Joan Didion Maps the California Dream
Can Binge-Reading Her Books Explain My Homeland? Can It Explain Me?
Maybe she was prone to overdoing it. Joan Didion, as she admitted in her nonfiction essay collection, The White Album, binged Doris Lessing novels. She binged biker movies too. “I saw nine of them recently,” she said, “saw the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook.” Jamming that much experience through a short window of time provides perspective you might otherwise miss with more elongated engagement—at least it can. So I tried it on Didion herself.
People have been after me to read Didion for years now. What pushed me over the edge? California. No surprise there; it does that to a lot of people. My thinking has recently been preoccupied with the state of my birth. We’re all from someplace, and those places prove more formative in our development than we might at first recognize or admit.
As it happens, Didion was born in the state’s capital. When she moved to New York out of college, she hung a map of Sacramento county on her apartment wall to, as she says in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, remind her where she came from. I was also born in Sacramento—a December baby just like her, though a couple of generations later—and recently decided to binge several of her books to see if they might serve as a map for myself.
I should point out that Didion discourages this approach. In Where I Was From she talks about grappling with the mystery of California and trying a book that promised to unravel its paradoxes. “I . . . abandoned it on discovering that I was myself quoted,” she says, “twice.” Then again, fool’s errands sometimes prove the most enjoyable. And so, having disregarded Didion’s warning, I picked up five nonfiction titles—the aforementioned Slouching (1968) and White Album (1979), along with Where I Was From (2003), South and West (2017), and Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021). I also found my way through her novel Play It As It Lays (1970) and a collection of interviews, Joan Didion: The Last Interview (2022).
Born in 1934, Didion died in 2021. California captivated her all along. Giving an address at her eighth-grade graduation, the adolescent Didion sounded cheery and optimistic about her homeland. “California has accomplished much in the past years,” she said, as recounted in Where I Was From. “We must live up to our heritage, go on to better and greater things. . . .”
The sixties seemed to puncture that balloon. The first essay featured in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, written eighteen years later, 1966’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” details the story of a young couple who moved to San Bernardino full of aspiration but whose hopes dead-ended with an affair—hers—and a conviction for first-degree murder—also hers. It could have happened anywhere. But no, says Didion, “this is a Southern Californian story,” one that closes behind locked bars with “a lot of girls who somehow misunderstood the promise.”
The promise: That’s what California offered the world. What was it? That’s open to interpretation, necessarily.
Land of Dreams
At the turn of the last century, my maternal great grandparents heard the promise all the way from Sweden. Hulda emigrated in 1902, Johannes (John in his immigration papers, a name later carried by my uncle) in 1904. They met in San Francisco, but he soon traveled north to Alaska and Siberia to dig for gold. He found little and returned, married Hulda on April 16, 1913, and rode the train to Denair in the Central Valley on the very same day. Whatever gold they might find would be in agriculture.
My paternal grandparents came later, along with millions more, after World War II, settling in Sacramento with stints in Oakland and Los Angeles. By then the promise glowed brighter, almost blindingly so. The attraction of starting over in California proved irresistible, and people emptied out of the Midwest and South and traveled sunward until they ran out of dirt. My dad was born in Iowa, but he’s a Californian.
Didion’s family preceded both branches of mine. Her crew came over with the Donner Party, luckily breaking off and finding a different path before the migrants got snowed in for winter, ran out of food, and famously resorted to cannibalism. I hooked my first fish, a German brown trout, in a pond very near Donner Lake; I was only five or so and told anyone who would listen that I’d caught a German shepherd. What the Donner Party wouldn’t have given for a single trout—or a dog for that matter.
The difficulty of the transcontinental journey and severity of the subsequent settlement shaped a certain kind of ethos—and mythos. In a profile in Slouching Toward Bethlehem of Howard Hughes, that “haunted millionaire out of the West,” Didion mentions why Americans lionized the tycoon. Hughes exemplified, she said, “absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy.” Tellingly, she adds, “It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be . . . a free agent, live by one’s own rules.”
The willingness to leave behind home and family, to strike out on something as bold and uncertain as crossing perilous deserts and forbidding mountains self-selected and reinforced a set of biases and traits we can see in many migrant populations. Both as a prospect and a place, California encouraged adventure, optimism, pragmatism, individualism, and lack of personal attachment to norms and traditions. Untethered by the past, those who became Californians fixed their attentions and affections on the future and whatever a person could make of it for themselves.
In Where I Was From, Didion recounts several settler stories, many from her own family, and the sort of social imaginary engendered by crossing and putting down roots. It would be easy to dismiss the independent-mindedness as selfish, and some did—do—but Didion disputes this. Why should she always kill a rattlesnake if spied on the road? To prevent, as her grandfather told her, an unwitting other from coming to harm. He called it “the code of the West.” To each his own, and we’re all in this together; in California both stand true.
This migrant mindset manifests in both progressive and libertarian attitudes, sometimes in the same person. Though an Episcopalian, Didion’s mother rejected Christian orthodoxy out of hand. But when discussing staying in California she said it “was now too regulated, too taxed. . . .” She would up stakes for the Australian outback “in a minute.” And that, says Didion, was “the pure strain talking.” Leaving California is peak Californian.
Northern California retains more of the antigovernment sentiment than does the Southern half of the state, but whether liberal or conservative, both dispositions reflect versions of the same underlying migrant mindset: that bedrock optimism, pragmatism, and individualism, a fixation not on what is but what could be. This is how Californians understand themselves, unless the apprehension is so visceral and subconscious they simply act from those premises without awareness. Most probably do.
But there’s more to the story because, as Didion also points out, “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up.“
Didion admits to being a slow writer. It took her almost thirty years to write Where I Was From. It took her that long to make sense of the place. California contains too many contradictions for easy conceptualization. Consider agriculture. Today California maintains the reputation as the breadbasket of the country, the orchard of the nation. About a quarter of its roughly 100 million acres of land are dedicated to orchards, farms, and ranches, its produce exported across America and abroad.
But California is notoriously dry. Three quarters of total rainfall occurs mostly over the winter months, November through March. Didion notes that rice occupies 400,000 acres of farmland and requires submerging fields from mid-spring to summer. How much rain falls then? Virtually none. So how is this magical feat accomplished? The California landscape represents an engineering marvel of interconnected dams, pumps, pipes, and aqueducts. Levies keep the rivers in check, and canals go where the rivers don’t. My parents live alongside a Nevada Irrigation District canal. NID moves snowmelt from the Sierras to about 30,000 acres of parched valley farms and ranches, along with homes and businesses.
In The White Album, Didion not only confesses her fascination with the state’s waterways but traces millions of gallons through its many canals and sluices, touring the command center of the California State Water Project in Sacramento. “Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive,” she admits. But someone has to think of it or the crops will fail and the people perish. “The apparent ease of California life is an illusion,” she says, “and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.”
The state’s water challenges highlight another illusion. From the start, the independently minded California managed its hydraulic wonders by relying on federal funds. Californians transformed deserts into a gardens; the only thing required besides vision, knowhow, and drive was for everyone else in the country to underwrite the effort.
This dependence extends to all manner of major projects and initiatives going back to building the railroad, funding the postwar aerospace industry, and more. At every juncture, the state relied on special treatment and outside assistance. Not so independent after all. “These are the kinds of contradictions on which Californians have tended to founder when they try to think about the place they come from,” says Didion. Of course, there are more—ecological, sociological, psychological, you name it.
The environmental lobby is especially powerful in California, a state with a largely artificial environment. Didion recounts a zoning disagreement with someone wishing to prevent her from subdividing a ranch her family owned—someone only recently arrived from out of state and living on a formerly subdivided ranch. Oh, the irony.
As a child such contradictions eluded her. But the sixties began bringing them to the fore. She decided to immerse herself in the moment. All the reporting in Slouching Towards Bethlehem comes from this stretch and offers a fascinating window to the period: an earlier zoning battle over folksinger Joan Baez’s school for nonviolence and consciousness raising, a profile of Communist Party USA (Marxist–Leninist) founder Michael Laski, and the piece that gave the title to the book and cemented Didion’s reputation as a representative of the so-called New Journalism.
For the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” so named from W. B. Yeats’s famous “the center cannot hold” poem, Didion bridged a writing slump by immersing herself in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. It’s full of all the hippies and psychedelics you’d imagine and is, from this vantage point, both startlingly humane and sad. The most indelible scene? Two parents dosing their preschooler with LSD.
And here lies another one of the state’s contradictions. The joke I always heard growing up is that California was like granola: full of nuts and flakes. In a region that thrived on eccentricity and made room for people to recast reality at will, the state nonetheless tossed a surprising number of its citizens into insane asylums. Didion’s own father was hospitalized for severe depression. “What was arresting in this pattern of commitment,” says Didion in Where I Was From, “was the extent to which it diverged from the California sense of itself as loose, less socially rigid than the rest of the country, more adaptable, more tolerant of difference.”
Didion’s 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, offers is a fictional portrait of collapse, this time the marriage of a B-list Hollywood couple. It contains the most harrowing description of a woman emotionally grappling with an abortion I’ve ever read. The picture is decidedly Californian, something highlighted by Pacifica Radio host Sally Davis in a 1972 interview featured in the Melville House collection, Joan Didion: The Last Interview. Speaking of Didion’s heroine Maria, she said, “She's a particularly California kind of type. Her problems are particularly California ones. . . .” Tellingly, the novel ends in a mental ward.
It seems hard for Didion to know how to handle those who struggle to get a grip on their lives. In both The White Album and Let Me Tell You What I Mean, she reports on a Gamblers Anonymous meeting she attends and singles out the passive verbs used by the program. “The first of the G.A. ‘Twelve Steps,’” she says, “involves admitting that one’s life ‘has become unmanageable.’ Five steps further, and still being acted upon, one avers that one is ready to ‘have these defects of character removed.’” That’s the sort of critique someone raised on a diet of unalloyed self-determination would make. “I got out fast,” she says.
The Shifting Center
California anchored Didion’s life and preoccupied her mind, and it remained enigmatic to her for most of her life, perhaps all of it. One never gets the sense in Where I Was From that she’s revolved the contradictions; they spurred on the project and evaded her throughout its composition. They’re still there at the end. In a 2006 exchange with Hilton Als in The Paris Review, collected in Joan Didion: The Last Interview, she mentions the problem:
I had actually started a book about California in the seventies. I had written some of that first part, which is about my family, but I could never go anywhere with it for two reasons. One was that I still hadn’t figured out California. The other was that I didn’t want to figure out California because whatever I figured out would be different from the California my mother and father had told me about. I didn’t want to engage that.
Eventually the open loops demanded attention and she closed them, though she waited for both her parents to pass before she felt she could finish. The problem of California went all the way back to the beginning for her, showing up in the passages from Slouching already mentioned, and others, including “On Going Home” and “Notes from a Native Daughter.” They also appear in The White Album with essays on moviemaking, Nancy Reagan, the Getty museum, and the California Department of Transportation’s detested introduction of car-pool lanes. All along she was trying to make California cohere.
In 1976 she began reporting on the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone, hoping that it would reveal some clue to the mystery. It didn’t. Didion tells Hilton Als about another abortive attempt: “I had a theory that if I could understand the South, I would understand something about California, because a lot of the California settlers came from the Border South.” So in 1970 she set out on a tour of the Gulf Coast and, between that and her Patty Hearst notes, ended up with a lot of stray observations, finally published in an unfinished book, South and West.
“I had only some dim and unformed sense,” she says, “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 not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” That verb tense is telling: What California “was.”
I was born in 1975, the middle of the decade covered by The White Album. I left the state and moved to Tennessee in 2003, the same year Didion published Where I Was From. I left for the same reason people once migrated to California—work and opportunity. But back to the idea that places matter, that they’re formative: Increasingly, I’m aware though I live in the South I’m still a Californian. That migrant mindset of optimism, pragmatism, individualism, and conditional regard for norms and traditions? For better or worse, that’s me. I just took it with me in my luggage.
I’m not the only one. Didion died in New York, not the Central Valley, and California has begun seeing its population edge downward, reversing a century-and-a-half trend of population growth. The psychic center is shifting. It’s moving to Arizona, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere as California exports its dream and its dreamers to the rest of the nation.
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