Joan Didion’s Troubled, Prescient Look at a Forgotten America

One infernal afternoon, in the deep south town of Meridian, Mississippi, Joan Didion saw a man brandishing a shotgun in the center of the town square. “He had on a pink shirt and a golfing cap,” she writes, “and in one ear there was a hearing aid. He raised the shotgun and shot the roof of a building several times.”

I stopped the car and watched him a while, then approached him. “What are you shooting at?” I asked.

Pi-eagins,” he said cheerfully.

In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.

This scene is from Didion’s newly published notebooks from the summer of 1970, South and West, which details a road trip she took with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, with a vague plan to write something about the South. “The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.”

Unlike the recent spate of books, including Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land, in which writers try to explain the cultural chasm that divides Americans by, in effect, strapping on a pith helmet to document the movements of the white underclass, Didion’s slim volume is impressionistic. It’s at once poetic and unsentimental, as only Didion can be, but her focus blurs. Didion had “a sense which struck me now and then,” she writes, “which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me to not be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” The exact argument eludes her, though, leaving Didion with disconnected notes, yet with a narrative tension.

Nevertheless, in this picturesque journey taken a half-century ago, Didion puts her finger on something prescient, something strikingly contemporary. Didion sensed a hardening in American cultural life, an already emerging divide between coastal elites and Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” the ostensibly benighted people who “cling to their guns and religion,” in President Barack Obama’s sneering phrase.

So who does Didion meet on her journey, and what does she see? One evening finds her having dinner in the Garden District home of Ben C., a genteel New Orleans grandee. He interrogates her with an unmistakable hint of menace about her work as a journalist—her non-fiction collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem was starting to get serious national attention at the time—and demands to know who allowed her to “spend time consorting with a lot of marijuana-smoking hippie trash”:

“Who allowed you?” he repeated.

I said I did not know quite what he meant.

Ben C. only stared at me.

“I mean, who wouldn’t have allowed me?”

“You do have a husband?” he said finally.

Didion swims in brackish hotel pools that smell like fish. She attends a Mississippi Broadcasters convention in Biloxi and overhears a snippet of conversation between two wives, with one inviting another to visit: “‘We’ll never get up there,’ the first woman said. ‘I never been anyplace I wanted to go.’” A sense of torpor and resignation hangs over everything Didion observes. Interviews with students at a cosmetology school and a vocational college in Meridian are arranged, but when Didion arrives at the appointed time, the building is deserted. “We had misunderstood one another, or we had not,” she writes.

The locals stare at Didion as if she’s an alien, an unmistakable outsider—and that’s what she is, with her soft, un-lacquered long hair, parted in the middle, and her bikinis. Didion recognizes the structural bind this places her in. She comes from a world where the best restaurant in town is most certainly not the Holiday Inn. She watches a movie starring George Segal and Eva Marie Saint in a Mississippi theater in which “The audience, what there was of it, gazed at the screen as if the movie were Czech,” and thinks to herself that, just weeks before, she was hobnobbing with Eva Marie Saint herself at a Malibu soiree. Meanwhile, her subjects bristle at being observed as if they were savages in the wild. That tension haunts her narrative, and is almost palpable when she speaks with the defensive white owner of a radio station that serves the black community. He assures her that racial progress has been made, and that the KKK no longer have much cultural influence, but adds: “I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight because I’m not.”

Didion understands that the premise of her undertaking is to travel among the presumed lower orders and report back to the stylish set. Perhaps she felt uncomfortable with writing a cheap piece for what Tom Wolfe called a “totem newspaper,” a publication that “people don’t really buy to read, but just to have, physically, because they know it supports their own outlook on life”—and also signals they belong to a certain social class. For whatever reason, she ultimately abandoned the project, defeated by a place that she sensed was beginning to unravel, its culture surrendering to dysfunction and hopelessness. It would be the same kind of people who, decades later, would be suffering from broken marriages, wide-scale opioid addiction, suicide, joblessness, and rising illegitimacy rates. And they would help put Donald Trump in the White House. Didion couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

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