Joan Didion’s 1960s

I am trying to catch up on some important creative non-fiction writing that I’ve never read before and will be posting periodically some reviews. Below you will find three separate reviews of three essays that were written by Joan Didion for the Saturday Evening Post between 1966 and 1967 that were re-published in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968).

The Dream is Teaching the Dreamers How To Live
Review: “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” originally published in The Saturday Evening Post (1966)
I cannot help but think that Joan Didion is the kind of writer who conceives of a phrase or sentence and then builds an entire essay and research project around those words. As if all of the work that goes into her essay, was done merely to support that original insight or epiphany.In her essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” Didion pursues such a project. I can picture her sitting in her fabulous home contemplating the world and coming to the conclusion that the cultural revolution that began after WW2 in the United States had somehow morphed from growth, development and progress to discipline, coercion and nastiness. She said to her self that “The dream is teaching the dreamers how to live”, it is not liberating us but it is shaping us. And then she took that sentence and she stored it away until she found precisely the right story in which to deploy it.

That story was the right fit for Didion were the events surrounding the murder trial of Lucille Miller who was suspected of killing her husband Gordon Miller late one evening in 1964 on a remote road near their home in the San Bernadino Valley of Southern California. The murder and the family had their intriguing moments but it was truly the San Bernadino Valley that was the subject of Didion’s vision of a failed dream. The dream of the valley was not different than many American Dreams of the past – it was of space, expansion. She describes the place as  “…in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies of the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and works on the nerves.” The region grew massively after WW2, serving as bedroom communities for commuters to Los Angeles (it is known as part of Greater LA), but today the economy is more centralized in the valley. Known as the “Inland Empire”, it serves as one of the most important transportation hubs in the country, facilitating intermodal exchanges between cargo coming off the boats in LA and Long Beach and the rail and trucking networks that are located in the valley. Forbes Magazine recently ranked the area first in its list of America’s most unhealthy commutes, as Inland area residents breathe the unhealthiest air and have the highest rate of fatal auto accidents per capita [Van Dusen, Alison (2007-11-26). “America’s Unhealthy Commutes”. Forbes Magazine.]

“California belongs to Joan Didion” wrote Michiko Kakutani in a 1979 article on Didion for the New York Times. From my vantage point, 33 years later, I cannot wholly confirm this. The dream of California’s past is so far in the past that it has been replaced by many more failed dreams. The pattern has become ingrained in the Golden State to such an extent that it is part of its charm and allure.

But as I imagine Didion sitting back in that fabulous home, thinking up sentences to capture trans-formative moments in American history, I am so appreciative for her critical insight. While California’s failed dreams may have their own particular regional flavor, the cautious words “The dream is teaching the dreamers how to live” apply to all of our dreams and the sometimes unintended or lives.  consequences that accompany them. I cannot help but think of mobile technology and social networking, dreams which had promise of liberation but instead structure so much of how we live and think. Or I cannot help but think of political projects of the past, also promising liberation, but so frequently bringing along their own rationality and conformity. My main disagreement with Didion is that big dreams about better futures are not worth having because of the strong likelihood of failure. While we could always do a better job anticipating possible consequences of our dreams, isn’t fearing and avoiding those consequences by not having dreams a failure of the imagination?

Crash Course on California SeekersReview: “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.L.)” originally published in The Saturday Evening Post (1967)

A few years ago I interviewed someone living on a commune who described one of their biggest challenges in getting new members was that so often, the people were “seekers’ looking for something but they didnt know what. She warned that seekers can be very destructive, because they do not know what they want but they want to find it so bad they are willing to do anything to get it.Joan Didion’s profile of Michael Laski, a sixties communist leader based in Los Angeles, is simultaneously generous and dismissive. Didion meets Laski at his leftist splinter group’s bookstore and discusses his conviction, motivation, and practical day-to-day activities such as selling the party’s newspaper. She finds identification with his “seeker” drive towards making meaning in the world, but never allows herself to inhabit the position of a person with a particular leftist vision of world transformation.

Laski was a member of the small group of people who fell deep into the trap of sectarian conflicts internal to the far left. He was the leader off the Communist Party, USA (Marxist-Leninist) which is explained in dizzying detail on the incredible online resource marxists.org this way:

The C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.) was born in Los Angeles during the 1965 Watts riots out of a split in the local POC. It published a newspaper, the People’s Voice and a theoretical journal, Red Flag from 1965 to 1968. In 1968, the Party underwent a split, with both successor organization’s keeping the C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.) name. One, under Arnold Hoffman, continued to publish the People’s Voice. The other, headed by Michael Laski, began publishing a new newspaper, The New Worker in 1969. That same year, the Laski group merged with the Proletarian Revolutionary Party in New York, led by Jonathan Leake, a former anarchist turned Maoist, who had been active in the Resurgence Youth Movement, which was founded in September 1964 as the youth section of the Anarchist Federation to which Murray Bookchin and Noam Chomsky belonged. Both C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)s appear to have disappeared by 1971. After the demise of the Laski C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.), the former members of the Proletarian Revolutionary Party and others reconstituted themselves as the Marxist-Leninist Party. These C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)s should not be confused with the C.P.U.S.A. (M-L) founded by the Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee (M.L.O.C.) in 1978 nor with the C.P. (Marxist-Leninist) created by the October League in 1977.
She writes: “The world Michael Laski had constructed for himself was one of labyrinthine intricacy and immaculate clarity, a world made meaningful not only by high purpose but by external and internal threats, intrigues and apparatus, an immutably ordered world in which things mattered.” “I am comfortable,” Didion wrote, “with the Michael Laski’s of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.”
She was sympathetic to his desire to make meaning, but could not buy into his political project. Didion had, after all, voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and had sympathy for the individualism, small government, and traditionalism inherent in the conservatism of the Old Right. She told Dave Eggers she was fundamentally a Libertarian, which makes sense because many Libertarians idolize Barry Goldwater. In her introduction to the book Political Fictionsshe wrote, “Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter. Instead, shocked and to a curious extent personally offended by the enthusiasm with which California Republicans who had jettisoned an authentic conservative (Goldwater) were rushing to embrace Ronald Reagan, I registered as a Democrat, the first member of my family (and perhaps in my generation still the only member) to do so. That this did not involve taking a markedly different view on any issue was a novel discovery, and one that led me to view “America’s two-party system” with–and this was my real introduction to American politics–a somewhat doubtful eye.”Didion, while critical of the American poltitical system, was ultimately main-stream about the politics she engaged in and had nothing personally to do with the far left. So why did Laski talk to her?

Laski says of his interactions with Didion, “I talk to you at all only as a calculated risk. Of course your function is to gather information for the intelligence services…And yet there’s a definite advantage to me in talking to you. Because of one fact: these interviews provide a public record of my existence.”

But Laski did not properly calculate his risks. Only a year after the interview with Didion he was expelled from the party (expulsion was a popular past time of sectarian groups at the time). While the official documentation does not say anything explicitly about his interview with Didion for the Saturday Evening Post motivating his expulsion, it does suggest that he was opportunistic and represented his subjective views as official Party views. The closeness in time  to the Didion interview cannot be an accident. But even poorer calculations also motivated the expulsion of Laski, he gambled the party’s entire treasury fund in Las Vegas.

Was Didion’s portrait of the sectarian left intended to function as a warning to people not to engage with these political ideas in particular, or was it a warning about getting trapped in your own world of seeking meaning at the expense of relevance?

Crash Course in California Hippies

Review: “Slouching Towards Bethleham” originally published in The Saturday Evening Post (1967)

“San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves hippies.” Joan Didion’s time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the spring of 1967 exposed her to a subculture of “children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that held the society together.” What Didion proceeded to do with her time was witness and observe this phenomenon. For the most part, the resulting essay “Slouching  Towards Bethlehem” follows a list-form where her witnessing of various events and encounters become fragmented pieces that form an overall portrait. She hangs in a park and watches people do drugs, she hangs in a loft while a band practices, she goes to dinner with someone she meets at a concert, she tries to make contact with leaders and gurus. She gives very little overt  editorializing or commentary, save a few blunt clarifying statements like her explanation that what she was witnessing was not “a country in open revolution.”

The absence of a revolution and the presence of lost “children” provide a critical framework in which Didion’s snapshots of hippie life become in-fill. Her judgement is clear and provocative, but she clearly is the conservative voice in the room. She buys into the “games” people play to keep society working and does not believe dropping out should be an option. She also believes that in the absence of an “open revolution” that dropping out should not be an option. Her insistence that dropping out should not be an option for these young people in the midst of the build up to “summer of love” was provocative but lacked alternative directives.

She does come back to her early provocation near the end of the essay when she explains “At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped  believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.” And she goes on to lament the social atomization resulting from families moving around frequently, getting divorced, etc.

Her critique was hinged on the idea that people had responsibilities but ignored the fact that what people were responsible towards might not be worth taking care of. I love this essay for all the themes and characters it reveals and explores, and I totally agree that dropping out was not and continues not to be the answer, but I must disagree with her fundamental conservatism and longing for the past. Society is too complex to stand still.

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