David L. Ulin
“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in the 1970s, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From. In it, Didion spends a great deal of time re-evaluating her earlier work. After all, Didion documented the era that reshaped and initiated California’s transformation from its golden, hermetically sealed mid-century “idyllic” years as a symbol of the “American Dream” into the global, more complex, racially diverse, quasi-nation state that it is today representative of globalization.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the new collection from the Library of America: Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Comprised of her first five works, Run, River, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, and The White Album, the volume, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, offers a window into a transformative period in American and Californian life, documented by Didion. Over the course of her five books, the two formats, the real and the imagined, intertwine to produce a distinctly Didion-esque narrative of the era: detached, intrigued, and clear-eyed. Author, literary critic, and editor of the new volume, David L. Ulin spoke with Boom by phone about the famed California writer, her disbelief in ideologies, and how he thinks about Didion’s work then, in the context of today.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
Ryan Reft: In a volume like this, what do you think an 18-year-old reader might take from it, as opposed to someone older such as a 32 year old? What do you think each might take from it, in terms of Joan Didion’s writing, and California and so on?
David L. Ulin: I think that’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I was drawn to her at 18 because I was a particular kind of 18-year-old, in a sense that I spent a lot of time in my own head. When I started reading her, my first thought was one of connection because I thought “this is someone who spends as much time in her own head as I do or maybe more.” I was really drawn by the interiority of it and the self exposure, even in material that wasn’t necessarily inherently autobiographical. Like “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” where she basically is tipping her hand about a whole sensibility instead of attitudes and social postures, but it’s woven into the body of the text. So there was that. Also at 18, I was already kind of self-identifying as a writer. So, although I don’t want to say that I was thinking about it as programmatically as I would later come to think of it, I was definitely on some level thinking about sentences and paragraphs and structure and sentences. I do remember opening the book Slouching towards Bethlehem having never read her and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the first essay in the book, and what I do remember is quickly within a few pages thinking, “Wow, I’ve never read somebody write sentences like this.” I mean, I was really intrigued by the language. So that was the first impulse. I think for an 18-year-old reader with those same kind of sensibilities or that same kind of wiring, I could see them coming to her work in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily think of this collection as the gateway for that kind of reader. Only because it’s an expensive, hardcover with five books in it. I have to imagine most 18-year-olds are getting their books online or the cheapest possible used copy. I think in terms of California, it’s interesting because a lot of what she says about California is still relevant. A distinction that we see in terms of reading her work now is that the California she’s describing leaves out large parts of the California we live in. She’s not intentionally leaving them out, she’s focusing on other areas. So I think that for someone reading her now, to get a handle on California or Southern California in particular, she would be missing a lot. Her racial politics or racial vision, deals with a vision of black and white. In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that was the frame and mechanism for how we wrote and thought of America. But even then it was a narrow way of looking at California, and certainly now it’s an extremely limited lens on California. She’d have to be supplemented now in terms of really digging into what the persuasion of the state is.
Reft: You make a very good point about the much broader, non-binary, multi-racial nature of California as the way we think about the state today. I wanted to ask you about race because you know some people, as I’ve read her, and others such as Lorraine Berry, she mentioned that in her review of Didion’s had South and West, she had said that “Didion contently treats people of color as objects of observation, they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer Didion their views of the states they live in.” I think this is broadly true but also I do think Didion was sympathetic. You’ve already said you’d supplement it but what would you supplement her work with?
Ulin: Yes, I’ve read that piece that you’re citing, and I don’t disagree with it, I think it’s complicated. I think that the whole issue of Didion and –I don’t mean to package these two things together though I do think they overlap –say, race and class, is complicated because Didion is writing out of a particular demographic position. And that demographic position is certainly a position of privilege, but a nuanced kind of privilege. She’s writing out of class privilege in a sense that her family came over on the Oregon Trail, so she is a kind of a first California family, she’s writing out of that similar position of those old roots because of having been raised in Sacramento and the state politics component, you know playing in the governor’s mansion when she was a kid and that sort of stuff, but also the kind of nostalgia of what that California means. It’s a very Anglo vision of California. The so-called “First Californians” in this construct are not so much the Chumash or the Tongva, they are the Anglo settlers who came from Iowa and Missouri or whatever, and who came before the railroads were built and pioneered it over to California. So that’s a very particular sensibility. I think that’s a valid sensibility in terms of thinking about California but again as we are talking about in terms of the non-binary discussion of race, it is now finally commonly acknowledged and accepted as it should be as simply one of the theories of overlapping perspectives or visions of California as opposed to the only one or even the central one. There are dozens and dozens of others. This is a long way of saying that I think she is sympathetic. I think in large measure the sense of distance is not so much a political or social posture for her as it is a psychological or personal posture for her. I think that Didion’s was always at a distance. Didion famously said style is substance. She very interested in the surfaces of things because she wants to see what they signify, but also because she is always approaching others from the surface. She keeps a distance and is either not trying or not able to be intimate with them in a different way. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is the kind of collapsing distinction between the personal and the social. She always has the posture of an outsider, as someone who is looking at other people as objects, as someone operating from the outside in.
Reft: I actually find that her detachment attracted me to her writing.
Ulin: Me too. I think that is something I psychologically share with her, and I think it’s one of the reasons when I read her as a teenager, I felt myself moving through the world. I don’t think I’d ever come across that kind of detached sensibility.
Reft: In Where I Was From, she’s spent a great deal of time talking about the ’60s or ’70s when California came out of this hermetically sealed existence and started becoming celebrated as a symbol of what America’s promise was, whether one believes in that or not. I think that that’s an interesting dynamic, particularly in the fact that she’s still in California when you get the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right, which you could argue is not so outward-looking.
Ulin: She was highly critical of Reagan, (and particularly of Nancy Reagan) and justifiably so, but I also think she understood him. Reagan is interesting, because he’s not a product of the ’60s. But as a political figure, he’s as much a product of the ’60s as Mario Savio. In some ways without Mario Savio we don’t get Ronald Reagan. Now that’s a broad generalization. Without the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and 1965 maybe there’s not a kind of Silent Majority backlash. There’s so much interesting overlap in terms of the kind of pendulum of history, and I think Didion is aware of that. I don’t think Didion is particularly surprised by Reagan, but Reagan really comes out of that Old California, that pioneer California or that insular California trying to reach out and grab its territory. I think that tension is embodied in a lot of Didion’s writing about the ’60s because you know she started off the ’60s as a conservative, she voted for Goldwater in 64. One of my favorite pieces of information about her is that in 62 she flew back from New York to vote against Nixon in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary because he was not sufficiently conservative. She is in her own way very socially conservative. The entire essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is a masterpiece, is built in part around the notion that traditional social narratives have eroded and that nothing has replaced them. These little things we take for granted like “how do we set a place at a table,” we think are not that important, but she’s arguing that in fact they are extremely important as pieces of social fabric or the social narrative. That’s a very socially conservative point of view. At the same time, because of what she is going through and living through, her head is sort of exploding with ideas and possibilities and I think that there’s a real tension in Didion between a kind of innate social conservatism on the one hand and the wildness of what she’s observing and also, in some way, living through in Southern California. The uncertainty if it, the breakdown of narratives. For her, narrative is both a necessity and also something that she grows not to trust. And I think that that’s really, really important and it grows out of the overlap of all of these elements and influences.
Reft: Eric Avila wrote an essay about how she had anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the US. But it’s weird because when I read her, I never felt that it was ideological.
Ulin: She starts out ideologically when she’s like 28 or 30 in 1962 and 1964. I don’t think that the ideology crosses into the work, but she is ideologically conservative. Then she kind of loses a sense of faith in ideology. It’s one of the narratives that collapses for her because the ideologies are inconsistent, and situations are too complicated. She is very good because she is a dread junkie in her way, which is also something I share with her. She’s really good at focusing on how the narratives collapse and desert us and leave us bereft, and that isn’t an ideological issue, really because the narratives on both sides are doing that, or at least that’s Didion’s position. It’s a position I also share with her. So all narratives are up for grabs and you end up with everyone being kneecapped by the collapse of whatever their chosen narrative is.
Reft:In a 2017 interview with you, she made a comment about narratives being atomized even in her novel, Play It As It Lays, as almost imagistic. It seems like that kind atomized essay form speaks to the current moment. In your 2019 interview with the Library of America, you say, “Didion is drawn to disruption, social, cultural, and personal.” What I find particularly noteworthy about that description is how it fits the current rhetoric of disruption that came out of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. The larger point being that the comment that she made in 2017 about the atomization of narratives, and your comment, speak to the way we encounter narratives today. I wonder if this collection, even though it is from the ’60s and ’70s, actually speaks in its physical form to how we think about these things today. Does that make sense?
Ulin: Yeah, it does, and I don’t know if I can speak to how the collection addresses it for contemporary readers, only because I think that’s for each contemporary reader to figure out. First of all, I agree with her that narratives become atomized, I mean if you watch the latest Democratic Presidential Debate, you got an atomized series of versions of what essentially is a shared narrative. Right? And so we can’t even agree on how we are going to agree at this point, or what our common ground is. And I’m not only talking in terms of political narrative. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, some of them have to do with politics and ideology, and some of them have to do with education. Some of them have to do simply with cultural overload, the breakdown of authority. I actually think that that’s not a terrible thing, you know, the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers, and of that kind of structure by which stories went out into the world. I think that it does come back to technology in some way because technology is disruptive, and social media in particular is disruptive. It can be disruptive in really useful ways, and one of those useful ways is by giving everyone an unfiltered platform by which they can speak without being curated by somebody else. So I think that we live in that kind of universe already. When I talk to students, they’re gathering information, as we all are, but they’re gathering information from all sorts of overlapping sources that don’t on the face have anything to do with each other. Students understand that they’re different sources, but they’re not necessarily concerned about those distinctions. So you’ll have a social media post, a novel, something from a film or streaming video, conversations they might have had, a photo of someone’s food –they all kind of overlap. We are all collaging it now as we go along. I don’t want to make a claim for her prescience but again I do think this has to do with Didion’s sensibility and her emotional and psychological framework. I think Didion identifies this really early. In a lot of ways it all grows out of the Haight Ashbury essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem because that essay is the first of what we can call a concrete example of one of her atomized narratives. That’s an essay written entirely of fragments. None of the fragments are very long. They do add up in the sense that they move chronologically through a period of time, so we have a sense of time progressing and we run into some of the same characters over and over again. But there’s no real movement. Those characters aren’t doing anything different. There’s no change or progression in their behavior or their attitudes. At the same time, there are these anonymous or secondary characters who are interchangeable and drop in and out. Like the kids she buys the burgers and Cokes for –the sort of “clueless young” is what we can call them in the concept of the essay. So that essay, the only way to tell that story, which is essentially a story of stasis and chaos, is for her to create a structural form, a fragmentation that allows her to mirror in the structure of the writing the fragmentation that she’s trying to describe. As a critic, I trace a direct line from that essay to Play It As It Lays which is essentially the atomized narrative writ large, it’s an atomized novel. It’s a 200 page novel with over 100 chapters, and some of those chapters are a sentence long, and there’s something really, really interesting about that as a formal move. And then she moves from that into the essay “The White Album,” which is also an atomized, fragmented narrative. There’s “Los Angeles Notebook’ which also operates that way. She’s playing around really early with this idea of using fragmentary structures to reflect or illuminate the fragmentation of personal and collective narrative that she’s observing in the culture around her. At one point 10 or 12 years ago I wrote an essay saying that in some way, her description of 1968 was highly relevant to 2008, because if you wanted to break down an atomized or fragmented narrative approach you have Barack Obama’s narrative on one hand, and Sarah Palin’s narrative on the other, and they both were American narratives, but they were utterly divergent with no point of intersection. Didion was aware of this 40 years before. So I think that that’s a really interesting and important part of these writings in particular, because these are the books that she is staking out that territory content-wise, but even more importantly where she’s developing narrative and structural strategy to illuminate and illustrate through the movement of the language on the page.
Reft: Despite my saying that, I also think that when you read through the collection from Run, River and the rest all the way through, it almost reads like a big sprawling conversation. It starts with the story of this august California family, and its failure to adapt to postwar realities in the States, and then in the essays she discusses California’s larger history in this way. In The White Album, in her essay on motorcycle films in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, then in Play It As It Lays, in which the main character Maria Wyeth is trying to get a role in such a film, and in the “Bureaucrats” in The White Album. You could even look at A Book of Common Prayer, where Marin is basically a symbol of a kind of student unrest. Do you think that her fictional work and her nonfiction writing intertwine? And when they do, what do you think that does for the narrative? Does it muddy it, or do you think that it brings it into clearer focus? Or does it do something completely different all together?
Ulin: I think that the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction is really interesting. To be totally honest, for years, decades, I completely gave her fiction short drift. I wasn’t particularly interested in it. After I first read Slouching, I went and read The White Album and then I basically went and got all the nonfiction that was available and read it. As new nonfiction books would come out I would buy them, in hardcover and read them instantly. But the fiction… I think the only novel for a long time I had read was Play It As It Lays. I have to say I think it’s a really interesting novel, though I also think it has a bunch of problems. I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood at that point. I was still living on the East Coast. So it didn’t resonate with me and I really thought the fiction was somehow secondary. That changed prior to my getting involved in this project. But the work on the project has been interesting in kind of exactly the way you are asking about, because one of the things that the work of the project required at the beginning was the kind of end to end rereading of the entire body of work. Over the years, I had ultimately come to read all of the novels, and I think a couple of them are quite good. I think Democracy is a really spectacularly good novel. And I’m a big fan of Run, River. I really think it’s a really good novel and particularly for a first novel. I’ve always kind of liked A Book of Common Prayer for a variety of reasons. But I do think that in the context of the whole career, the fiction seems a lot more essential to me than it did when I was thinking simply book-to-book. And partly for the reasons you are talking about, it makes sense because as a writer and as a human, she’s not addressing certain concerns in fiction and certain concerns in non-fiction. She’s writing out of whatever it is she’s wrestling with. And she’s wrestling consistently over a period of years. So I think that it’s absolutely the case that the novels are in conversation with the essays; that they’re learning things from each other about style and structure; that they are learning things from each other about content and angle of attack. I think we really see it in Where I Was From, where she doubles back and basically takes apart Run, River. In Where I Was From, she uses her reevaluation of Run, River to make a larger reevaluation of California mythology and narratives, you know, narratives she bought into, that she’s now no longer buying into. It’s really an interesting pair of bookends, if the career had ended with Where I was From. It would have been a kind of perfectly arched structure in a certain sense with a conversation taking place between a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction. I don’t think she is mapping it out that way, but you know as a writer, she is clearly aware on a cellular level, if nothing else, of how these books are informing each other. But one of the great pleasures of doing this project and there have been many, is that it has allowed me to think about and contextualize her fiction as an essential part of her body of work. And that is something that as a reader of her, I’ve had to grow into that perception.
Reft: I can’t end this interview without asking a question about gender. Famously, in her essay from “The Women’s Movement,” from The White Album, she wrote, “I’ve also often wondered about gender. And then, at the exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class’ … To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Every Woman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.’” Now that sounds like a dismissal of feminism. But then when you read this volume, you’ve got women in a constellation of roles and positions. You’ve got Lily Knight in Run, River as an adultress stuck in a complicated marriage. You’ve got Maria Wyeth, who at first may seem like a victim of Hollywood’s toxic culture but by its conclusion is revealed to be much more complicated and perhaps much more problematic than the reader realizes. And then Charlotte Douglass and her daughter Marin are these independent and emotional elusive figures; Marin a literal criminal. So how do you think readers will wrestle with this aspect of her writing in terms of gender, because on the one hand it seems dismissive, and on the other hand when you actually read through it, it’s not at all.
Ulin: I think that’s a key question. I will say “The Women’s Movement” essay is not one of my favorites, it feels to me not fully formed in some way, like that’s an essay I would love to have seen her revisit in some fashion. But I do agree with you, though she’s not dismissing, she’s critiquing the movements. She’s always writing about strong women characters. For me, it’s not necessarily feminism or what feminism entails or means or activates that she is resisting. I don’t even think that’s true. I think that on practical terms, she’s a feminist. A strong working woman who put her career first, always did. She wanted to go to Saigon and report on the war, and no one would send her because she’s a woman. She and Dunne were going to bring Quintana as a baby to Saigon. I think you know the idea of a kind of strong, self-directed woman is not something she feels she has to champion because it’s just who she is. She’s natural. That’s the first part. I do think that’s true. I also think it’s more of her resistance to the idea of a movement, rather than going back to what we were talking about. She’s not a “joiner.” So the idea that to be actualized or activated, she needs to be part of a movement, I think that’s what she’s resisting. And I also think she’s resisting a certain kind of flattening of language and rhetoric that comes out of movement ideology and movement thinking. I think that across the board whatever that movement is, and that’s true not just of progressive or liberal movements, it’s also true for conservative movements. I think she’s rejecting the idea of group think in favor of a kind of individual consciousness. Now the trick about that or the catch is that that is a position of a class privilege. Only a human who is in a position to be able to self-actualize, who has the resources, whether they are financial or professional or whatever, to do what she needs to do can step away. The value of a movement is that it works for everybody. It’s not about the individual, it’s about making everybody rises on the tide. Only someone who has already risen can stand askance from the movement. Didion is not someone who is struggling to get a job, she’s not struggling to get recognition or respect, she’s not someone struggling financially, or any of these things. But by the same token, that is who she is. That is what her experience is, that is her social positioning, and so there’s no way for her not to operate out of that social positioning. It’s her context. And so I think it’s really complicated, particularly around the women’s movement, because she is emblematic of many of the things that the women’s movement stands for, but she’s suspicious of movements in general. She’s privileged enough that she hasn’t had to be part of that collective process. I think there we see a lot of the impulses and contradictions that come together in some way. Again, with Didion, it comes back to personal positioning and and personal sensibility first, and the political or social positioning or sensibility grows out of that.
Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. His work has appeared in several journals, including Souls, The Sixties, California History, Planning Perspectives, Southern California Quarterly, and the Journal of Urban History, as well as in the anthology “Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership” and “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” He is the co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. The opinions expressed by Reft are solely his and not those of the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at @ryanreft.
David L. Ulin is Associate Professor of the Practice of English. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for The Atlantic Monthly, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Black Mountain Institute, and the Lannan Foundation. Most recently, he edited the Library of America’s Didion: The 1960s and 70s, the first in a three volume edition of the author’s collected works.
Copyright: © 2020 Ryan Reft and David L. Ulin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.