Joan Didion has been the voice of a changing United States for half a century. She began writing in the early 1960s as a roving essayist, traveling across the country to report on the people and places that were being shaped by a culture in flux. Today, she’s royalty, a master of literary journalism with a permanent place in the canon of 20th century writing. Her observant and reflective voice is unmistakable—even when the story isn’t about her, her presence makes itself known. Her new work, South and West: From a Notebook, captures that voice in a raw state.
In 1970, after finding considerable success as a novelist and essayist, Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. She writes that the South had taken on a near mythic draw for her, at odds with the comfortable allure of the West, which she had explored in the 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Two extended excerpts from Didion’s writing during her travels, titled “Notes on the South” and “California Notes,” make up the text of South and West.
“California Notes,” written while Didion was in San Francisco to cover the Patty Hearst trial, is brief at just 13 pages. It offers a stark juxtaposition to her impression of the South, as California and the western states are where Didion feels most at home. She grapples with this realization while examining her own similarities to Hearst. Although both segments of her latest book are collections of thoughts and quick quotes, “California Notes” lacks the overarching sense of narrative that holds “Notes on the South” together.
Didion’s observations of the South are remarkable to read, dripping with a sense of unease. In her eyes, the South is less lazy and hospitable—as popularly imagined by Northerners—and more leery of outsiders and quick to try to explain itself. She observes that the region, undergoing massive shifts in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, is operating in a time warp: “the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.” Resistant to change even in 1970 (she notes that even locals who agree with school integration think things are moving “too fast”), the South, Didion illustrates, betrays shadows of what would become the populism that swept Trump into the presidency decades later.
“Notes on the South” is engaging and haunting as a portrait of a place viewed by an outsider, but “California Notes” feels unnecessary in its brevity and lack of a conclusion. While both pieces add to Didion’s romantic mystique, those who aren’t already enamored by her perspective likely won’t find much to love in either. Didion herself is so central to the stories that the slim work reads like a book on writing, a master class in seeing and listening that is closer to anthropology than journalism.
There’s a vulnerability that Didion communicates here in moments of doubt—like when she writes that if she got close enough to an airport, she might fly home before she could stop herself—that’s at once interesting and uncomfortable. This isn’t Didion at her best, but it is Didion at her most unfiltered. Those who admire her will find this glimpse into her notebooks exhilarating.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.