In ‘South and West: From a Notebook,’ Joan Didion Captures the Seventies With an X-Ray Eye


America is hard to see. This evocative declaration, from a 1951 Robert Frost poem, has been repurposed with supreme felicity at least twice: It provides the title for Emile de Antonio’s 1970 documentary on Eugene McCarthy’s failed presidential run in the seismic year of 1968, and for the inaugural exhibition, in 2015, of the downtown Whitney. The statement appears nowhere in Joan Didion’s South and West: From a Notebook. Yet I thought of it often while reading the jottings and rough drafts occasioned, respectively, by a June 1970 trip the writer and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, made to various spots in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama; and by the Patty Hearst trial in San Francisco in 1976, which Didion thought she might cover for Rolling Stone but ultimately didn’t. In these two pieces, Didion isn’t so much seeing the country as she is x-raying it, cataloging the presenting symptoms of the ailing republic.

“I always aim for a reading in one sitting,” Didion told Hilton Als in a 2006 interview for the Paris Review. Not much bigger or thicker than a checkbook, South and West can be consumed in less than ninety minutes. But, as always with the writer — whether in her fiction (think of Maria cracking a hard-boiled egg on the steering wheel while roaring down the freeway in 1970’s Play It as It Lays) or nonfiction (from “In Hollywood,” in 1979’s The White Album: “Dinner guests pick with vermeil forks at broiled fish and limestone lettuce vinaigrette, decline dessert, adjourn to the screening room, and settle down to The Heartbreak Kid with a little seltzer in a Baccarat glass”) — the accretion of pungent details ensures that this tiny volume will persist in the memory. Putatively provisional and raw, many of these notes and immediate impressions, technically not even a first pass, have the crystalline lucidity of Didion’s best prose, sentences that, as the critic John Leonard once put it, “come at you, if not from ambush, then in gnomic haikus, icepick laser beams, or waves.”

Although Didion, an occasional contributor to Life at the time, thought that perhaps her recollections of her visit to the South in the summer of 1970 (which make up most of South and West, the latter section consisting of just fifteen pages) “might be a piece,” no hook or peg impelled her to leave the Los Angeles home she shared with Dunne to fly to New Orleans, the starting point of her stopover. “There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing ‘happened’ anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God,” she writes. “I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, 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” — Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934 and throughout her career has been one of the Golden State’s most ambivalent ambassadors — “seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

In this chakra system, decay abounds: “[W]alls stain, windows rust. Curtains mildew. Wood warps. Air conditioners cease to function,” Didion writes while in Biloxi. Elsewhere in Mississippi, she is struck by “the time warp,” a perverse, almost sinister sense of chronology in which “the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.” Driving through Grenada, in the northern part of the state, Didion and Dunne pass a white child “in baseball pajamas playing catch with a black maid in a white uniform, the ball going back and forth, back and forth, suspended in amber.” The image that Didion conjures with this description, all the more haunting for being so unembellished, calls to mind Robert Frank’s 1955 monochrome photograph Charleston, South Carolina, in which an African-American woman, also clad in white, holds a ghostly-hued baby. Both searingly distill baleful hierarchies.

If Didion finds mostly malevolent energy during her month-long sojourn in the Gulf Coast, she arrives at an oblique admiration for the region’s ability to reckon with at least part of its heritage, especially vis-à-vis her home state’s presumption of incorruptibility. “In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history,” she writes in the book’s second, more autobiographical, occidental segment. “In the West we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” The sentences that follow, each constituting its own paragraph, reveal Didion’s accruing despair: “How could it have come to this? I am trying to place myself in history. I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.” But she would eventually. The notes composed for the piece on Patty Hearst that was never written became, almost thirty years later, Where I Was From (2003) — a reconsideration of California and Didion’s own relationship to it. Or, in other words, of what she then could not see.

South and West: From a Notebook
By Joan Didion
Foreword by Nathaniel Rich
Alfred A. Knopf
160 pp., $21