What Joan Didion Learned By Writing for ‘National Review’

Joan Didion is not the sort of woman whom most of her fans would expect to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”

But for several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that’s just what Didion did—by working as book reviewer for the conservative magazine, National Review.

Didion’s beginnings as a political and social conservative rarely come up in conversations about her life and career. Most Didion aficionados like to focus on her more famous works such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a first-person narrative of the unraveling of American society in San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, or The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about coping with grief following her husband’s death in 2003.

Fear and uncertainty are hallmarks of Didion’s work; most of her essays and novels inhabit the edge of a precipice and follow what happens when someone (usually the author herself) falls off of it. It makes sense that in a time when hysteria often passes for normalcy, a growing number of readers would find comfort in revisiting twentieth century America’s great biographer of decline.

Didion’s promoters have not missed the opportunity to capitalize on her revamped popularity. Earlier this year, her publisher released South and West, a notebook from a road trip she took with her husband in 1970. More recently, in late October, Netflix streamed The Center Will Not Hold, a new documentary about Didion’s life and career. Directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, the film focuses on how Didion has made a living out of universalizing her own experiences through essays and novels.

Although Dunne sits behind the camera, and he presents a number of famous figures to comment on Didion (including Harrison Ford, who was Didion’s carpenter before George Lucas picked him up for American Graffiti), only Didion herself makes any meaningful remarks—mostly just by reading her own work.

It’s not a bad documentary, but it’s incomplete. Dunne portrays Didion like the speaker in W.B. Yeat’s “The Second Coming”—a woman troubled by a vast image of Spiritus Mundi. But he fails to provide an explanation of why this woman would be troubled by the rise drugs and free love in the 1960s, or race relations during the Central Park Jogger case in the 1990s, or the George W. Bush administration during the Iraq War.

Without an image of how Didion understood the world before she started chronicling her own perceptions of its decline, it is hard to understand why she would write something with the sense of doom present in an essay like “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

That’s why it’s important to look at Didion’s work for National Review. By writing semi-weekly book reviews of the year’s hot literature for the nation’s only major conservative magazine, Didion made sense of the world in which she lived through its literature and its movies.

Unfortunately, none of these essays are collected in a compendium or available online, so you’ll have to hunt through old print editions of the magazine to find them. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to all those back issues, there’s a treasure trove of pop culture arcana. Didion praises J. D. Salinger for sincerity in Catcher in the Rye and condemns him for self-indulgence in Franny and Zooey. She torches James Michener for writing bad historical fiction (and it looks like real history was on her side with that one; no one reads Michener anymore). Best of all, Didion praises Flannery O’Connor, calling her “a writer, which is something different from a person who writes a book.”

In a review of Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honor trilogy, Didion reveals what she means when she calls someone a writer. For although a fictional account of Guy Crouchback, a middle-aged English aristocrat fighting in World War II, Didion calls The Sword of Honor a true story, because it follows a man who “attempts to make a social cause a moral cause in a society bereft of moral meaning.”

In many ways, Crouchback and Didion are attempting the same thing, except Didion is an American. In the same review, Didion wrote that the American story—the one she would go on to tell in her many essays—is a delicate tragedy: “Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it,” she wrote. “The banishment from Eden is our one great tale, lovingly told and retold, adapted, disguised and told again, passed down from Hester Prynne to Temple Drake, from Natty Bumppo to Holden Caulfield; it is the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folklore, in our history, and in the lyrics of of popular songs.”

For Didion, things are always falling apart. The center will never hold.

Image: By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Cromulent

    Thanks for this. It’s nice that a younger generation be exposed to NR. William F Buckley was always on the lookout for good young writers and didn’t hire Joan on the basis of politics.

    Also good on the Michener quip. In the 70s I used to remark Michener and Wouk should be sold in barrels at supermarkets, priced by the pound.