Joan Didion is lauded as one of the best literary journalists to emerge from the New Journalism school in the ’60s, among Tom Wolfe, Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson, and one of California’s wittiest contemporary writers. Best known for her sharply reported stories that service frequently dystopian and despondent cultural commentary, even Didion’s more journalistic works are in part personal essay. It’s precisely her authorial presence that lends credence, honesty and depth to her work. Her subjectivity makes her observations all the more resonant, and in a way, more accurate too. Here’s a look at some of the California writer’s greatest hits.
‘This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country,’ the essay begins. Making good on her promise, this piece reports a lascivious tale of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County in 1966. In true Didion form, however, atmosphere and place play characters just as important as the perpetrators and, in that way, this piece is about much more than the details of a single crime.
Though this essay presents itself as an ode the great American frontiersman of the silver screen, it charts a loss of innocence – personal, though perhaps also cultural – against Wayne’s larger than life persona. ‘In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world… a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.’
Having kept a notebook from the age of five, Didion considers the compulsion to capture our lives. She writes, ‘however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.” This observation seems especially fitting for a writer who candidly reports through the filter of the self.
This philosophical musing pays homage to the wrestling with the self that perhaps writers know best. It was first published in Vogue magazine in 1961, where it can be found in its original form. ‘To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.’
Didion calls upon the eerie desert mythology of the Santa Anas, the wicked winds that brings a tangible unease and tension to Los Angeles whenever they blow through the city. In this essay, LA is not always sunny as it’s so often portrayed. In this strange ode to place, Didion writes, ‘the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.’
In one of Didion’s most known essays, she recounts a love affair with New York City that calls upon the city’s deeply arresting aura with delicious turns of phrase: ‘I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.’