The Searcher

The Searcher

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, Joan Didion wrote “John Wayne: A Love Song.” 


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.

Joan Didion was 30 years old in 1964. By then, she had been an editor at Vogue for some time. She had also written a number of pieces, mainly book reviews, for that organ of paleoconservatism, National Review. At the time, those respective institutions were a kind of comfort for the Westerner who had come east to write and make a name for herself. But to seek membership in an institution is death to a writer, particularly one with a penchant for–as the essayist Elizabeth Hardwick has remarked of Didion’s fictional work–representing “the fracture and splinter in her characters’ comprehension of the world.” Didion’s questioning intelligence is the outgrowth of experience and belief explored and tested, as opposed to living with blindly accepted precepts about anything. In her works of nonfiction she is especially interested in the moment when the piton of experience digs into her consciousness, fracturing and splintering whatever lies there, revealing what it may between the cracks. “That the time would come [when Didion, her husband and her child might be done away with] I never doubted, at least not in the inaccessible places of the mind where I seemed more and more to be living,” writes Didion in her essay “The White Album,” published after she had stopped writing for National Review, after she’d stopped working at Vogue, when she was living in Hollywood with her family and nothing made sense and random acts of violence against home and hearth, most spectacularly the 1969 Tate-La Bianca murders, “fulfilled” the paranoia of the time.

Had Didion been inured to her past and not cast her view toward the stony end of failed belief, she would not have become the writer she is, distrustful of the sentiment inherent in all narratives that purport to make sense of those abstractions called politics, or culture, or family history, or identity. Part of Didion’s brilliance is her ability–her desire–to question who and what she is or was supposed to be by courting the dramatic uneasiness that arises when this former California girl–middle class, white and raised to assume that life was “whole”–found herself, for instance, in Eldridge Cleaver’s sitting room in the late 1960s at a time when life was not whole for the former revolutionary either, since the FBI was looking for any excuse to blow him away along with his fellow Black Panthers.

Didion understands that tension–the engine that drives narrative–is not necessarily fueled by stories that people of her race and class have to tell but by those who, in some cases, may have a problem with her race and class. “‘White slut comes into the park looking for the African man,’ a black woman could say, her voice loud but still controversial, in the corridor outside the courtroom where, during the summer of 1990, the first three defendants in the Central Park attack…were tried on charges of attempted murder, assault, sodomy, and rape,” Didion reports in her 1990 essay, “Sentimental Journeys.” She goes on:

“Boyfriend beats the shit out of her, they blame it on our boys,” the woman could continue. “How about the roommate, anybody test his semen? No. He’s white. They don’t do it to each other.” Glances could then flicker among those reporters and producers and courtroom sketch artists and photographers and cameramen and techs and summer interns who assembled daily at 111 Centre Street. Cellular phones could be picked up, a show of indifference…. The woman could then raise her voice: “White folk, all of them are devils, even those that haven’t been born yet, they are devils. Little demons. I don’t understand these devils, I guess they think this is their court.”

Imagine what Didion could do with this black heroine in an urban shootout now, in light of the fact that the defendants in the Central Park jogger case were, in fact, not guilty of the crime they were accused of with such vehemence, a crime that raised such ire on both sides of the racial fence. One wonders, too, what the black heroine of this urban shootout would make of Didion’s early class identification with those people who, “on the whole, hung out in gas stations,” and who, as she wrote in one of her political essays, “were never destined to be…communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, ‘the process.'”

Writers look–if they are up for it–to those stories that describe something of the self to the self. Sometimes, one can find the stories that speak to and of one’s self in places and among people who bear little if any resemblance to who we are, or are supposed to be. What protects Didion from any accusations that she takes from the marginal what she needs to articulate her feelings of marginalization (in the manner, say, of Naipaul, of whom she is a great admirer) is her distrust of the “encouraging promise of narrative resolution.” She does not believe, as Naipaul does, that things, as she has also written, “add up.” To enter Eldridge Cleaver’s flat, or the studio where the Doors are recording or not recording a song, or to watch Nancy Reagan buffing her governmental sheen in a rose garden, or to make a visit to San Quentin, or to visit El Salvador, or to try to make sense of the history of Miami–all of which Didion has done–with an “idea” of how things will turn out is to not be open to the experience. She understands, as few of her peers do, that writing amounts to the act of thinking and feeling and its subsequent articulation with no pre-arranged plan on how it will turn out, if it turns out at all. It is also observing, listening and resisting the very human temptation to draw conclusions, to wrap things up.

On a number of occasions, Didion has disclosed her fundamental insecurity vis-à-vis intellectualism–a distinctly American fear. In her 1976 piece “Why I Write” she states: “I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word ‘intellectual’ I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with the abstract. In short, I tried to think. I failed.”

For American writers of a certain generation, thinking is a distinctly European act. You are not a thinker if you do not get the Hegelian dialectic “right,” or do not use Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as a benchmark for what thinking should look like on the page. Didion’s intellectualism–which has deepened with each successive book–is rooted, as she puts it, in “the specific…the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew…the peripheral.” To understand Didion’s interest in the “peripheral,” one must look into her insistence on one’s belief, one’s thought process, in a world that turns on the axis of fashion, whether political, intellectual or literary.

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.

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.

The story Didion means to tell here is the story of her own bewilderment with California and its various myths, which include the conflation of Protestant virtues like strength and will with material gain, and the various “arrival myths” she had been told. Unlike her ancestors, Didion is a writer, which means that she does have second thoughts, does equivocate and does experience “opaque bewilderment” when confronted by a story–in this instance, this story–that needs to be told, despite the difficulty she found in telling it.

In her review of Where I Was From for The New York Review of Books, the novelist Diane Johnson points out: “Essential to the core California mythology was the dream of Eldorado–the gold and treasure beyond the Rockies…. Underlying the arrival story…was the same explicit promise of freedom and opportunity, usually meaning freedom from persecution and freedom to become rich.” But there was no West to “conquer,” no dream to build on by the time Didion was a young woman, no template of thought and belief. California, like the rest of America, is confounding, its landscape littered with contradictions, above all the fiction of self-reliance. This fiction often breeds an extreme form of parochialism, an indifference to one’s neighbors. “Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another,” Didion writes.

The separation of north from south–and even more acutely of west from east, of the urban coast from the agricultural valleys and of both the coast and the valleys from the mountain and desert regions to their east–was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture. My mother made the trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles in 1932, to see the Olympics, and did not find reason to make it again for thirty years.

This insistence on seeing the world on preferred terms is interesting. It can and does often lead to a kind of native xenophobia–a point Didion makes in her extraordinarily well reasoned section on Lakewood, California. A “model” community built in Southern California during the postwar years, Lakewood was the fulfillment of a dream, a functioning mirage. The land, she writes, was “purchased for 8.8 million from the Montana Land Company” in 1949 by, among others, S. Mark Taper, after whom an entertainment complex in Los Angeles has been named. Like other model communities, it was designed to shut out the larger world of California, with its Mexicans and movie people and “values” that had little if anything to do with being white, middle class and preferably male.

When Didion visited Lakewood in 1993, everything it was meant to represent had eroded, largely because of another institution: the Spur Posse, a group of boys who scored “points” by sexually harassing young girls and committing other acts of random violence. The dream came to this: moments with several members of the Spur Posse captured on what passes, in the present day, for the kind of diary-keeping that Nancy Hardin Cornwall engaged in on the journey out west generations before–a television chat show.

One of the ugliest and most revelatory of the many ugly and revelatory moments that characterized the 1993 television appearances of Lakewood’s Spur Posse members occurred on the Jane Whitney talk show, when a nineteen-year-old Lakewood High School graduate named Chris Albert (“Boasts He has 44 ‘Points’ for Having Sex With Girls”) turned mean with a member of the audience, a young black woman who had tried to suggest that the Spurs on view were not exhibiting what she considered native intelligence.
   “What education does she have?” Chris Albert had then demanded, and crouched forward toward the young woman, as if trying to shake himself alert. “Where do you work at?”… And then, there it was, the piton, driven in this case not into granite but into shale, already disintegrating: “I go to college.” Two years later Chris Albert would be dead, shot in the chest and killed during a Fourth of July celebration on the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.

Another shootout, but not in a movie that John Wayne would comprehend, let alone make. This was a postmodern outlaw, attacking class and gender and race with weapons unsharpened by education or insight but by privilege, the privilege inherent in living in “tomorrow’s city today.”

California’s preference for myth over fact has, appropriately, been reflected in its movies, an industry where myth is gospel, and language, hence thought, is looked upon with a certain amount of suspicion. The children Didion describes in Where I Was From are the progeny of Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, children who, at the close of the film, get lost in an ominous mansion–reflective of old California money, old California taste–that dwarfs them. When she was younger, Didion lived in one such mansion herself in Sacramento:

We lived in dark houses and favored, a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened. We also let our silver darken, which was said to “bring out the pattern.” To this day I am put off by highly polished silver: It looks “new.” This predilection for the “old” extended into all areas of domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more subtle charm than fresh, prints should be faded, rugs worn, wallpaper streaked by sun. Our highest moment in this area was the acquisition, in 1951, of a house in Sacramento in which the curtains on the stairs had not been changed since 1907. These curtains, which were of unlined (and faded, naturally) gold silk organza, hung almost two stories, billowed iridescent with every breath of air, and, if touched, crumbled.

It was perhaps the memory of the golden light those curtains cast that prompted Didion to hang gold fabric across the windows of one of her first apartments in New York, where she wrote her first California novel, Run River. The move to New York in the late 1950s was, ostensibly, a break with the past, another move to another golden land for this woman who had yet to know or accept that she was a heroine in a postmodern western, but no matter. Writing was the great discovery, her process of intellection, the frontier.

A hallmark of Didion’s five novels is the female protagonist who gets on a plane at a moment’s notice, the female protagonist who leaves husband and child behind for another dream, the foolhardy expedition that results in mayhem, or death. (Didion’s books on El Salvador and Miami reflect an interest in frontiers on the verge of collapse shortly after the dream of “progress” has been abandoned or failed to “add up.”) The reporter’s wanderlust, the novelist’s interest in landscapes other than her own, are, in the end, Didion’s inheritance:

My mother had no interest in keeping the hill ranch [a property long in Didion’s mother’s family] or in fact any California land: California, she said, was now too regulated, too taxed, too expensive. She spoke enthusiastically, on the other hand, about moving to the Australian outback.
   “”Eduene,” my father would say, a remonstration.
   “I would,” she would insist, reckless.
   “”Just leave California? Give it all up?”
   “”In a minute,” she would say, the pure strain talking, Elizabeth Scott’s great-great-great-great granddaughter. “Just forget it.”

Reading this technically ambitious and emotionally expansive book, one can see that Didion and the characters she has created in her novels–women who search for landscapes they were not born to, but know in their imaginations–are the heirs of Eduene Didion, women who set out with heart and heartbreak into the great unknown.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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