Joan Didion vs. Joan Didion: “John Wayne: A Love Song” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

WIN_20150318_190221I consider this a lucky draw.

The nine and the king of spades were both essays by Joan Didion in my second deck for the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.  Obviously, since these are both non-fiction essay, I’ve changed up the rules to suit my own personal taste.  I’ve also been reading two “cards” at a time and trying to find a link between the two.

This time, the link is clear, both are by the same author, both are pieces of journalism from the 1960’s, and both are characterized by a slightly out of control lyrical writing that may annoy some readers, but is something I have come to love about Joan Didion.

Here she is on John Wayne’s appeal:

When  John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it.  And in a world we understood fairly to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free, not in a hospital with something wrong inside, not in a high bed with the flowers and the drugs and the forced smiles, but there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the early morning sun.

When Joan Didion wrote this piece, John Wayne was in the hospital dealing with the cancer that would eventually kill  him.  He was no longer the man of legend, but the shell of a man described at the end of this paragraph.

I think Didion nails John Wayne’s appeal on the head; that she does so in the context of describing the way Wayne’s life came to a close makes this essay great.  It’s rightly considered a classic piece of non-fiction. She simulatneously sums up what made John Wayne a legend and how that legend ultimately fails to deliver what it promises.

The second piece is much closer to journalism.  “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is Didion’s account of the early days in San Francisco’s Haight Asbury district, the spring before the summer of love.  It’s an eye-opening account.  The hippie movement Didion found was not the more romantic one many of us know from the musical Hair.  Instead, it was a collection of young run-aways, children who came to San Francisco looking for something they could not find back home.  Expecting to find a paradise, many of them ended up starving in the streets.

Joan Didion meets many hippies and many police officers.  She attends a Grateful Dead rehearsal.  For the young people she meets, many of them children as young as 14, the recurring theme is drugs.  Be they experimentation or a way of life, drugs are a constant. Drugs and the arrests they lead to.  Didion notes that almost everyone she meets has an impending court date in their near future.  Meantime, they are truly attempting to create something new, but they do not have the tools  to do so.

Towards the end of the essay, Didion sums up the situation:

Of course the activists–not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to the revolution was imaginatively anarchic–had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important.  We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed.  This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 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. These children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values.  They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here.  They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts: Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

You can see how she tends to let the writing get a little out of control in both essays.  I like this about her writing, that she allows her writing to fly free.  She still makes a number of insightful points in both essays.  I think she understands a great deal of American culture, certainly of California’s culture.

If I have to pick, I’d say Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the better of the two pieces, but only just.  So far, I’ve found much to enjoy in this collection of essays.  You can probably find a battered copy at your local libraries book sale for fifty cents.  It’s worth a lot more.

5 thoughts on “Joan Didion vs. Joan Didion: “John Wayne: A Love Song” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

  1. You’ve nailed down her attraction for me: that looseness of style, the way she goes off on a tangent. It feels like a friend talking to you (albeit a very bright, knowledgeable, articulate friend).

  2. Love this! I’m a huge Didion fan, and I’m going with “Slouching” all the way. Thanks for sharing! If you’re ever interested in some great book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!

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