Up The Road: Joan Didion’s California

Jun 6, 2018

The icon that is, Joan Didion
Credit Courtesy of Joan Didion's Facebook page

This week we appreciate New York-based writer and New Journalist Joan Didion, born and raised in Sacramento, the Big Tomato. Pioneer stock. Some of her people were part of the Donner Party, in fact—those who wisely turned north to Oregon instead of scaling the Sierra Nevada.

One of my favorite Didion books is Where I Was From, first published in 2003. Note, in the book title, that she was from here, from California, but that past tense suggests she no longer is. The physical facts of the matter haven’t changed—she was born in Sacramento, on December 5, 1938, and lived here for much of her life—but everything else has. I’m glad she took an entire book to explain. Didion’s voice in Where I Was From isn’t so different from that in her debut collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, also exploring California. But the perspective is.

Blue Nights
Credit Amazon.com

Huge fan that I am—I still have my 1968 paperback copy of Slouching—I have worried that Didion’s skill was somehow self-mesmerizing, that once she was in thrall to her own deft metaphor she might follow it anywhere. I’m thinking of that boosteristic essay on California’s water engineering, gushing on and on about the miracle of being able to move it to this city and that, with nary a wrinkled brow about what happened to people and other living things there, where it was from. That pioneering perspective again, blinkers on as they pursued that Manifest Destiny. And then there was that love letter to John Wayne, though she was only eight when she first dreamed of being taken by someone like The Duke to “that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

Some know Joan Didion best for The Year of Magical Thinking, a fairly recent book on loss and grief, which won a National Book Award. There’s a fetching new biography now on Netflix, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which covers that chapter, the death of her husband during her daughter’s illness. Maybe start there to get her story, as total by an adoring nephew. But go to the work itself for the rest, including the early essay Notes from a Native Daughter. Americans from the East—“or ‘back east,’ as they say in California”—think they’ve been to California, Didion says, if they’ve visited L.A. or San Francisco, driven through a redwood tree, and gazed out at a Pacific Ocean sunset from Big Sur. However:

They have not been [to California], and they probably never will be, for it is a longer and in many ways a more difficult trip than they might want to undertake, one of those trips on which the destination flickers chimerically on the horizon, ever receding, ever diminishing. I happen to know about that trip because I come from California, come from a family, or a congeries (CON-jur-ees) of families, that has always been in the Sacramento Valley. 

The Year Of Magical Thinking
Credit Amazon.com

You might protest that no family has been in the Sacramento Valley for anything approaching “always.” But it is characteristic of Californians to speak grandly of the past as if it has simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons headed west. Eureka—“I Have Found It”—as the state motto has it. 

Such a view of history casts a certain melancholia over those who participate in it; my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. In fact that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, because Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.