The Searcher | The Nation


The Searcher

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Where I Was From--a brilliant amalgamation of biography, literary criticism, social history and travel writing--is both a book about belief and a book about gender.

About the Author

Hilton Als
Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the co-editor, with Darryl Turner, of White Noise: An Eminem Reader (...

Raised a Protestant, Didion was born into a form of Christianity that, as Auden observed, "set out to replace the collective external voice of tradition by the internal voice of the individual conscience." It was this religion of self-reliance, she suggests, that guided her ancestors as they made their pilgrimage to the golden land from other parts of the country, a trek marked by the folly inherent in hope and delusion. The need for the crossings is never explained in Didion's book. She tells us of her maternal great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Scott, who was born in 1766, and who left the Virginia and Carolina frontiers with her husband and children, eventually dying on the Arkansas frontier. She tells us, too, of Elizabeth Scott's granddaughter, Nancy Hardin Cornwall, who in 1846 traveled "with the Donner-Reed party as far as the Humboldt Sink before cutting north for Oregon, where her husband, the Reverend Josephus Adamson Cornwall, was determined to be the first Cumberland Presbyterian circuit rider in what was then called Oregon country." Nancy Hardin Cornwall went on to have twelve children, one of whom, Narcissa, recalled her mother's will and reason when faced with death.

We were about ten miles from the Umpqua River and the Indians living there would come and spend the greater part of the day. There was one who spoke English, and he told Mother the Rogue River Indians were coming to kill us. Mother told them if they troubled us, in the spring the Bostons (the Indian name for white people) would come out and kill them all off. Whether this had any effect on us or not I don't know, but anyway they did not kill us.... One day Father was busy reading and did not notice the house was filling with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it.... As soon as Father noticed them he got up and got his pistols and asked the Indians to go out and see him shoot.... As soon as they were all out of the cabin Mother barred the door and would not let them in any more.

Cornwall's tale--down to the tone Narcissa adopts in relating it--is not unlike those Didion has created in her novels. There is the flat affect ("Whether this had any effect on us or not I don't know, but anyway they did not kill us"). There is the somewhat ineffectual, dreamy male ("One day Father was busy reading and did not notice the house was filling with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it"). And there are the swift, instinctual actions performed by a female protagonist, which may or may not keep disaster at bay, but are performed just the same ("As soon as they were all out of the cabin Mother barred the door and would not let them in any more"). That the decision-making process is a distinctly female one in Didion's family--drawing strength, no doubt, from a belief in a religion that stressed the will--is not lost on the author, who writes:

These women in my family would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew. They could shoot and they could handle stock and when their children outgrew their shoes they could learn from the Indian how to make moccasins.... They tended to accommodate any means in pursuit of an uncertain end. They tended to avoid dwelling on just what the end might imply. When they could not think what else to do they moved another thousand miles, set out another garden: beans and squash and sweet peas from seeds carried from the last place. The past could be jettisoned, children buried and parents left behind, but seeds got carried. They were women, these women in my family, without much time for second thoughts, without much inclination toward equivocation, and later, when there was time or inclination, there developed a tendency, which I came to see as endemic, toward slight and major derangements, apparently eccentric pronouncements, opaque bewilderment and moves to places not quite on schedule.

In short, the women in Didion's family were heroines in a real western, in which life is defined by action, and protecting one's self and one's children from "foreign" elements, like the land's indigenous people, are the issues of the day, along with bagging dinner and planting seeds. But to what end? Does moving another thousand miles because "they could not think what else to do" define the frontier spirit? Or does the tendency to avoid "dwelling on just what the end might imply"? Can one define America as an empire built on the desire to constantly redirect one's will toward self-invention by recklessly testing the limits of the self? And what are the consequences of "jettisoning" the past? This can lead, in some instances, to an unwillingness to touch or be touched; emotional attachments are viewed as a liability, not to be dragged into the future, which is, by definition, a "free" space. It can also lead to the formation of somewhat if not entirely crackpot theories about utopian societies--Jim Jones comes to mind--which are condoned and supported by similar frontier spirits, in love with the American idea of freedom, and maybe death.

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