City. There a film was being shot--The Sons of Katie Elder, a western starring Dean Martin and John Wayne. For years before visiting the set, Wayne had loomed in Didion's imagination as the kind of man--a man emblematic of the Old West--who'd build a woman a home "at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow." That this was a line Wayne crooned in another movie Didion saw when she was a child did not make the image of the house, the cottonwoods, the bend in the river and Wayne's scripted intention any less real for her.
"As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western," Didion writes. Nevertheless, "deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear." But on that set just outside Mexico City, Didion not only found herself in the presence of a working myth, committed to make-believe--Elder was Wayne's 165th motion picture--but a working myth who was facing a very real and imminent physical threat. "There it was, the rumor, and after a while the headlines," writes Didion. "'I licked the Big C,' John Wayne announced, as John Wayne would, reducing those outlaw cells to the level of any other outlaws, but even so we all sensed that this would be the one unpredictable confrontation, the one shoot-out Wayne could lose." Cancer is not a movie. In the end, Wayne lost that particular battle, succumbing to lung and stomach cancer in 1979. And in the years since visiting Estudio Churubusco, Joan Didion has become the heroine of a western. But it is a post-modern one, scripted and directed by the writer herself, in which bluejeaned myths like John Wayne die, concrete has been poured over the cottonwood roots and the heroine's sensibility takes center stage.
In a way, Didion's four nonfiction collections--Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), After Henry (1992) and Political Fictions (2001)--can be read as a series, one whose emotional plot is a combination of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Flaubert's Sentimental Education and John Ford's The Searchers: witty, sad wariness as the outgrowth of a bruised romanticism. In these collections Didion, one of the most cinematic of contemporary authors, shows where her mind and heart take her. Estudio Churubusco in 1965 and Haight-Ashbury in 1967. Hawaii in the 1970s. The Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1989, where the movie producer Robert Evans was a defendant in a murder trial. The tarmac in various airports in New York, New Orleans and California throughout the 1990s, as assorted Democratic and Republican conventions played themselves out.
Like Wayne before her, Didion puts herself in the company of "outlaws." The people and places that attract her writer's eye have little if any relationship to what Didion was taught to believe in growing up in Sacramento, California's capital city, in the 1940s and '50s. There, she was the daughter of "conservative California Republicans (this was before the meaning of 'conservative' changed) in a postwar boom economy," Didion writes in the foreword to Political Fictions. She continues:
The people with whom I grew up were interested in low taxes, a balanced budget, and a limited government. They believed above all that a limited government had no business tinkering with the private or cultural life of its citizens. In 1964, in accord with these interests and beliefs, I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater. Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter. Instead, shocked and to a curious extent personally offended by the enthusiasm with which California Republicans who had jettisoned an authentic conservative (Goldwater) were rushing to embrace Ronald Reagan, I registered as a Democrat, the first member of my family (and perhaps in my generation still the only member) to do so.
Among the defining characteristics of a heroine in a western is her willingness to jettison her past--no matter what the personal cost--as she confronts her future through narrowed eyes. Moving ahead while looking back may seem like contradictory impulses, but they are not: The heroine in a western is defined by the complications inherent in being a moralist, stolid in her beliefs and "personally offended" by those who are not. She is Janus in a covered wagon.