Joan Didion's California

Term Paper 2009 14 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works




I. Joan Didion vs. California Dreamin’

II. California - a place of the mind?

III. Insider – Outsider

IV. Disillusionment

V. Los Angeles Notebook




In my paper on Joan Didion’s California I would like to take a closer look at Joan Didion’s writings, especially the way she writes about her home state of California. Many of her perspective consist of interesting dichotomies and contrasts. Throughout her works Didion reflects her feelings and impressions of California against the idealistic California Dreamin’ mentality. She shows in her writing the California of her mind and the contrasting California of her surroundings. Her perspectives also often present a paradox, as she seems to approach California sometimes as an outsider and sometimes as an insider. Following this I will discuss how she presents and reacts to disillusionment in her writing. Finally I will take a closer look at the essay “Los Angeles Notebook” in order to point out some specific examples of Didion’s perception.

I. Joan Didion vs. California Dreamin’

Joan Didion’s upbringing in California gave her a unique and personal understanding of her home state, and the opportunity to witness other people’s perspectives and opinions of California. In order to better understand her stance, it is important to be aware of some of the decisive historical happenings from Joan Didion’s past. Her personal experiences and unique upbringing give her a strong and very different perspective on California opposed to the idealistic, common California Dreamin’ mentality that was pervasive throughout her generation. These little flashbacks into her past and a look at the common attitudes towards California will then serve as means to examine the different perspectives.

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento and her family history can be traced back to the nation's very first westward migration in search of new land. To those first migrants this western part of America, with its fierce American river and the muddy but fertile Sacramento river, must have looked like a paradise. In having such a remarkable family history reaching back to the first settlers of California, it is understandable that for some people California belongs to Joan Didion like to her "Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner... a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones... A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image."[1]

In more recent decades the cultivated fields were replaced by housing developments or aerospace factories and the deserted roads made way for big freeways. The Sacramento she seems to know is a town of the past. In her book Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she writes that “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.”[2] […] “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension."[3]

Being a member of the Central Valley elite, Didion grew up in an environment with a strong belief of the West as a special place. Didion herself is very attached to her native soil and admits, “I myself feel better the farther west I am.”[4] The stories and sayings from earlier times were handed down to her and, in a way, formed her value system. The California Joan Didion still lives in as an adult, is very much the latter-day California, and therefore stirs up reflections on the old California for her and how it compares to a constantly changing California. This constantly changing California has undergone different phases, from gold to cattle to aerospace engineering. Each particular phase that the state undergoes seems to have its boom and then fade out again.

Despite being the state capital, Sacramento, her hometown, remained a valley town where the winters are cold and the fields are threatened by floods, where the summers get very hot and the region is plagued by drought. The land in the valley is flat and thus exposed to the weather. It is striking that Joan Didion tries to involve nature as an extreme, and something of a contrast to the shiny belief of “California Dreamin’” and the belief that anything is possible here. In this sense her California reflects a mean side of a beautiful landscape. She describes these extremes in an interview with the New York Times Magazine:

“Well, I grew up in a dangerous landscape. I think people are more affected than they know by landscape and weather. Sacramento was a very extreme place. It was very flat, flatter than most people can imagine, and I still favour flat horizons. The weather in Sacramento was as extreme as the landscape. There were two rivers, and these rivers would flood in the winter and run dry in the summer. Winter was cold rain and tulle fog. Summer was 100 degrees, 105 degrees, 110 degrees. Those extremes affect the way you deal with the world. It so happens that if you’re a writer the extremes show up. They don’t if you sell insurance.”[5]

In writing about the dangerous landscape, Didion not only shows insights into her own fears and the way she grew up in this region, but also describes certain natural phenomenons and their scientific consequences. Because she describes the extremes and puts them against a California Dreamin,’ she shows that she does not conform to the concept of California that is being sold to the mainstream, which to her is a dream world. There is more to California than just Big Sur, the Golden Gate Bridge or Hollywood. In an interview she says, that “It kills me when people talk about California hedonism, […] anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." By using the mentioned extremes, she also seems to shake her readers in order to wake them up from their dream. However, one might ask oneself: what is so wrong about dreaming? Who wants to live in fear when it is so much more comfortable to avoid it; a thought that Didion doesn’t quite want to reconstruct. People are surfing, enjoying the sun and relaxing in the hot tubs, but it doesn’t seem that there are people who think that they are living in a dream world and she wants to wake those people up.

Didion’s essays and novels play in a new California, that is attracting “the missing children [who are now] calling themselves “hippies”.”[6] She cannot identify with this generation because she grew up in an earlier much more conservative generation. The usage of many negative images in her writings, such as a nature that is a constant threat, shows the conservative disapproval for those chasing the “California Dreamin’.” It almost seems as if she wants to teach everyone a lesson by making use of these images. For example, there is a sarcastic passage about death where she writes that ”the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.”[7] The picture that Didion uses here shows a new generation, striving for advancement and love, but all is being measured against negative consequences such as divorce, death, devastating winds or just “sunken”[8] lemon groves in front of their beautiful houses.

Didion has no faith in the new generation, “the children of the aerospace engineers”[9]. In her eyes not knowing the past only bears witness to ignorance and delusion. In the little passage about John Wayne she directly addresses the reader and tries to compare and give advice to the possible reader who she supposes to be of the new generation, (which also shows that her writings are meant not exclusively for her kind): “I tell you this neither in the spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.”[10]

In her writings she warns her readers that happiness cannot be found through illusion. Her observations try to involve the past and the reality behind a mentality full of dreamers. In this respect she says, "I'm not interested in the middle road-maybe because everyone's on it. Rationality, reasonableness bewilder me. I think it comes out of being a 'daughter of the Golden West.' A lot of the stories I was brought up on had to do with extreme actions-leaving everything behind, crossing the trackless wastes, and in those stories the people who stayed behind and had their settled ways-those people were not the people who got the prize. The prize was California."[11]

II. California - a place of the mind?

The California that Joan Didion seems to relate to appears to be place of the mind, in that it consists of a framework of memories and experiences were absorbed and is then imagined and pictured in a later time or circumstance.

Throughout her work, Joan Didion describes her California using historical background that goes back to the first migrants, the renowned Donner-Reed Party. The California she pictures is built upon memories from the past and from stories and sayings that were handed down to her. California is a place that Didion actively observed only to a certain degree. All that she experiences is being compared to the memories of a bygone California, a place of special people and special abundance that almost seems like a mythology full of tales.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html

[2] Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968: 176

[3] Didion 1968: 172

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html

[5] www.parisreview.org/media/3439_DIDION.pdf

[6] Didion 1968:85

[7] Didion 1968:17

[8] Didion 1968:5

[9] Didion 1968:185

[10] Didion 1968: 30

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/1979/06/10/books/didion-calif.html


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Joan Didion California



Title: Joan Didion's California